Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2017
Kathleen Nolan and Dany Sandron, eds. Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, 9. Burlington: Ashgate, 2015. 314 pp.; 31 color ills.; 126 b/w ills. Cloth $122.00 (9781472440556)

Although the aim of this volume is to show “the influence and guidance” (xxi) of the late French scholar Anne Prache, its thirteen studies do more. They honor the Sorbonne professor’s rich contributions to medieval art and architecture by embodying medieval memoria, or the art of memory as defined by Mary Carruthers’s magisterial works on the subject—“a memory architecture and a library built up during one’s lifetime with the express intention that it be used inventively” (Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 4, emphasis in original). Prache’s broad scholarship invites the same inspired responses. Resonating richly with her work, this book is a fitting tribute to an international scholar, teacher, trailblazer, advocate, advisor, and friend.

Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals developed from papers delivered in the AVISTA sessions (Association Villard de Honnecourt for the Interdisciplinary Study of Technology, Science and Art) at the 2010 International Congress of Medieval Studies and from invitations to colleagues and former students of Prache. The book begins and ends with comments shared at the sessions. In the first, Dany Sandron outlines four themes in Prache’s research that become the scaffolding around which the essays are constructed: her early work on Saint-Remi of Reims and her strategic work on the chronology of Reims Cathedral; her devotion to regional investigations; her integrated studies on the architecture, sculpture, and stained glass of Chartres; her commitment to the pedagogical richness that results from coupling archeology with historical approaches to architecture, and her groundbreaking application of dendrochronology to resolve lingering issues of chronology in key medieval monuments. The final remarks are a touching tribute by Gérard Prache to his late wife and those who gathered in her memory.

Kathleen Nolan’s introduction augments another key point: Prache’s skills extended to the art of bridge building. Her generous nature fostered many transcontinental bonds between French and U.S. scholars. Nolan also introduces the volume’s three organizational parts that guide the reader through the many voices that shape this compendium: “Architecture,” “Stained Glass,” and “Sculpture.” While these divisions make sense as they define Prache’s commitment to each area, they counteract one purpose of the volume—to celebrate the cross-fertilization of media.

Walter Berry situates the reader in Reims Cathedral within its substructures. Recalling Prache’s use of archeological as well as dendrochronological evidence to reassign the start of construction before the 1210 fire, Berry reconsiders the rest of the building chronology through a precise study of its foundations and a reassessment of Henri Deneux’s 1919–30 excavation results. Berry’s new data is based on 1993–98 excavations that revealed half of the foundations Deneux saw, enriched by seventy-two documents associated with the post-World War I excavations, previously inaccessible. As Berry expertly “guides” the reader underground, the complexity of the foundations and the new narrative they produce are revealed. Although he anchors and orients our subterranean journey through continual reference to Deneux’s plan while darting occasionally between photos of masonry, his keen interpretations would be hard to follow without the crucial notes he affixed to the plan details. This expedition through parts of 1,150 feet of foundations is an exceptional chance to experience a cathedral from a belowground perspective, even though Berry cautions us that unanswered questions still abound.

Michael Davis catapults us well above ground on an equally compelling journey, but to Paris more than two centuries later. He unpacks a document containing Guillebert de Mets’s fifteenth-century description of the city in which he focuses the greatest attention on the Cathedral, the Royal Palace, and the newly built mansion of Paris’s nouveaux riches, Jacques Duchie. Davis advances the notion that Guillebert’s choice of monuments was carefully conceived, not as a celebration of architectural marvels, but as a codified message to his contemporary readership that placed Paris as an ideal urban environment so as to assuage the political instability and foreign presence that marked the reality of Paris at the time.

The last chapters on architecture respond to Prache’s call to embrace new technologies or, in this case, the applications of generative geometry. In contrast to the worm’s-eye and bird’s-eye views of the previous authors, Ellen Shortell and Nancy Wu bring us back to ground level, though to liminal spaces: entryways. In a careful analysis of the manner in which the decagonal radiating chapels of Saint-Quentin were fused with the ambulatory via a triple arcade, Shortell locates the largely ignored lower chevet of Saint-Quentin within key developments of twelfth-century forms, from Prache’s Saint-Remi and Notre-Dame-en-Vaux to Soissons Cathedral. Rather than celebrating the choir of Saint-Quentin solely for the Rayonnant splendor of its clerestory, Shortell invites the reader to experience the choir’s intricate blending of elements from the Early to High Gothic to Rayonnant while reminding us that medieval buildings were never created in vacuums but with abundant vaulting and visual strategies employed in contemporary architecture of the time.

Wu explores the design practices of small doorways. Situating us before two sixteenth-century Flamboyant Gothic portals in the Cloisters that originated from a French château and Cistercian monastery, Wu hypothesizes that a number of methods outlined in late fifteenth-century German instructional books by Mathes Roriczer of Regensburg and Hanns Schmuttermayer of Nuremberg were widespread throughout Europe by the sixteenth century. Her two test cases provide strategic evidence to back the preliminary view that the multiplication of base units and manipulation of geometric shapes produced a variety of sophisticated designs on the micro as well as macro level.

The first “Stained Glass” chapter returns to Reims Cathedral and multidisciplinary approaches to its puzzling building chronology that complements Berry’s earlier study. Sylvie Balcon-Berry initiates an astute analysis of newly available images of stained glass that predate the 1918 bombardment as a means to fit more pieces of the Reims puzzle together, including 1914 Autochromes and 1840–1914 drawings from Reims’s Simon-Marq workshop, longtime restorers of the glass.

Michael Cothren presents a compelling study of a prominent window in the history of twelfth-century stained glass, the Infancy of Christ from the Saint-Denis ambulatory, where little medieval glass remains in situ. It was left to France’s first preeminent stained-glass scholar, Louis Grodecki, whose student was Prache, to locate Saint-Denis panels scattered in collections so as to reconstruct and document its windows. Cothren embarks on his own scholarly quest when he learns of a panel on the market in 2007 through Sam Fogg, London, and purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Depicting the Dream of Joseph, it nearly duplicates the Infancy of Christ medallion of the same subject in situ at Saint-Denis, leading Cothren on a fascinating hunt regarding the relationship between both, and a rethinking of his own reconstruction of the window.

Whereas Cothren celebrates an ensemble that suffered the loss of much of its glass in situ, Claudine Lautier focuses on a splendidly preserved, early thirteenth-century Last Judgment western rose from Chartres, restored in 2012. Previously undecipherable and thus the object of minimum scholarly attention, Lautier’s admirable study brings “an unacknowledged masterpiece” (133) forward, pinpointing its date before 1210—contemporary with the upper-nave windows—identifying ninety-five of the glass as original and remarking on newly revealed fictive stained glass, painted on the adjacent side walls. Philippe Lorentz, in contrast, deals with an avowed masterpiece, Bourges Cathedral’s 1451 Annunciation window, commissioned by the fifteenth-century “tycoon” Jacques Coeur to decorate his family’s funerary chapel. Lorentz argues that Coeur managed to override the canons’ original directive that the commission be traditional in design by embellishing his chapel with the most up-to-date glass. Facing the newly adopted, revolutionary application of Eyckian-inspired art of Burgundian panel painting to French ecclesiastical glass, the canons’ responded by subverting Coeur’s bold composition with conventional images for the commissions that followed.

William Clark also focuses on the canons’ motives for commissioning works, though at Reims Cathedral, and returns to his scholarship on the exterior sculptures of Christ and the eleven angels that crown the wall buttresses of the chevet. Using recent scholarship on Reims’s rich liturgies as his primary lens, Clark persuasively contextualizes the figures as proxies for the archbishop and eleven suffragan bishops whose processions around the cathedral and through the town reinforced their power and authority as teachers and preachers of the Word. Occupying a spatial range of over 180 degrees around the curve of the chevet, but off-center toward the canons’ cloister and hovering 50-plus feet in the air, these figures spoke not just to the canons but to the townspeople of Reims whose relationship with the clergy was often tenuous.

Bourges Cathedral takes the fore in Fabienne Joubert’s chapter on thirteenth-century mason’s workshop practices in the central portal. Concerned with the nexus between the conception and realization of medieval sculpture, Joubert hypothesizes that the newly cleaned archivolt figures were based on sketches, not three-dimensional models conceived by a master to be copied by his assistants. This process of development provided all the essentials needed for iconographic variations along with a certain degree of autonomy given to each sculptor involved in the massive ninety-figure portal program.

Akin to Cothren’s 2007 expedition to determine the nature of an orphaned panel, Charles Little embarked on a similar quest that year when the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired a small, unidentified limestone head. Little established its origin in Chartres’s thirteenth-century dismantled choir screen, which also depicted the Infancy of Christ. A trip to Chartres, where fragments are still housed, pinpointed the sculpture’s location on the Nativity relief as the missing head of Joseph, essentially confirmed by a replica’s close fit. Little ends with convincing evidence supporting a growing devotion to Joseph at Chartres, which predates the cult’s acknowledged prominence in the later Middle Ages.

Kathleen Nolan and Susan Ward turn to the collegiate church of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux to focus on statue-columns as rich conveyors of narrative and symbolic meanings in varied architectural positions and institutional sites. They illuminate concepts that were embedded in the extensive group of twelfth-century female figures who once played a lead role in the canons’ cloister iconographic program. Finally, Nicolas Reveyron ends with a study of another largely lost original, the fourteenth-century facade sculpture of the Cathedral of Lyons. Beginning with a summary of crucial findings on the architecture of the entire facade accrued from the archeological project of 2011, Reveyron then turns to the portal iconography, scrutinized for precise identification of scenes, dating, and influence.

Substantial color photos accompany these studies, although a few chapters could have been enhanced by more black-and-white images. Any volume of this sort can lack occasional cohesion, but, in all, the editors and authors have done a fine job celebrating Prache’s great intellectual acumen, diplomatic gifts, and warmth as a human being, while leaving behind erudite “memories” and a wealth of new ideas.

Evelyn Staudinger
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Wheaton College, Norton, MA