Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 20, 2018
Laurence Terrier Aliferis L’imitation de l’Antiquité dans l’art médiéval (1180–1230) Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. 343 pp.; 359 b/w ills. Paperback €125.00 (9782503553177)

Late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century art in northern Europe is often noted for its similarities to Classical art, as evidenced most famously in Nicholas of Verdun’s altar at Klosterneuberg, of 1181; the sculpture of Laon and Chartres; and the Ingeborg Psalter, of ca. 1195. The idea of a “Year 1200 Style,” however, as Konrad Hoffman dubbed it in his catalogue for the The Year 1200 exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1970, has been considered problematic from the earliest days, with Willibald Sauerländer calling it overly “vague and formalistic” (review of “‘The Year 1200,’ a Centennial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 12–May 10, 1970,” Art Bulletin 53, no. 4 [December 1971]: 507). The term, and ideas about a classicizing mode in late twelfth-century art, have been repeatedly revised, most recently by Martin Büchsel, who characterized it as an “antique tendency” wherein “the cathedrals of Paris, Laon, and Sens [demonstrate] a great interest in the antique or in antique models” (“Gothic Sculpture from 1150 to 1250,” A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe [Oxford: Blackwell, 2006]: 407). Yet, as critics have argued, an analysis based on hypothetical or lost models can only be tentative at best, and the extent to which this art was understood as particularly “classicizing” by its medieval viewers is unknown.

Laurence Terrier Aliferis’s L’imitation de l’Antiquité dans l’art médiéval (1180–1230) therefore delves into difficult territory, and her work provides a rich new perspective on the topic. She brings together an impressive array of examples and systematically analyzes correspondences between Roman art and the metalwork, sculpture, and manuscript painting of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in northern France and Lotharingia. Her comparisons are clearly defined and specific, and the result is a thoughtful, thorough, reconsideration of the “Year 1200” problem.

In her fine introduction, Terrier Aliferis presents the historiography of the “Year 1200” style and the objectives of her method. She situates her study as an attempt to bring together groups of medieval objects with specific Roman-era works, and to “seek to understand how the return of antique models appears and what the intentions are in this new aesthetic . . . to both synthesize known groupings and present new comparisons” (27, all translations from the book are mine). Yet, as Terrier Aliferis notes, the loss of works over many centuries makes the analysis of models and derivatives a difficult task, if not an impossible one. Moreover, any claim that a given work is a “model” for something else is dependent on the subjectivity of the reader or viewer; medieval and modern viewers alike might differ in what they accept as a model, or in the similarities they observe. Thus, “one cannot assume the comparisons presented are the sole examples of a given type of work, or that they are the best. Nevertheless, one looks for links between the works” (28). Consequently, her project aims to look for echoes and adaptations, accepting a fluidity in the concept of the “faithful copy” and acknowledging that works are often adaptations and mélanges.

In her first chapter, Terrier Aliferis situates her method in relation to the twelfth-century literary practice of imitatio, wherein authors would imitate and borrow from ancient tracts in order to create new texts. She then suggests the figures in the model books of Villard de Honnecourt function similarly—as copies of antique bronzes, modified and formed anew. This notion of loose, creative replication guides much of the analysis of the book.

The next three chapters comprise the heart of the volume and focus on metalwork, sculpture, and painting. In each chapter comparisons demonstrate a flexible emulation of antique models. The art of Nicholas of Verdun has long been cast as classicizing, for example, but Terrier Aliferis argues against any singular source for his style. Instead she claims that Byzantine, local, and antique models could, and did, coexist. Importantly, Terrier Aliferis also situates the oeuvre within a tradition of Mosan metalwork that was already “classicizing,” as evidenced in the baptismal font of Liège made by Reiner of Huy. The form of the font, Terrier Aliferis shows, echoes a Roman font at Puy en Velay, while its figure of Craton echoes an antique bronze figure in Cologne. This discussion also strengthens her larger argument about the importance of local antiquities, which she further demonstrates in comparisons between the Ambo of Klosterneuberg and the sarcophagus of Flavius Jovinus at Reims.

In her chapter on sculpture, Terrier Aliferis presents a case for artistic connections between Laon, Sens, Braine, Chartres, Paris, and Reims. Terrier Aliferis admits antique sources for these works are rare; instead she finds echoes of Nicholas of Verdun in the sculpture of Laon, and echoes of Laon at Braine, Sens, and Chartres. Examinations of Paris and Reims, moreover, show an expanding heterogeneity of sources: at Paris, connections to Sens are evident, while Reims reveals links to Lotharingian and antique examples, as in the bandaged head of Elizabeth. This chapter then expands its scope to examine works from Strasbourg, Halberstadt, York, and Wells, and reveals the various ways in which ancient models were employed.

The chapter on painting examines the Ingeborg Psalter, the windows of Laon, and the Bible of Winchester. Here, Terrier Aliferis argues for the use of model books. Building on an observation made by Florens Deuchler, for example, she shows similarities between the angel of the Annunciation in the Ingeborg Psalter and the figures of the damned at Laon—not as direct copies, however, but as evidence of the use of a model book that recorded and circulated compositions to be reused and recombined. In the case of stained glass, Terrier Aliferis argues that while Laon, Rouen, Bourges, and Chartres show a “classicizing” style, they do not seem to be copying directly from antique sources. Instead their forms suggest a circulation of compositions and forms that can largely be linked to Mosan metalwork.

The last two sections of the book elaborate on the problems and modes of artistic borrowing discussed in the prior three chapters. Key here is Terrier Aliferis’s emphasis on the fluidity of the copies and the reworking of antique examples. Art was not copied in a straight line, she argues, “but precise examples can be found, and the differences show the appropriations and transformations taken by the artist” (135). The importance of local sources is reiterated and evidenced by the numerous antique works surviving in Cologne and Trier. Echoes of the “classical” therefore were not necessarily (and very likely not) references to antique Greece, Rome, or the Italian peninsula, nor were they always politically motivated. Locations like Lotharingia, where classical models were used most frequently, Terrier Aliferis notes, were not those at the center of the political embroilments of the period. Instead the use of the antique primarily was an aesthetic choice, for no general intention cuts across all examples. The medieval reinterpretation of antique works, therefore, must be dealt with case by case.

Throughout, Limitation de l’Antiquité dans l’art médiéval raises rich questions about artistic process, the “Nachleben,” or afterlife, of antiquity, and art-historical method. One might wonder, for example, how precisely this practice of “modeling” took place and whether the repetition of antique forms was recognized by medieval viewers. Model books, too, might be as hypothetical as ancient models of studies past. The book also opens up problems of media, for while Terrier Aliferis’s chapters address metalwork, sculpture, and painting separately, the antiquities to which she refers are predominantly sculpture. Comparisons between the works thus continually cut across the very boundaries that the chapters wish to delineate. The similarities attest to the circulation of objects, and it is certain that artists of the period worked in more than one medium. Yet one wonders to what extent the translation from one media to another affected the process of replication. Proving the use of models is tremendously difficult; instead Terrier Aliferis rightly emphasizes artistic syntax and visual memory throughout. Her argument is for an artistic process that is more fluid, thoughtful, and creative than is often assumed.

These points are strengths of the book, not weaknesses. L’imitation de l’Antiquité dans l’art médiéval is a rich and thoughtful volume. Terrier Aliferis provides a painstaking and precise analysis of works and their precedents, and, importantly, admits when sources do not exist or are not exact. The book is generously illustrated, and although the images are in black and white, the numerous details allow the reader to closely corroborate the author’s comparisons. The correlations are indeed compelling. Above all, the great strength of this study is its light touch. The author does not try to overgeneralize the reasons for the use of antique models, nor is it assumed that the use of such models was always—or ever—the same. L’imitation de l’Antiquité dans l’art médiéval is an important contribution to this complex subject; it presents a new, subtle take on a well-known problem and creates a strong foundation for further study. 

Heidi Gearhart
Assistant Professor of Art History, Assumption College