Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 21, 2018
Heidi C. Gearhart Theophilus and the Theory and Practice of Medieval Art University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017. 236 pp.; 30 color ills.; 37 b/w ills. Cloth $94.95 (9780271077154)

Through the pages of Heidi Gearhart’s book, Theophilus and the Theory and Practice of Medieval Art, readers are introduced to the surviving medieval copies of Theophilus’s text, On Diverse Arts, and are provided the opportunity to reframe the academy’s classification of this celebrated treatise. Gearhart makes a convincing argument that based on physical evidence, along with the prologues and instructions of On Diverse Arts (often described as a practical handbook or a recipe collection), Theophilus methodically lays out the specific processes for a deliberate system of art-making principles and values—in essence “a distinctly medieval theory of art” (1). The intended reader of On Diverse Arts was likely either a monastic artist or patron situated within the realm of the Benedictine abbeys of the Holy Roman Empire during the twelfth century. Like her subject, Gearhart diligently (diligentia) examines the physical evidence with great care (cautela or studiose)—these are among many other adverbs that Theophilus repeatedly uses to describe to his reader not only how to make a particular object but also the specific manner in which to do it: subtly, lightly, gently, with moderation, and with measure. Artistic skill and art making both become a moralized practice of virtue that entails patience, attentiveness, and knowledge.

The four core chapters of the book, aside from the introductory and concluding chapters, are clustered around some of the extant medieval copies of On Diverse Arts. From this perspective, Gearhart is able to explore the manuscripts within particular contexts related to codicology, provenance, and evidence of use. For instance, chapter 1, “Pedagogy and Exegesis,” dives into the folios of the Wolfenbüttel copy of On Diverse Arts that intriguingly is bound with a partial copy of Vitruvius’s On Architecture. The similarities in the content, structure, and visual design of the two texts are certainly remarkable. Like Vitruvius, Theophilus used prologues to structure the subsequent text within a set of values and principles, albeit a Christian one. The decision by the Wolfenbüttel scribe to bind the two books together allowed for the medieval text to be cast as a piece of (didactic) literature, “as a text with structure, narrative, and a learned sophistication” (21), not merely as a haphazard compilation of instructions and recipes “with no order or internal organization” (2). By establishing a clear intention by the Wolfenbüttel scribe to build Theophilus’s authority on that of a great ancient, Gearhart is then able to ground her principal argument that On Diverse Arts should be recognized as a well-conceived medieval theory of art.

In the same chapter, Gearhart elevates the exegetical meaning of On Diverse Arts in her persuasive analysis of the third prologue when Theophilus presents how the artist may invoke the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, godliness, and fear of the Lord. These gifts can be understood as a series of virtues; mastering one virtue and moving on to the next, they serve as a philosophy of learning that is linked to the writings of Saint Augustine, Rupert of Deutz, and Hugh of Saint Victor. This type of pedagogical strategy in the twelfth century is connected to monastic learning and spiritual development; it served as a template for the Christian life. Consequently, Theophilus prescribes the practice and making of art as a form of spiritual ascent.

Chapter 2, “Transformation of Matter,” explores the context of another medieval copy of On Diverse Arts (in Cambridge) that is bound with Palladius’s Opus Agriculturae and De viribus herbarum, a medical text attributed to Macer. As a result of this combination of texts, Gearhart localizes this copy within the didactic literary tradition and more specifically one that engages with the fields of the natural world and scientific knowledge. She then goes on to explain that didactic literature in the twelfth century is organized by a building-block approach with chapters and books that build “one upon another in hierarchies of complexity” (51). In this instance, Gearhart asserts that On Diverse Arts may be positioned among other twelfth-century texts that present “a set of instructions for understanding and manipulating the natural world” (54).

Although since the seventeenth century, On Diverse Arts has been organized into three books (e.g., Book of Painting; Book of Stained Glass; Book of Metalwork), the original intention of the book’s organization may have more to do with function than medium. Perhaps more significant is that those functions are hierarchized. For instance, instead of seeing the third book as one simply about the manufacture of metal objects, it shifts our understanding if we reframe it as a chapter devoted to sacred objects required for the liturgy: “Throughout the treatise, the purpose of the object determines its material, and as material increases in complexity and expense, the function of the object comes more sacred and more central to the performance of the liturgy” (57). While Gearhart explains in the chapter’s conclusion that it is the sheer dynamic quality of matter that makes the creation of works of art even possible, clearly for Theophilus the “increasing sanctity of function is paralleled by increasingly precious and luminescent material” (57).

Chapter 3, “Monastic Labor and Craft,” again embarks on the physical evidence of a medieval copy of On Diverse Arts now in London and explores a hand-drawn manicule pointing to a section of the second prologue that considers the avoidance of sin. This offers Gearhart the chance to explore the concept of labor in the twelfth-century monastic sphere. She argues that art making for Theophilus “rests on the idea that when the mind turns toward God and philosophical intent, the arts can be a path to restoration” (75). Moreover, the practice of art is moralized and as such is a way to participate with God—a fundamental value in the Rule of Saint Benedict and throughout monasteries in the twelfth century. Ideally, the medieval reader of On Diverse Arts would follow the steps diligently, carefully, and attentively, resulting in an object that “can be understood as the trace of good work, virtue, and godliness” (88).

Chapter 4, “The Display of Skill,” is the longest and most forced, even though Gearhart bases her overarching argument of this chapter on a detailed study of specific motifs and patterns among different objects compared to a small drawing that is found on a stub in the Vienna copy of Theophilus’s treatise. One key element that it lacks is a thorough explanation of Gearhart’s methodological approach. Several objects are related to the goldsmith known as Roger of Helmarshausen, often attributed as the author of On Diverse Arts; this decision is clearly significant but could have been pushed further. She states that these kinds of ornament found on different objects, though not exactly the same, “suggests that together they represent an ornamental motif that could be remembered, repeated, and varied. We might see the drawing on the stub, then, as a doodle of a motif similar to the one the artist had made or seen before. It records a way of working, a repetition and combination of elements” (100). Of course there are many examples of ornamental and visual correspondences among different media in the centuries before the twelfth; we have ample understanding that artists worked in various media and their use of ornament transverses these media. Ultimately, Gearhart’s point is not so much about the objects themselves but what they reveal about the medieval practice of art making. “If the drawing in the manuscript was spontaneous, produced from memory, it might mean that workshops and artisans had ways of working, general schemata, upon which they relied regularly and which they could employ at will and vary according to the object” (101–2). She writes that “Perhaps stocks of images and patterns and modes of drawing were memorized just like texts,” but that they came maybe from memory and not pattern books (102); this presents a missed opportunity to then discuss what role pattern books possibly played, if at all, in the twelfth century (bearing in mind especially that the earliest surviving medieval artist/pattern book is from Villard de Honnecourt in the thirteenth century).

In the end, the chapter would have been substantially stronger had it been framed by a more concrete explanation that recognized that the visual similarities between the ornamentation observed are not rare or unique to Helmarshausen but reflect the larger art-making methods of the West, which, in turn, one could estimate predates the twelfth century by at least a millennium. Gearhart could then have been able to position Theophilus’s consequential text as the first surviving one to record the long lineage of artistic techniques. Nevertheless, Gearhart’s monograph on Theophilus’s treatise is a significant and meaningful scholarly contribution to our understanding of the complexity of Theophilus’s approach and the Christian meanings imbedded within his prologues and instructions. Without a doubt, readers today will understand in new and fascinating ways the more profound role On Diverse Arts likely played for twelfth-century monastic artists and patrons alike.

Kate Dimitrova
Associate Professor, Art History, School of Art & Design, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University