Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 16, 2023
Gillian B. Elliott and Anne Heath, eds. Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer, c. 300-1500 CE: Unfolding Narratives Series: Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Volume: 18. Leiden: Brill, 2022. 482 pp. Hardback (9789004506961)

In Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer, c. 300–1500 CE: Unfolding Narratives, Gillian Elliott and Anne Heath have assembled an excellent collection of essays that considers how medieval spaces and image programs mutably engaged their viewers. While studies of movement through medieval spaces abound, the richly illustrated volume places important emphasis on temporal considerations that play out in the idea of “unfolding narratives.” Indeed, it is this provocative phrase, more than the title’s “moving viewer,” that best signposts the volume’s center of gravity and contribution to the field.

The editors’ coauthored introduction begins with the example of the early Christian marble sarcophagus and Romanesque sculpted pulpit in the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. Considering the ways the later pulpit conceals and frames parts of the earlier sarcophagus, thus dramatically changing the viewing experience, Elliott and Heath open up questions about how the process of “looking through contemporary time into historical time” configured meaning for viewers (1). Although their historiographic account focuses on space and movement, it is this temporal question as well as the consideration of how image programs constructed meaning for particular audiences that remains most salient in the fifteen essays that follow. These are organized into four broadly framed parts respectively: “Moving Bodies in Space and Narrative,” “Topography and Politicizing Space,”  “Spatial Alteration and Reception,” and “Assembly and Space.” Because the strength of the volume lies foremost in the value of its individual case studies, which address narrative, time, and viewership in different ways, I will treat each chapter separately.

Part one focuses on “the narratives formed by a viewer’s moving through space” (9), and more specifically on the experience of viewing the medium of stained glass. Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz importantly differentiate between the visibility of Lausanne Cathedral’s rose window for two viewing communities based on their oblique path of approach (lay visitors) or frontal position in the liturgical choir (canons). The contingencies of viewing the window, they argue, would have increased anticipation and reverence, and reinforced the enactment of the liturgy. They make a cogent case that “setting and context are as crucial for understanding an architectural medium such as medieval stained glass as they are for contemporary environmental sculpture” (49).

Heath would certainly agree. Her study carefully reconstructs the viewing context for pilgrims who visited the relic of the Holy Tear in the north ambulatory chapel of Mary Magdalene at the Abbey of La Trinité in Vendôme, France. The program in stained glass repeated imagery of the relic shrine that unfolded as pilgrims approached the tear relic. The particular emphasis on weeping prompted pilgrims to follow suit in their somatic journey to salvation. Ashley J. Laverock, instead of tracing the experience of a physically moving viewer, uses Mary Carruthers’s concept of ductus (see Carruthers’ contribution in her edited volume, Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2010) to lead the reader through a close analysis of the thirteenth-century stained-glass window of St. Margaret of Antioch at Ardagger Abbey, Austria. Laverock’s essay (appearing as chapter two between those previously discussed) focuses on the coordinated image and inscription programs that prompted a literate and keen-eyed viewer to contemplation.

Part two “probes changing topographies and the shaping of meaning” (10), with three of its four essays focused on the creation of sacred geography. Kelly Thor recounts the intriguing iconographic competition between the mountain church of Suso and the valley monastery of Yuso at San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain. While Yuso maintained that the divine power of San Millán came solely from relics, Suso claimed the wondrous power of the site came from the mountains and its enclosed hermits by “prioritize[ing] contact with the mountain and its cave openings” (121). With its strong sense of material agency, Thor’s study forms a nice duo with Divya Kumar-Dumas’s essay on the mirror wall at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, one of the most compelling contributions to the volume. Kumar-Dumas elaborates how the mirror wall was not only an architectural feature in the landscape but also a writing prompt that confronted visitors and elicited a poetic response. It thereby brought together in the visiting poet’s mind individual features of the constructed landscape and past responses inscribed on the mirror wall, creating a collective sense of place.

Laura J. Whatley highlights the innovative vision of a patron in describing Henry of Blois’s twelfth-century project to reimagine the Holy Sepulchre in Winchester. Henry designed the Holy Sepulchre Chapel to juxtapose the universal paradigm of Jerusalem with the sanctity of local saints, specifically in proximity to the new interactive shrine of Saint Swithun. Perhaps better suited to the next section on reception, Philip Jacks’s essay shows how during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the early second century CE Markets of Trajan in Rome were misinterpreted as remnants of a residential complex based on philology and an adherence to the typologies laid out by Vitruvius in the first century BCE. Jacks’s contribution, with its focus on the understanding of a site over time, highlights a theme that emerges particularly in the second half of the volume.  

In part three, which explicitly centers in on “the issue of time and the longue durée of buildings and sacred sites” (10), Elliott elucidates how viewing the stucco reliefs of the parapets of San Pietro al Monte in Civate, Italy initiated a transformation in which the physical terrestrial space of the church momentarily became the imagined heavenly garden of paradise. Elliott’s essay pairs well with Elodie Leschot’s study of the architecture and sculpture of the Galilee at the Priory of St. Fortunatus, Charlieu, France. Leschot demonstrates how at Charlieu, the traditionally closed-off Cluniac narthex was instead designed as an open work to admit and address a lay audience. This architecture integrated lay viewers into the Easter celebrations, particularly at the climactic processional moment when the risen Christ meets his disciples at Galilee. Nicole Corrigan’s contribution takes us back to Spain and elaborates the long process and multipronged approach that converted the mosque in Toledo into a Christian cathedral, rewriting history to erase Muslim claims to the site and to associate it instead with the Virgin Mary. Closing out part three, Christopher A. Born considers how the Shinto Shrine of Ise Jingu on the east coast of Honshū, Japan, rebuilt every twenty years since the ninth century, restricted physical access to the shrine but invited imagined spiritual access in a way that preserved its purity and political control by Shinto priests and claimed the site as originary of the essence of Japanese identity. Although the architecture “legendarily remained unchanged, the function and meaning of the shrine shifted repeatedly, as did its political control by the emperor and his people” (332).

The final section, part four, looks at “how spaces in urban or rural contexts were designed and orchestrated for public assembly and movement” (11). Opening this part, Meghan Mattsson McGinnis traces the archeological evidence for habits of movement to and through Old Uppsala, arguing that this continuing movement of bodies over time interacted with the architectural landscape to generate an experience of a mythical history that legitimized local sociopolitical order. Returning to France, Barbara Franzé shows how the eleventh century west porch of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire served as a reception area for important liturgical processions from the town and presented in its sculptural program an image of structured and hierarchical society. Susan Leibacher Ward, too, examines the role of a porch in processions, demonstrating how the same sculptural program in the south porch of Le Mans Cathedral, France held different meaning for two processions: the Plantagenet Christmas processions, which emphasized kingship, and the later Corpus Christi processions that passed through the expanded city and emphasized Christ’s dual nature. With Leschot’s essay (included in part three), Franzé’s and Ward’s essays form a nice cluster on the programs of porches as they engaged lay viewers at the threshold of liturgical space. The final contribution, by Michael Sizer, offers a fascinating account of how the act of storming royal palaces served as a counternarrative to palace architecture’s narrative of magnificence. The combined evidence from historic chronicles and literary texts demonstrates that palace incursions were motivated by a desire to insist on public scrutiny, enforce morality, and purify royal space.

The long germination and multiple sessions leading up to this volume, outlined by the coeditors in their introduction, seem fitting for a collection focused on unfolding narratives. The end result is an engaging read, with multiple perspectives that at times engage with theoretical approaches. Brill’s practice of offering individual chapters for purchase and an ebook version in addition to the hardcover object is well suited for a volume whose individual case studies will interest a wide range of scholars and students of medieval art and architecture. Ultimately, the many resonances among chapters speak to the success of the editors in soliciting and organizing contributions, and Elliott and Heath are to be commended for including work from scholars at different points in their careers, including two PhD students.

In their brief conclusion, they reflect on their early aspirations to include case studies “from every corner of the medieval world” (469, quoted from the International Center of Medieval Art’s mission statement, Though the geographic scope of the volume ultimately focuses on Europe, the two forays to sites in Sri Lanka and Japan are productive. In closing, the editors express hope that the volume’s essays further our understanding of “the long and multilayered lives of medieval buildings and spaces” (470). This they certainly do. With Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer, Elliott and Heath provide the field a cogent prompt to think about how medieval narratives unfold in time, space, and viewer experience.

Katherine M. Boivin
Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture, Bard College