Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2024
Ittai Weinryb Die Hildesheimer Avantgarde: Kunst und Kolonialismus im mittelalterlichen Deutschland Petersberg, Germany: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2023. 160 pp.; 55 color ills. Cloth £22.95 (9783731913450)

In 2018, Ittai Weinryb published an article in Speculum entitled “Hildesheim Avant-Garde: Bronze, Columns, and Colonialism.” Its primary objects of study were the famous bronze doors and the less well-known, but equally impressive, bronze column made around the year 1000 for Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim. Many of the arguments of this important article were adumbrated in its title. Weinryb used the term avant-garde in its double sense: 1) the extended one, familiar to art historians, to describe forward-looking artistic production; and 2) the original, more literal military sense, to refer to front-line shock troops. This literal meaning was crucial to much of what was new and exciting in Weinryb’s argument; he argued that the monumental bronze castings made for Bernard were not only innovative works of art, but that they played an important role in asserting the power of Bernward, Hildesheim, and Christianity against the people living to the north and west, generically called Slavs, with whom the Ottonian kingdom was in conflict. It was here that the subtitle of Weinryb’s article came into play; he was able to show that each of its three terms could be applied to the contest between the Ottonians and Slavs. As Weinryb argued, the Hildesheim doors and column, by their ostentatious display of bronze, threw down the gauntlet to the Slavs, who did not know large-scale cast bronzes and instead favored production in wood or in metal on a smaller scale. Bronze casting, by contrast, is, as Weinryb puts it in Die Hildesheimer Avantgarde: Kunst und Kolonialismus im mittelalterlichen Deutschland, the “most complex and most magical technology for making sculptures” (12; all translations mine). The bronze objects made for Bernward thus challenged the Slavs by their technique. They also did so by their form. In his article, Weinryb showed that Bernward’s bronze column reformulated various traditional local forms, whether the sacred trees of the Slavs or the so-called Jupiter columns of late antique paganism. These innovations made the Hildesheim column and doors objects of Ottonian colonialism to the east.

Weinryb’s article, then, was a model of social art history. It placed the bronze works made for Bernward in a local historical and geographical context. More unusually, it met the stringent but important test laid down by T. J. Clark, who demanded that the social history of art must show how works of art “shaped” their context rather than just “reflecting” it. Weinryb did just that by emphasizing that the huge, outward-facing Hildesheim doors and the column, located in a church outside the city’s walls, broadcast their message widely (at least in early medieval terms). Weinryb also made an important contribution to the social history of materials. He noted that medieval Christians favored bronze as a material for bells, whose sound traveled far beyond the church. Thus, the very material from which column and doors were made had a public presence and meaning. Finally, Weinryb documented, in fascinating detail, the production of Bernward’s bronzes, which required large quantities of metallic ores and wood for charcoal. Given the importance of wood for the Slavs, this ecocritical discussion of raw materials was also part and parcel of his argument about colonialism.

Because Weinryb’s article is so recent, it has not yet been fully evaluated by scholars, so it is not clear if it will change thinking about Hildesheim. I believe it will. I found the article totally convincing. I also know that it worked beautifully in the classroom, as it brought a new perspective to one of the most canonical works of medieval art and so provided a challenge to art-historical business as usual. (Full disclosure: Weinryb consulted with me on bibliography related to one part of his study and I am thanked in both the article and book discussed here.) Now, in the book under review, Weinryb has somewhat expanded his presentation of this material (the text of Die Hildesheimer Avantgarde is only about 50 percent longer than the article that preceded it). The book in many places follows the article almost word-for-word, but it does so in German. This will of course be welcome to those who prefer that language to English, although it is worth noting that the German of Die Hildesheimer Avantgarde, with its short, simply constructed sentences, is unusually accessible to native speakers of English.

Weinryb has used the increased length made possible by Die Hildesheimer Avantgarde’s book format to discuss a few additional works of art. By far the most significant of these is the third important metal object made for Bernward: the two candlesticks now in Hildesheim’s Dommuseum. These were rightly omitted from the 2018 article; these small, gilt-silver objects would have been out of place given the article’s focus on bronze and monumentality. Now, the candlesticks are the first works of art Weinryb discusses in detail. He shows well that the inscription on them calls attention to the novelty of their fabrication, including the materials from which the candlesticks were made and the viewer’s role in understanding those materials. These are all themes that also are crucial to Weinryb’s treatment of the bronze objects made for Bernward. Readers of the article who might have found Weinryb’s arguments there too speculative, because they were based on creating a physical and material context for the bronze doors and column that worked primarily circumstantially, may well be convinced and reassured by his close analysis of the Latin inscription on the candlestick. This is a method with a long pedigree and very much art-historical business as usual, but it is put to excellent effect: Weinryb’s analysis of the candlesticks fits perfectly with his overall methods and argument. A smaller, but likewise telling addition to the book is the wooden door from an apparently Slavic settlement at Lenzen, dated to ca. 1000, which Weinryb uses as a very nice formal and material counterpoint to the Hildesheim bronze doors. Likewise drawing more attention in the book than in the article are other figurative Christian bronze doors made subsequent to those at Hildesheim, notably those now in Gniezno and Novgorod.

The second important addition to the book is an introduction that gives a much more thorough discussion of the avant-garde as a concept than had appeared in the article. There, Weinryb simply juxtaposed the two apparently quite different fact meanings of the word avant-garde (one pertaining to art and the other to the military). In the book, by contrast, he posits a direct and deep connection between these two senses: “Avant-garde and colonialism go hand in hand” (23). Strong claims such as this one appear throughout the introduction. After noting that modernist avant-garde art depended deeply on non-Western art that came to Europe only as a result of colonialism, Weinryb asserts that “In medieval Hildesheim the same model of artistic production was at work” (25). These are potentially powerful ideas, but they need to be worked out more fully to realize their potential. What, for example, does “same” really mean in the sentence just quoted? To try to answer such questions, Weinryb draws on some theorists of the modernist avant-garde, especially Rosalind Krauss. But are the 19th- and 20th-century European and American avant-gardes studied by Krauss and others sufficiently similar to Weinryb’s high medieval one for his juxtaposition to be telling?  Weinryb hopes that, by historically extending the term avant-garde from the fairly recent past so that it encompasses premodern artistic developments, he can bring about a reevaluation of the modernist understanding of the term. This is a worthy goal, but for it to come to fruition, more historians of modernism would have to read more medieval art history than I suspect they typically do. More generally, the discussion of the avant-garde did not seem to me the book’s strongest section because the claims there tended to be asserted, rather than argued. For example, after noting that one of the key features of Krauss’s modernist avant-garde was the grid, Weinryb observes in passing that the paneled structure of the Hildesheim doors is also grid-like. But this aperçu is not pursued or pushed. The grid is indeed crucial to modernism; it is equally crucial to both the visual and iconographical impact of the doors. Such an overlap between medieval and modern avant-gardes might have let Weinryb make more telling his transhistorical claims for the avant-garde (which already tend to sit a bit oddly in what is otherwise a relentlessly historicist book). But, tastes differ in these matters, especially since the rhetoric of introductions allows some laxity of argument and this one point of potential criticism is essentially a quibble.

Weinryb’s 2018 article marked an era in the study of early medieval Hildesheim. To have the argument of that article expanded in scope and presented in a different language is therefore undoubtedly a good thing, even if I suspect that the vast majority of those who read this review will still consult Weinryb’s Speculum article rather than its expanded German version.

William Diebold
Goodsell Professor of Art History and Humanities (emeritus), Reed College