Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 24, 2024
Finbarr Barry Flood and Beate Fricke Tales Things Tell: Material Histories of Early Globalisms Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. 304 pp.; 190 color ills.; 22 b/w ills. $55.00 (9780691215150)

In this beautifully illustrated book, Finbarr Barry Flood and Beate Fricke explore ways to approach medieval objects in the absence of texts—the objects as archives. Often these objects have survived by chance (what the authors refer to as “flotsam,” 7–8), and the portable nature of many objects means that the histories of their production are obscured. Tales Things Tell is a masterclass in art-historical analysis and should serve as a model for anyone attempting to engage in global or transcultural art history. The book is divided into two parts and structured around six case studies: hanging censers, niello technology, coconut and rock crystal vessels, magic-medicinal bowls, the church of Beta Maryam in Lalibela, and a 13th-century illustrated copy of al-Hariri’s Maqāmāt. The chapters easily stand on their own, but themes run throughout the book, loosely connecting seemingly disparate objects across time and space. Although the chapters (and indeed the two sections of the book) were written by the two authors separately, the ability of the authors to effectively approach such an impressive diversity of material speaks to the necessity of scholarly collaboration in the undertaking of any aspect of “global” art history.   

As ambitious an undertaking as this book is, the authors wisely focus on the ideas of networks and mobility rather than making any claims to comprehensive coverage (2). This allows for both authors to engage seriously with their chosen objects. The “case study” model of art history is gaining traction both in the undergraduate art history classroom (taking the place of universalist survey classes at some institutions) and in scholarly publications (such as the essays in Normore (ed.), Re-assessing the Global Turn in Art History, 2018), as art historians realize deep engagement with specific objects can reveal more than a broad, but superficial look at visual materials. That said, while the focus on objects is ostensibly narrow, the coverage is extensive: the case studies span late antiquity to the Mongol conquests and touch on Northern and Central Europe, the Mediterranean, West Asia, the east coast of Africa, and the Indian Ocean. The liberation of the object from corresponding historical texts means that Flood and Fricke were able to select a true diversity of materials. Canonical works such as the rock-cut reliefs on Beta Maryam and the Maqāmāt of al-Hariri illustrated by Yahya al-Wasiti are approached through a material-focused, transcultural lens. Objects like the hanging censers and magic-medicinal bowls have not as frequently been the central focus of art-historical inquiry. In part, this is because of the necessity of engaging with their materiality as much as their formal qualities, of approaching these objects as “texts” themselves due to the lack of contemporary textual information about them. The insistence on materiality and movement (of objects, people, and ideas) means that in Tales Things Tell we encounter objects made for the highest levels of courtly elites and those destined for the masses.

The first half of the book, “From al-Andalus to Germany: Objects, Techniques, and Materials,” approaches the objects in each chapter through their material attributes while also connecting them to broader networks of exchange. The first chapter, on hanging censers made between the sixth and twelfth centuries, is arguably the most challenging. Their places of production are unknown (broadly the eastern Mediterranean), their dates of production uncertain, and their portable nature means they moved easily both when they were in use, and later, as collectible objects. Nor have they been well-studied by art historians (23). The approach here is a combination of technical and visual analysis and comparison with reliably dated objects to construct a narrative for these otherwise unmoored objects. Analysis of available censers, however, shows that they could be made with a variety of production techniques, which explains how so many of these were made in a wide geographic area over several centuries (35). In addition to iconographical and morphological analysis that helps locate individual censers in time and space, a compelling part of the chapter is the relation of the censers to the incense they contained, in particular the burning of incense as a part of medical-spiritual practices (41–44). This not only raises interesting questions about the use and sensory experiences of the censers, but also relates to a major theme of the book that is touched on in almost every chapter—the connections various objects had with medicinal, magical, and spiritual experiences.

The second and third chapters continue the emphasis on materiality. Chapter two focuses on niello, a metal inlaying technique, while chapter three takes as its case study a vessel made from coconut and rock crystal, fitted with metallic elements. The central questions of chapter two revolve around the origins and transmission of the trimetallic niello technique (60, 71), and the meanings that objects ornamented with trimetallic niello took on depending on the context. The final part of the chapter is devoted to exploring the connections between trimetallic niello and Christian spiritual symbolism, especially the Trinity (81). The coconut and rock crystal vessel was also an object of Christian devotion. The coconut, originating in the Indian Ocean, was joined with a rock crystal lion originally produced in an Islamic context, fitted together by a European metalsmith and was used as a reliquary. The author situates this unique object in the context of both reappropriated rock crystal objects and coconuts, meticulously explaining the ways in which the meanings of these materials shifted and were given Christian valence, particularly relating, respectively, to the blood of Christ (92) and Paradise (101). Once more, both materiality and movement of objects are the central foci.   

The second half of the book, “From Iraq to India and Africa: Technologies, Iconographies, and Marvels” continues the focus on materiality, but here, the larger themes are the connection between magic and medicine, the importance of networks, and the diversity of people of the medieval world. In the three chapters that make up the second half of the book, we are introduced to the function of amulets, incantations, spells, grimoires, apotropaic texts, and images, which enliven the objects under discussion. In addition to material and iconographic analysis, the author draws our attention to how these objects would have been experienced by a diverse array of people who used them. In a parallel to the book’s first chapter on censers, the fourth chapter, on magic-medicinal bowls, tackles objects that were made throughout West Asia and North Africa over a long time whose origins, places of production, and dates of production are a source of debate. However, unlike the censers, the magic-medicinal bowls “travel with significant meta-data, engraved with extensive inscriptions relating to their function and use” (113). Through an investigation of the iconography on these bowls, and the ways in which they were used, the author reveals the array of magic-medicinal practices during the medieval period. Some of these practices connect to astrology, to the intrinsic medicinal properties of certain materials, and the function of specific images to either repel unwanted or dangerous actors (scorpions, snakes, rabid dogs) or attract favorable elements. Magical-medicinal practices also play a role in the last chapter of the book.

The last two chapters of the book, while analyzing significantly different objects—a stone relief and a manuscript—return to the theme of mobility, with a special focus on connections between Africa, West Asia, and India. In chapter five, the author connects the relief of an equestrian figure on the church of Beta Maryam to ancient, late antique, and early Christian imagery, especially motifs created in Egypt and Syria, while also investigating its specifically Ethiopian context. More surprising, however, is the connections to India that the author makes through analysis of ceremonial shields and painted wooden plaques now embedded in the architecture of Lalibela (173–181). Connections between the east coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean provide an excellent segue to the final chapter: a close reading of some of the illustrations in a copy of the Maqāmāt of al-Hariri illustrated and transcribed by Yahya al-Wasiti. Of particular interest is how the author integrates a discussion of the diversity of Indian Ocean trade, both in terms of social class and in terms of geographical origins—in it we encounter Arab merchants, African (Ethiopian?) sailors, Indian royalty, and a motley array of adventurers, servants, and slaves. The last chapter is the strongest in the book, perhaps because it has the benefit of tying together many disparate threads from previous chapters. In a book that is constantly suggesting new ways of approaching material, it is almost reassuring to encounter a theme from an earlier chapter, such as the function of amulets or the significance of the image of the sphinx.

Tales Things Tell is an excellent contribution to global medieval art history and will certainly be useful for researchers and as a teaching resource. There are only minor details to quibble with: the separation of the two authorial voices makes the chapters feel at times inconsistent, and the amount of coverage in terms of sheer quantity of materials referenced feels sometimes overwhelming. Art history is still practiced with a preference towards iconographical analysis and with a focus on local rather than global contexts and this book serves as an important narrative shift. While not an entry-level text, it should be required reading for all medieval art historians.

Eiren Shea
Associate Professor, Art History Department, Grinnell College