Session at the International Congress on Medieval Studies University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo, May 12 – 15, 2016
Lloyd de Beer, British Museum
Julia Perratore, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Do sculptures speak? Can they listen? Are they able to read, sing, and engage with other sculptures, or the architecture of their surroundings? If so, is this connected to their context and placement? How do these questions affect the way in which we view sculpture and its performativity?
In seeking to answer these and related questions, this session will address the manifold ways in which sculpture could potentially address its viewers, and, by extension, listen. The interactive nature of much medieval art, and particularly sculpture, suggests that viewers’ engagement with mute three-dimensional images could extend to an imagined oral/aural exchange. Sculptural evocations of speech were carved onto the body, in the parted lips of the Virgin or the emphatic gesture of a saint. They could also be engraved across the unfurled banderole of a prophet or in the titulus of a capital. In other instances, a sculpture might seem to take part within a multisensory experience of space or ritual, as the figures of a narrative frieze might be activated by music. Alternatively, an image may simply stay silent and listen, as a cult statue might amid the prayers of the faithful. Impressions of speech in medieval sculpture have even carried over into historiography, as attested by the “speaking reliquaries” of the German tradition. The papers of this session may approach issues of speech and listening in a variety of ways, considering a wide range of sculptural forms, materials and techniques across the medieval period as a whole.
Overall, this session aims to contribute to the many lively scholarly discussions on the interactivity and performativity of sculpture current in the field of medieval art. It also responds to a number of recent studies on the role of the body in medieval experiences of art and architecture, particularly with respect to ritual and devotion. More broadly, the topic’s inherent interdisciplinarity aims to draw new perspectives and methodologies to the study of a body of material that has long been approached solely through traditional art-historical methods. It is hoped that by presenting this session at Kalamazoo, which attracts scholars from many disciplines and periods, a number of presenters from different backgrounds may be gathered, igniting a dynamic discussion on the nature and power of images in the medieval world.