New Publication: ‘The Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books’ by Elina Gertsman

Winner of the 2022 Charles Rufus Morey Award from the College Art Association

Guided by Aristotelian theories, medieval philosophers believed that nature abhors a vacuum. Medieval art, according to modern scholars, abhors the same. The notion of horror vacui—the fear of empty space—is thus often construed as a definitive feature of Gothic material culture. In The Absent Image, Elina Gertsman argues that Gothic art, in its attempts to grapple with the unrepresentability of the invisible, actively engages emptiness, voids, gaps, holes, and erasures.

Exploring complex conversations among medieval philosophy, physics, mathematics, piety, and image-making, Gertsman considers the concept of nothingness in concert with the imaginary, revealing profoundly inventive approaches to emptiness in late medieval visual culture, from ingenious images of the world’s creation ex nihilo to figurations of absence as a replacement for the invisible forces of conception and death.

Innovative and challenging, this book will find its primary audience with students and scholars of art, religion, physics, philosophy, and mathematics. It will be particularly welcomed by those interested in phenomenological and cross-disciplinary approaches to the visual culture of the later Middle Ages.

Elina Gertsman is Professor of Art History and Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan Professor in Catholic Studies II at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of the award-winning Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna, also published by Penn State University Press.


Introduction Nothing Is the Matter

Chapter 1 Imaginary Realms

Chapter 2 Phantoms of Emptiness

Chapter 3 Traces of Touch

Chapter 4 Penetrating the Parchment

Coda Absences

“Gertsman makes a convincing argument, and at times shows a wonderful novelistic sensibility in describing the micro-dramas on display.”Times Literary Supplement

“This is an intellectually ambitious, rigorously argued, and erudite book that explores visual strategies and their theoretical underpinnings of ‘empty spaces’ in medieval manuscripts. A must-read for scholars of medieval and northern Renaissance art and intellectual history.”—Nino Zchomelidse, author of Art, Ritual, and Civic Identity in Medieval Southern Italy

“This is one of the most original books I have read—original in its conception and subject, in the materials studied and illustrated, in the numerous questions posed, and in its compelling conclusions. It is a potentially paradigm-shifting work that will affect how we perceive illustrated manuscripts and that should finally put to rest for art historians the ‘intentional fallacy’ long rejected by literary historians.”—Richard K. Emmerson, author of Apocalypse Illuminated: The Visual Exegesis of Revelation in Medieval Illustrated Manuscripts

“Elina Gertsman’s The Absent Image is a rarefied treat for connoisseurs – a kind of apophatic art history. She explores a phenomenon that is seldom studied: the voids, gaps and empty frames that manuscript artists used to represent the unrepresentable.”—Barbara Newman, London Review of Book


Published by Ellie Wilson

Ellie Wilson holds a First Class Honours in the History of Art from the University of Bristol, with a particular focus on Medieval Florence. In 2020 she achieved a Distinction in her MA at The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specialised in the art and architecture of Medieval England under the supervision of Dr Tom Nickson. Her dissertation focussed on an alabaster altarpiece, and its relationship with the cult of St Thomas Becket in France and the Chartreuse de Vauvert. Her current research focusses on the artistic patronage of London’s Livery Companies immediately pre and post-Reformation. Ellie will begin a PhD at the University of York in Autumn 2021 with a WRoCAH studentship, under the supervision of Professor Tim Ayers and Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein.

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