The study of architecture largely focuses on the study of buildings: constructions with their most essential function as shelter for the human body. But architectural history can forget that constructions with other functions are also ripe for interpretation of their structure and ideologies. This is what the ambitiously-named International Bridges Group intends to promote for crossings of all kinds, but beginning with a focus upon the medieval. Hence we at MedievalArtResearch.com were invited to their inaugural meeting at Westminster Hall on the banks of the Thames, followed by a day of in-depth (hopefully not literally) investigation of medieval bridges in the Nene and Great Ouse valleys. It as an opportunity to experience the fledgling sub-discipline of gephyrology: a neologism which currently only returns fifty results on Google.
As the current writer specialises on ecclesiastical architecture, one thing that emerged in the day in Westminster Hall was how similar working on the English bridge is to studying English parish church. Opening lectures from John Blair and John Chandler established thinking about English bridges is closely linked to unravelling the origins and operation of the English parochial system. Many current bridges can be traced back to the increasing importance of kingdoms in the late eighth century, and the establishment of centres of power. Just like churches, sometimes the opportunity to build a bridge was seized upon by institutions, monastic, parochial or secular to make a powerful architectural statement. Equally, institutions could be less responsible: maintenance neglected and pontage tolls embezzled.
Also like English churches, English bridges are uniquely weird and wonderful in equal measure. John P. Allan showed us, via the Exe bridge at Exeter, how independent masons may have been happy to meet in the middle with rounded and pointed arches; while Peter Cross Rudkin showed the English fondness for soffit ribs under the arches, akin to the complicated mouldings of English churches. The rib may have originally had a functional purpose centring the arch before it was built up: especially important for a rounded arch that cannot support itself. But since the ribs are often spaced wider than the length of the stones on top, it would appear that they have assumed the status of a skeuomorph: a decorative form derived from a practical necessity. Having a bridge that had distinctively bridge-like forms was clearly as essential as its structural practicality.
Just as a church spire provided an opportunity to dominate the sky, a bridge provided a powerful opportunity to assert ideology through these unique architectural semiotics. Susan Irvine used Anglo-Saxon literature to consider the bridge as a liminal space: a meeting point between two places. The potential of using this category of space was explored by Jana Gajdošová and Gerrit Jasper Schenk, both presenting papers on bridges rebuilt after disaster. The Gothic Charles Bridge in Prague, with its enormous bridge-tower and scheme of regal architectural sculpture, Jana showed to be a powerful expression of the megalomaniacal ambition of the Holy Roman Emperor. Gerrit compared the rebuilt Ponte Vecchio to the Florentine Bapistery: a pagan monument to Mars reclaimed for John the Baptist, expressed through inscriptions that speak of the enlightened commune of the city.
The final session brought us to how the established concept of a bridge worked in larger societal concepts: Jacopo Turchetto took us to medieval Anatolia, demonstrating how magnificent Ottoman bridges represented much older meeting places of travelling caravans. Roberta Magnusson and David Harrison both gave rich lectures about the bridge in the frameworks of English urban infrastructure and society that proved vital for enlightened conversation on the group’s trip out the Nene and Great Ouse Valleys the next day.
After an early Sunday-morning start, the first bridge the delegates encountered was Great Barford in Bedfordshire, dated by a major bequest of 1428. Much of the problem of looking at bridges is that, unlike a building, it faces not just the usual climatic elements, but also heavy traffic, perpetually flowing water, and wandering boats. Therefore it is inevitable that they fail and are rebuilt. Great Barford was also slightly spoiled by the 1874 widening – a common solution to the problem of increasing road traffic in the Modern age – here achieved by building out the bridge on the west side with a brick refacing.
Many medieval bridges are isolated from the main traffic flow: Irthlingborough now has a rather precarious-looking 1930s concrete Art-Deco bypass running alongside it. But in the Middle Ages it was a main road: therefore it was an inevitable structure unlike the grand statement at Great Barford, and probably with much earlier origins. Ditchford, on the other hand, had no such modern rerouting and was very much in use, with signal lights controlling the two-way traffic not used to a group of architectural historians examining its structure (see featured image). This bridge, made largely of attractively-tinged ironstone, was funded by the two parishes of which it lay on the boundary line: charmingly expressed on the central cutwater by the symbols of churches’ dedicatees, St Peter and St Catherine.
Two major urban bridges finished the trip. The very handsome bridge over the Great Ouse outside Huntingdon, called ‘lately built’ in 1322, reveals at close inspection its English eccentricities: different mouldings, designs and widths for every arch. It has the most attractive feature of a trefoil-arched corbel table, very much confirming the early-fourteenth-century date, which may have marked the place of a bridge chapel. Very few of these survived the Reformation: Wakefield, Rotherham, Bradford-upon-Avon and St Ives being the exception. However, we found the chapel over the Great Ouse locked, but had plenty to admire in the St Ives bridge itself: built in the 1420s at the behest of some generous Benedictines.
While very rich and informative, this meeting established only mere stepping stones to the establishment of gephyrology as an active discipline. If you are a budding gephyrologist, especially of the medieval period (or at least, initially, hanging around with a bunch of medievalists) and would be interested in attending future meetings of this research group, then email Jana Gajdošová with your name, institutional affiliation and a brief description of your studies.
For the full resumé of pictures of the day (including cheeky opportunistic solo church visits) see the Flickr set.
Search for “microarchitecture conference” on Google, and you will mostly be returned results concerning gatherings of computer programmers. This would doubtless make the concept of a conference on medieval microarchitecture entertaining to many. Even ignoring this parallel nomenclature, the sort of microarchitecture art historians are interested in is not an easy concept to explain, and perhaps one of the primary goals of the conference held at the Institut Nationale d’Historie d’Art in Paris was to actually work out what we had all come together for. I doubt wasn’t the only one who wondered whether my own material actually qualified.
Achim Timmermann (University of Michigan), a man who could indeed be dubbed “Mr. Microarchitecture”, gave an exciting overview of the concept in Early, High and Late Middle Ages, so epic in its scope of fantastic structures that the screen ought to have expanded into Imax proportions. His account demonstrated how microarchitecture transformed from the idea of a “pocket cathedral” into such an isolated ontological sphere that it crossed into convolute monstrosity with its self-mimesis by the late fifteenth century. An alternative and quite staggeringly rich oration, based on his new book Gothic Wonder, was given by Paul Binski among the medieval statuary in the ancient Roman baths of the Museé de Cluny. For Paul, the medieval intellectual aesthetic condensed great and small, magnificent and minificent, into an idea characterised by a single playfulness of embellishing surface with ornament. A more formal account, jointly delivered by Javier ibàñez Fernandez (Universidad de Zaragozza) and Arturo Zaragozá Catalán (Universidad de Valencia), introduced a 7-part taxonomy of microarchitecture in Spain: from functional maquettes to decorative miniaturisation of large-scale forms.
In this framework of ideas of categorisation, many new genres of object were introduced to the conference room. The present writer, of course, had packed a selection of sedilia, which by now I am certain always prove novel to continental audiences. But we also had stone tile ovens like traceried office blocks from Sebastian Fitzner (LudwigMaximilians-Universität München), Orthodox chivots for Eucharist reservation that mimic the forms of their parent building from Anita Paolicchi (Università di Pisa) and Renaissance elevation drawings that were originally intended to be folded and constructed into paper models from Giovanni Santucci (Università di Pisa).
These models are sort of things we would love to have more evidence for in the Middle Ages to explain the transmission of ideas, but alas, even presentation drawings and plans are difficult to come by. The miniaturisation of large forms into the decorative or representational was covered in papers by Sabine Berger (Sorbonne) on votive churches in the hands of donor statues and Peter Kurmann (ETH, Zurich) on relationship of tabernacle canopies to the geometry and form of great chevets.
There was also consideration of the desirability of microarchitecture and its meaning beyond the artists’ play with novel forms. Matt Ethan Kalaver’s (University of Toronto) account of the earliest transmission of classical forms into the Netherlands by the high nobility on their tombs was reflected in the earlier centuries considered by Julian Gardner (University of Warwick) and Matthew Sillence (University of East Anglia). Their papers both focused on how influential medieval prelates and cardinals were for spreading new forms on their seals, which, quite thankfully, was a big part of my paper where also bishops seem the first to stick pointy gables over sedilia in chantry chapels they have endowed.
Perhaps one drawback about the novelty of much of the material is that it is only in retrospect to draw many of these parallels across sessions. One panel however that held together very well that at the end of the final day, between Sophie Cloart-Pawlak (IRHiS, Lille), Alexander Collins (University of Edinburgh) and Sarah Guérin (University of Montréal) who all explored the function and symbolism of microarchitecture on the spectator.
This was my first international conference, and it was a highly convivial experience with high-quality papers throughout. There was a healthy mix of postgraduates, early career researchers, established scholars and some legendary old hands. It is planned that the proceedings will be published, and therefore it should provide a much-needed general framework for the minificent microcosm of the fiddliest bits of the decorative arts.
The international conference Micro-architecture et figures du bâti au Moyen-Âge: l’échelle à l’épreuve de la matière was at the Institut Nationale d’Historie d’Art from the 8-10 Dec 2015. Here is our original post of the call for papers, the full programme and the INHA’s official page.
We also had a bit of fun tweeting the conference because we’re so Web 3.0.
There was a packed conference room in the newly-refurbished Institute of Historical Research at Senate House, as eager members of the Church Monuments and Monumental Brass Societies gathered to hear about new approaches to incised brass memorials. As a sequel of sorts to a conference reconsidering approaches to funerary monuments on the half-centenary of Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture held at the Courtauld Institute in July, the stakes were high for a day on one of the potentially less-colourful genres of late medieval art production. However, the conference proved that brasses could also produce many novel and intellectually profitable methodologies, rather than inward-looking and basically descriptive case studies.
Richard Marks (‘Brass and Glass’: the medieval tomb-window) began the day with some pearls he had discovered in his relentless trawling of late medieval parochial wills, and that “brass and glass” was more than just a rhyme: many church windows acted as surrogate funerary monuments. Without the wills, there would be no way of knowing that the fragments of stained glass were patronised by the memorialised person under our feet. The use of documents to consider individual agency was also explored by Jessica Knowles on All Saints North Street in York (’Controlling the Past’: the Medieval Brasses of All Saints North Street, York), and at the end of the day by Christian Steer on the brasses in the lost London convent of the Friars Minor (’A Melting Pot of Death’: Burials and Brasses in the London Grey Friars). This veritable carpet of memory raised the intriguing questions of why the Franciscans were so popular among well-to-do Londoners, and how the friars themselves – supposedly unable to own property – bought their own brasses.
The idea of the importance of patrons’ agency in the design of memorials was raised in the paper by Matthew Ward discussing Chellaston alabaster workshops (Late Medieval Style: the Role of Agency and the Workshop). Michael Carter then showed how an alleged London Type-B brass in Fountains Abbey was almost certainly later than the usual timespan of that workshop; instead the evidence of the iconographical motif of raising a mitre to show off a cleric’s doctoral credentials gave us the identity of the commemorated abbot (The Mysterious Mitre on the Monument). Looking outside of the constraints of the medium continued: Harriette Peel (Women, Children and Guardian Angeles in Late Medieval Flemish Funerary Art) also used novel iconographical analysis to show that a Flemish brass commemorating a young girl may be making appeal to female hagiography through its inclusion of a guardian angel. Sanne Frequin brought colour to proceedings with some technical findings of the polychromy of Tournai Marble monuments: supposedly a “pure” medium like brass (Tournai Stone: an investigation of materiality).
It is often forgotten that England, with its religious rather than social revolution, has a much richer corpus of funerary monuments than much of Europe. Ann Adams used the English corpus of tomb chest-top brasses to creatively illuminate the apparently peculiar choice of the genre over sculpted effigies by some Flemish nobles (‘Revealed and Concealed’: Monumental Brasses on Tomb Chests – the examples of John I, Duke of Cleves and Catherine of Bourbon). Robert Marcoux (The Social Meaning and Artistic Potential of a Medium: Brass and the Medieval Tombs of the Gaignières Collection) reminded us of the importance of the Gaignières collection in the absence of the physical objects, and demonstrated its statistical potential in mapping aesthetic tastes over time. The varied papers, coupled with a lively, knowledgeable and generous audience, made for a day that proved that the humble brass lurking under the carpet in many a parish church can prove a lucrative genre for the modern art historian’s inquiry.
This review was originally published in Medieval Memorial Research newsletter, a free biannual summary on current developments concerning research in memoria of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period (till circa 1600), and is part of Medieval Memoria Online.
The John Rylands Library is an extraordinary neo-Gothic building to which no tourist visit to Manchester is complete without. The architectural experience is supplemented by many fine exhibitions making use of its special collections, although due to their small, studious nature, they can often be overlooked. Communities in Communication is one such exhibition taking place in its cloistral vaulted corridors. Drawing on the Rylands’ large collection of books from the late medieval Netherlands, this small show forms part of a larger AHRC-funded project to understand the interplay of literary cultures in the late medieval Low Countries.
Guided by the excellent little exhibition booklet, the cases are grouped by themes that elucidate how the objects represent a window into the intellectual and linguistic cultures of their age. Trilingual phrase books show that individuals from urban burghers to the nobility were keen to improve their vocabularies. The new technology of printing had begun make written culture more accessible to a world burgeoning with literacy and an appetite for the word, and the majority of books here are printed rather than manuscripts written by hand. The books are beautifully displayed in shallow cases that allow you to appreciate the clarity of the printed text by actually reading the words, appreciating them as works of art and craft in themselves rather than simply vehicles for illumination. Perhaps the most significant object on show here is William Caxton’s Recuyell of the historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English.
I was fortunate enough to visit the exhibition on the occasion of a study day led by the exhibition curator, Adrian Armstrong. Our group was assigned a wonderful copy of Caxton’s English translation of the Golden Legend. First we studied the book as a physical object: assessing how the paper had been folded into bifolios and bound into quires. A copy that appears mint at first belies a fascinating object history: on close inspection showed how pages had been bookmarked by a neat reader. After a short break we looked at the book in a different way: how we might consider transcribing the text for a modern critical edition. Does one insert modern punctuation and expand contractions, or go the whole way and modernise the often archaic spelling? These are no doubt issues Caxton himself faced when sitting down with English, Latin and French versions of the Legenda Aurea back in Westminster in the 1480s.
These dual themes of material codicology and the linguistics of the text helped illuminate the texts on display outside, be it historical writing, poetry or phrasebooks. All these texts are material artefacts that can make manifest the essentially ephemeral speech of daily life in the late medieval Northern Europe: be it in diplomacy, trade, or leisure. This is certainly an exhibition to see if you are interested in the future aims of the project to unravel the interplay of literary cultures in this dynamic environment: both the autumn of the Middle Ages and the springtime of the Northern Renaissance.
Communities in the Communication: Languages and Cultures in the Late Medieval Low Countries is on at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester until 21 December 2014. Admission is free.
In November the Courtauld group informally known as the “Tomb Raiders” visited the Charterhouse (http://www.thecharterhouse.org/) and St Bartholomew the Great (http://greatstbarts.com/), two Smithfield priory foundations with ancient and architecturally-complicated histories.
Established in Smithfield in 1371 as a Carthusian priory, the Charterhouse today is an almshouse for around 40 single men over the age of sixty, and our visit was kindly guided by one of the newest brothers (an American from Chicago) who genially warned us that as he was still on probation, we had to behave.
We assembled on the grass where the priory church once stood, giving us time to inspect the still-visible remnants of the altar, a modern memorial to the members of the community martyred following the Dissolution, and a squint in the exterior wall absorbed into the Jacobean chapel, where we began the tour. Carved wooden greyhounds, the motto ‘Deo Dante Dedi’ (‘because God has given, I give’) and an elaborate polychromed monument (featuring chubby infant Vanitas blowing golden pipe bubbles, and a relief of the Brothers in chapel) commemorate Thomas Sutton who founded the almshouse and school (thriving today in Surrey) in 1611.
The priory’s cloister, with simple arches of austere stripped brick, preserves a narrow 14th c. cell door and serving hatches through which the monks’ meals were handed. The Brothers today dine in the Great Hall, an airy space with a gallery running around two sides beneath the hammerbeams. An ornate 17th c. chimneypiece decorated with (more greyhounds and) carved cannons and powder kegs alludes to Sutton’s post as Master of Ordance in the north, and a 16th c. wooden screen at one end is a remnant from the Duke of Norfolk’s short-lived use of the property as his London residence.
Ascending a wooden staircase (which replaced the 17th c. original destroyed in the Blitz) we admired the plastered ceiling and Flemish tapestries depicting Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and tried to work out where in the Great Chamber Queen Elizabeth I and James I and VI would have sat. Next we crowded three at a time into the tiny muniments room where archivist Stephen Porter showed us, among other treasures, a crumbling but beautifully-carved late 15th c. stone figure of St Catherine with much original polychromy and gilding still intact, removed from the innards of their central courtyard wall.
Having survived everything between Henry VIII and the Blitz, Charterhouse is one of London’s best-preserved buildings – and secrets. We had the place to ourselves for the most part, and it was wonderful to be in the centre of London and yet enjoy such silent stillness.
Just around the corner and down Cloth Fair, we visited Great St Bart’s, always a treat but particularly so as James had obtained special permission to go upstairs into the clerestory. After signing the obligatory health & safety disclaimers, we squeezed up a tight and twisty stair into the open clerestory. It was exciting, after sitting through many church services staring up at Prior Bolton’s oriel window wondering what was behind it, to finally inhabit the space. We had a wonderful aerial view of the darkening church and the chance to scrutinize fragments of stone ornament littering the floor.
A thorough and illuminating explanation by James Alexander Cameron (armed with Pevsner) of the innumerable architectural campaigns rounded out the church visit, ended by the arrival of a rehearsal wedding party, plus florists.
By Emily Pegues
The Courtauld has a reputation for getting up close to objects, sometimes to the concern of nearby gallery attendants. However, a number of handling sessions for postgraduate students to indulge in pawing exhibits without rebuke have been arranged at the British Museum with the kind assistance of Lloyd DeBeer and Naomi Speakman, both in progress with individual collaborative PhDs at the Museum. The theme for this December session was objects with apotropaic inscriptions, that is, words that apparently warded off evil, as requested and selected by Dr. Tom Nickson.
As we gathered round the table, putting on our unpleasant plastic gloves, what could not fail to draw attention was the impressive (and perhaps also apotropaic) axe-carved prow ornament under conservation for the forthcoming Viking exhibition. However the objects we were to be handling lay beyond this fearsome monster, and were of a much more manageable weight.
This bell was my first port of call, partly being the second biggest thing on the table after the prow, but also because I had just written about bell-founding through the lost wax method with my post on Courtauld favourite Tudor Monastery Farm. Bells are one of the most common medieval objects to be inscribed with the craftsman’s signature, but this one also had four holy figures inscribed upon it which perhaps were there to protect the bell, while the former maybe acting as a perpetual prayer to the maker. Handling a bell like this immediately gives you the impression that it is far too heavy to ring by hand. Instead, the shape of its upper aperture was suggested as perfect for it to be attached to a wooden frame, and rung by a mechanism. Although there were a few accidental semi-peels, we of course were not going to see if one could bear to have this bell hung low enough to be reminded of its maker while sounding the call to prayer.
One object that proved particularly popular was this French fifteenth-century finger ring, inscribed with an amorous inscription playing on Latin tenses. This blog is possibly not far from the truth in that it represents a particularly nerdy love-token: the image of the squirrel and lady on the inside being a not-so-subtle medieval double-entendré.
However, that ring represented an object that matched our expectations, ideally sized to be placed upon a lady’s finger for her to cringe at the grammar puns forever more. My personal favourite object of the day was the Coventry Ring, both for its content and the puzzles its actual presence made manifest. On the outside, we have an image of Christ, and a prayer that relates to each of His five wounds. This prayer is accompanied by the characteristic disembodied floating sharply-pointed ovoids dripping blood, which, after Caroline Walker Bynum and others’ in-depth investigations of textual and iconographic parallels for the femininity of Christological imagery and devotion, you are allowed to state the obvious resemblance without the risk of getting too Freudian. This prayer is obviously supposed to be read while the ring is turned around the finger, but even this does not explain why it is so conspicuously large when you try it on. Was it made to commission for a particularly big man? Was it designed to be worn over a leather glove? Was it even supposed to be worn other than for prayer? The startling condition of the ring, even the enamelling of lettering inside and out, suggests perhaps so.
These are just a few of the thoughtful fruits that were generated from handling the objects set out for us. But perhaps what never really came out were many opinions about the apotropaic inscriptions which they all had in common. The Coventry Ring was one of many of the objects that had the names of the Three Magi inscribed upon it for instance, clearly from some common mystical significance. Yet so often the more mysterious and magical inscriptions were sidelined in our discussions for other, seemingly more primary functions that the objects embodied. Perhaps it was the same for their users: these were merely conventions that it was proper to have, and even the owner of the Coventry Ring themselves may have been hard-pressed to explain what “ananyzapta tetragrammaton” was all about.
Here is a list of the objects we had out and a link to their catalogue entry:
Laureate head pendant
Late Medieval Bell, English
The Hockley Pendant
The Coventry Ring
Cameo/Amulet ring, Italian, C14 (no image)
Amulet ring, Italian, C14
Annular Broach, English, C13
Finger ring, C15
Pilgrim badge of Henry VI
Mould for similar Henry VI badge
Thomas Becket pilgrim ampulla
We also had a large box of rings of lesser interest out.