The end of term is in sight and the days are getting longer. And that means we’re all daydreaming of summer. Whether your summer plans call for research or relaxation, take advantage of some stellar temporary exhibitions happening around the globe that are highlighting the production, context, and craftsmanship of medieval art. These exhibitions are pushing boundaries, considering new contexts, and boasting bold feats—several of these exhibitions present artworks on view in North America and Europe for the first time. Let us know your favourites by sharing your thoughts in the comments below. Happy Summer!
This year, the delegates of the International Bridge Group assembled in Prague for their annual symposium. Held over three days, the delegates enjoyed tours of medieval monuments, a day of papers at Vila Lanna, and a day trip to study medieval bridges outside of Prague. The event was a spectacular introduction to medieval Bohemia and – via the none-too-shy monumental decoration of the Charles Bridge in Prague – provided a fascinating insight into the socio-economic ramifications of the campaign of stone bridge construction in the Middle Ages.
Day 1: The Charles Bridge and medieval Prague
A visit to St Vitus Cathedral was one major highlight of this aesthetically munificent event. Dr Klàra Benešovská (Institute of Art History, Czech Academy of Sciences) and Petr Chotěbor (master mason of the cathedral) opened the doors for us an hour before the official opening. Points of particular interest to the IBG included the work of Peter Parler, who took over as master mason from 1356 and who also designed parts of the Charles Bridge. Likewise, St Wenceslas’ chapel, with its lavish decorations, stood out as a relative of Karlštejn Castle’s interior, impressing upon us the ties between court and church in fourteenth-century Prague.
Being in Prague enabled the group to take full advantage of the expertise of IBG’s co-founder, Dr Jana Gajdošová, whose forthcoming book focuses on Prague’s medieval bridges. As visitors populated the cathedral, we made our way to the so-called Judith bridge tower. The 12th century bridge, which was built by King Vladislav I, was destroyed in the St Mary Magdalene flood in 1342; however, fragments of its towers survive, built into the fabric of the later structure. We were granted access to one of the towers which once fortified the west end of the Judith Bridge and where a relief carving of two figures, that once decorated the exterior wall of the tower, survives.
From here we made our way to the House at the Stone Bell, which was probably the private residence of John of Luxembourg and Elizabeth of Přemyslid, and which has a gothic façade bearing formal resemblance to that of the bridge tower.
The Charles Bridge and its Gothic tower was our last point of call. The tower, built facing the Old Town, greets users of the bridge. Designed by Peter Parler, the decorative scheme includes an elaborate east-facing façade which is decorated with heraldic emblems representing ten lands of the crown of Bohemia and figural statues. Within its central blind arch are statues of Emperor Charles IV, and his son, King Wenceslas IV, either side of the standing figure of St Vitus, one of the patron saints of Bohemia. Gajdošová emphasised the way in which the original sculptures, now in the Lapidárium, would have overlooked the viewer as they passed under the tower.
The bridge was a portal connecting the general populus of the Old Town and the sacred royal centre, as much in the imagination as in practice. Charles IV’s patronage is a testament to the political importance of bridges; far beyond the domestic concerns of the civic sphere, this vast structure, adorned with his likeness, facilitated crucial trade, communication and travel between eastern and western Europe.
The first day ended with a keynote from Prof Christopher Wilson, Emeritus of UCL. It explored the prolific career of the late thirteenth-century architect Henry Yevele and his construction of a chapel of St Thomas Becket on London Bridge. The two-storey apsidal chapel was built according to Yevele’s design between 1384 and 1397. Probably recalling the chapel to Our Lady Undercroft beneath the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury cathedral, the lower and upper storeys of the chapel were dedicated respectively to the same pair. Eighteenth-century etchings suggest its appearance accorded with the reserved perpendicular style favoured by Yevele in his design for the nave of Canterbury cathedral. The paper drew from medieval and antiquarian sources to build up a picture of the lost edifice.
Day 2: The Papers
On the second day the delegates heard ten papers, divided across three sessions, outlined below.
Session 1: Lost, Destroyed and Re-used Bridges
David Harrison, a co-founder of the IBG, discussed the apparently systematic demolition of medieval bridges during the Georgian period, suggesting the motivations behind the destruction often had as much to do with fashion as engineering. He was followed by Klàra Benešovská, who considered the extensive patronage undertaken by Jan of Dražice, the last Bishop of Prague. The focus was his patronage of the bridge in Roudnice nad Labem and its connections to Avignon, where Master William came from to teach the local builders the bridge building techniques of southern France. The paper was a useful complement to the conference’s emphasis on the legacy of Emperor Charles IV but also to the following paper. For this, Michal Panáček shared his exhaustive research into the building technologies of the medieval bridge in Roudnice nad Labem and the Charles Bridge in Prague. The paper emphasised how much more technologically advanced the bridge in Roudnice was – probably since it had a direct connection with the sophisticated French bridge builders.
Finally, Alexandra Gajewski addressed the medieval afterlife of the magnificent Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, sharing shocking accounts of how the piers of the second storey of arcading were recessed to enable wagons to cross a bridge never designed for human passage. She explored various reasons – aesthetic, practical, economic – that compelled medieval travelgaers to use this treacherous bridge.
Session 2: Bridges in Art, Sources and Myths
The second session opened with a paper by Gerrit Deutschländer who discussed medieval gates, their relation to bridges and their ability to glorify rulers. Then, Sarah Harrison gave an art historical overview of depictions of bridges as narrative cues, geographical aides or simply as aesthetic motifs. Susan Irvine closed the session with an exploration of the motif of the bridge in late medieval Middle English romance narratives. In her chosen case study, Gawain and the Green Knight, the bridge serves as means of testing the mettle of the chivalric hero and exploring prevailing questions of personal or universal morality.
Session 3: Digital Technologies and Bridges
Engineer Bill Harvey presented to us the usefulness of 3D-imaging medieval stone bridges as means of assessing their structural integrity and, often, saving them from demolition. Although Simone Balossino was unable to attend the event, he had sent us a video which captured the methods used by the Avignon team to digitally reconstruct the medieval Pont Saint-Benezet. Next, the author of this review presented the Digital Pilgrim Project, which is making 3D-images of a selection of the British Museum’s medieval badge collection and uploading them to the museum’s account with the 3D-imaging platform, Sketchfab. Lastly, Jana Gajdošová and David Harrison presented The Bridge Project to the group, funded by the GEO Sea and Currents Fund, which aims to bring awareness to medieval bridges, to plot them on a map and to thus digitally preserve them.
Day 3: Pìsek and Zvikov Castle
Our last day in the old territories of Charles IV took us to the town of Písek. Here we visited its 13th century bridge, the oldest in Bohemia, which survives close to its original form despite a number of floods and thanks to conservation work. The bridge was fortified by two gate towers, neither of which survives; however, the IBG was able to get an impression of these gates by studying the monumental wall painting in the castle of Písek. Viewing the town’s museum and churches was an opportunity to appreciate the reach of the gothic aesthetic in Bohemia during the Middle Ages. This was intensified by a sun-baked walk to the castle of Zvikov, positioned at the confluence of the Vltava and Otava. There, we encountered a moat bridge, an early example of the use of triradials, traceried arcades, and the cool interior of a fourteenth-century chapel with vibrantly restored wall-paintings.
To sum up, the IBG Conference 2016 achieved a balance of action and reflection. Prague, as an extreme case study in terms of the Charles Bridge’s potency as a political tool, proved both fascinating in isolation and a lens through which to consider the multifaceted functions of bridges across medieval Europe. Thanks is owed to Jana Gajdošová and David Harrison for organising this fascinating conference.
After the success of the first meeting of the International Bridges Group in Westminster Palace [Ed. note: enthusiastically reviewed by Medieval Art Research here], the International Bridges Group will meet in Prague for our second symposium. The Charles Bridge in Prague, with its spectacular gate tower, makes the city an excellent choice, and will be a major topic of discussion. In addition to that, we have also planned a one day trip to Písek, a charming medieval town outside of Prague and the home of the oldest standing bridge in the Czech Republic.
To take advantage of Prague itself, we will be given a private tour of St. Vitus Cathedral (when it is closed to the public); of the House at the Stone Bell and of several other major sites usually closed to the public. In addition, as 2016 marks 700 years since the birth of Emperor Charles IV, our symposium there would be the perfect opportunity for the delegates to see the spectacularly planned ‘Emperor Charles IV 1316 – 2016’ exhibition in the Waldstein Riding School (see link below).
Our programme will be as follows:
Friday July 8th:
8:00 Cathedral Tour with Klára Benešovská and the master mason of the cathedral, Petr Chotěbor
10:30 Tea in the Old Town
11:00 Romanesque House Tour
13:30 House at the Stone Bell with Klára Benešovská
15:00 Judith Bridge Tower and Charles Bridge withJana Gajdošová
19:00 Evening Lecture
Saturday July 9th:
9:30 Symposium in Villa Lanna
Our speakers / chairs (and their topics) include:
David Harrison (London); Klára Benešovská (Prague): Roudnice Bridge; Simone Balossino (Avignon): Pont Saint- Benezet and the recently completed project on its reconstruction; Alexandra Gajewski (London): Pont du Gard in the Middle Ages; Jana Gajdošová (Cambridge); Gerrit Deutschlander (Hamburg): Bridges and Gates; Bill Harvey(Exeter): Bridge Spans in England; Susan Irvine (London): The Sword Bridge in Medieval Chivalric Romance ; Zoë Opačić (London); Sarah Harrison (London); Tim Tatton Brown (London)
15:30 – Free time to see the exhibition
Sunday July 10th:
Coach to Pisek (included in the symposium fee)
Písek is a lovely south Bohemian town and the home of the oldest bridge in the Czech Republic. This 13th century structure as well as a castle, founded in the same century (with 15th century wall paintings of the town and its bridge), will be the focus of our tour.
The symposium itself will take place on July 9th, 2016 in the Neo-Renaissance Villa Lanna in Prague and the entire event will occur on July 8-10, 2016. The Villa (see link below), with the support of the Institute of Art History (Academy of Science of the Czech Republic), has given us a substantial discount to use their premises and will also give anyone from our group a 30% discount on their rooms. (A single room would be approximately £29.) Should you choose to stay there, please contact Jana to book a room. The event fee is £55 and includes lunch, coffee/ tea and dinner during the day in Villa Lanna, as well as the coach to Písek.
We can only accommodate a limited number of delegates due to the private tours/ coach trip. If you are interested in joining, please email Jana Gajdošová to register at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope that you will be able to join us in Prague!
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.
Call for Papers:
Looking for Leisure Court Residences and their Satellites, 1400-1700
Prague, June 5 – 07, 2014
Deadline: Jan 31, 2014
This PALATIUM conference draws attention to small buildings in residential complexes – small in size but not in importance – which were meant only for temporary, seasonal use, unlike the permanent use
of the main palace. The role of the palazotto (‘small palace’) was to be a place of rest, leisure and repose, but sometimes it also took on a representative role similar to the main palace. As these ‘satellites’
were usually new buildings rather than rebuilt older structures, they offer a much clearer view of the incentives, intentions and concepts of the clients and can be regarded as ideal models, or miniatures, of the main palace.
This colloquium will study the relationship of the satellite to the palace and examine its function as pendant but also as counterpart or even opposite to large palatial buildings. The small palace usually made it possible to develop certain ideological and spiritual programmes that would have been difficult to achieve within the large palace. Only residential complexes that contained not just the main palace but also the palazotto, aspired to create symbolic images of the universe, the earthly paradise. There was a ‘dialectic unity’ between the main palace as the permanent residence and the smaller, temporary and occasional house; the existence of a palazotto constituted an ‘added value’ to the actual residence, the palatium.
Papers may address one or more of the following themes:
1. From Solitude and Buen Retiro to Mon-plaisir and Sans-souci:Exploring the theory of the architecture of leisure within the palace
2. Tradition and modernity: Defining the palazotto as a spatial and functional type from the late middle ages to the early modern period
3. Decorating the architecture of leisure: Interpreting the satellite’s decor between politics and nature
4. The palazotto in context: Exploring the role of the satellite in the grand design of the residence and its gardens
This colloquium is organized by the European Science Foundation Research Networking Programme “PALATIUM. Court Residences as Places of Exchange in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (1400-1700)”, in collaboration with the Institute of Art History (IAH) of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and with Masaryk University Brno.
Detailed application modalities can be found here.