Medieval Matter Monday: Vocal Material

This work is a Spanish illumination made in 1180 in gold, tempura, and ink on parchment from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It was disassembled from the original book binding in 1870 and the Met acquired it in 1991.  It is a leaf from a Beatus manuscript, a type of illuminated book unique to medieval Spain. 


Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript: the Opening of the Fifth Seal; (1180), Spanish, from the Met collections

There are thirty two surviving Beatus manuscripts that depict the extraordinary vision of Saint John of the end of the world, as he recorded in the Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation). The Beatus manuscripts record the commentaries of Beatus of Liébana on this mystical vision of Saint John. The upper register of this leaf depicts an altar with suspended votive offerings, and doves symbolizing the souls of the dead. The middle register depicts Christ, and bellow him a group of figures in white are collected, gesturing emphatically. This illustration is based on the text of Revelations 6.9-11: “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God…and white robes were given to every one of them…”  Therefore the lowest register is a depiction of the Christian martyrs, saints, in their white robes. 

The New International Bible translates the saints of the fifth seal as calling “out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” The fifth seal is fascinating because it tells us that martyrs are expected to be “under the altar” because, even in the time of Saint John, the bodies of martyrs were sacred.  By the 1180’s the custom of including relics in an altar was practically a rule; the altar was a reliquary for all intents and purposes.  It was a house for material sanctity.  The entire body of a saint was sometimes interred under the altar, although the desire for relics usually dictated that saints bodies did not remain whole.  But the idea that the body of the saint would be reconstituted during the end days of the world “under the altar” makes sense; the local of sanctity, the focus of veneration and devotion in Christian life, is on the altar (and sometimes on the cult image placed above it).  

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Detail of Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript: the Opening of the Fifth Seal; two figures gesturing among the martyrs.


This is a fascinating rendering of the opening of the fifth seal because it emphasizes communication.  The martyrs gesture in such a way that they appear to speak; toward the center a figure throws their hands downward while another points upward toward the figure of Christ, but also toward the very top register with the altar and the votive offerings.  These offerings are essential to earthly communication with the divine.  Votives are given after a vow has been fulfilled; a crisis averted through the intercession and miraculous power of the divine channeled through a saint.  The object of thanks is like the period in a sentence, physically signaling the end of a thought, the closing of a loop, a successful transaction.  It is not the end of the conversation however, as it signals the devotee’s indebtedness to the saint and also represents their need to continue to venerate the divine figure.

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Detail of Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript: the Opening of the Fifth Seal; showing hanging votives, the altar and chalice, and doves.

The indication of the objects above the martyrs; Christ, the altar, and the votives, is an indication of the votive exchange system.  In life, the top altar, the devotee performs their faith before the altar and leaves votive offerings near it.  The saints speak to Christ and perform miracles through Him. There are doves bellow the altar which represent the souls of the dead.  They may be there to reinforce the notion of the martyrs under the altar, but they are also open to a different interpretation.  Perhaps they are the souls of the faithful waiting to be killed; they are the future Christians that the martyrs in the Apocalypse wait for, the “full number of their fellow servants.”

This is certainly not the only interpretation of this image.  However, it is a prominent one and one that would probably come to the mind of a medieval viewer with ease due to the predominance of the votive exchange in Christian culture. The altar is tiny in this illumination.  It is topped by a large, central chalice which is directly above the head of Christ in the lower register.  The background of this middle section is also essentially a red band.  It is not spatial, rather, it creates a vibrant local for Christ and plays beautifully with the green of the two plants flanking him.  But it may play another role in the reading of the manuscript’s image as well through the association of the chalice with the transubstantiation performed during the mass in which wine is converted through the priest into Jesus’s blood.  Directly below the altar where this divine mystery takes place Jesus is shown silhouetted by a field of blood red.  This re-emphasizes the tangible manifestation of the divine in physical matter.  The transubstantiation of Jesus’s blood helps to justify the votive exchange; if the savior can become earthly, perhaps the gifts of a humble devotee can become manifest in the materials of the divine.

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Detail from Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript: the Opening of the Fifth Seal; Chalice with Christ bellow.



Medieval Matter Monday: Replicating Faith


Michael Ostendorfer Pilgrimage to the New Church at Regensburg, 1519, woodcut

The woodcut by Michael Ostendorfer of the Pilgrimage to the New Church at Regensburg, made around the year 1519, preserves the memory of the medieval performance of votive dedication.  Devotees would travel to Regensburg to witness and venerate that miraculous image of the Virgin known as the Schöne Maria. The central focus of votive action, the cult image is replicated four times in the print. The “real,” or original image is shown deep within the church, obscured by a sea of heads of devotee pilgrims who have come to pay homage to the miraculous Schöne Maria. There is also the image of the veiled Madonna which hangs as a tapestry from the bell tower, and the image of the Madonna held on a waving flag at the head of a procession which is beginning to disappear behind the church. The fourth image of the Virgin and child is seen closest to the viewer in the foreground space of the print.

This Madonna and Child sculpture is different from the other three; here the Virgin wears a crown rather than a veil, and she holds a staff. The statue is on a pedestal in the yard in front of the church, and there is enough room for feinting, prostrated devotees to approach on hand and knee. Among the people performing devotional acts around the sculpture of the Madonna and Child there is a veiled mother who gently holds her child on the right side of her body, as the other three images of the Schöne Maria do; the statue holds the Christ child on the left of the Virgin’s body, and the staff on her right. Many of the figures seem to be in motion, falling to their knees or individually flinging their hands into the air in supplication, while others lay face down on the ground before the image in the round. The people around the other three images process in a collective, standing body.

In this print we can see the evidence of ephemeral materials given as non-utilitarian offerings; giant candles which grow progressively in hight and weight held by the devotees in the procession are seen on the right hand side of the print.  Various votive dedications hang from the eves of the church.  There are many tools there: baskets, scythes, pitchforks and shoes, but there are also what appear to be dedications of cast body parts.  Candles have been melted onto the monolithic pedestal of the sculpted Madonna and Child in the foreground.    

Replication and proliferation are central to the Pilgrimage to the New Church at Regensburg image.  There is a proliferation of bodily form, of objects and materials.  There is also the five images of the Madonna and Child figures.  One is the depiction of the “real” Schöne Maria inside the church.  The other three are duplicates, replicas, copies of this initial miraculous image.  The tapestry which hangs from the bell tower is far removed from the pilgrims and serves to prepare the crowd for the image inside; but none of the depicted crowd seem interested in it.  The second image is on the flag in the left hand procession.  This image seems to be the rallying point for a group which is going away from the shrine; they cary pointed staffs and could possibly be going off to a crusade, rallied by the miraculous image and the rhetoric of the impassioned sermons given inside the church near the image.

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The fourth is a fascinating case of the copy.  It is a Madonna and Child, just as the Schöne Maria is, yet it is also entirely different.  Here, the Virgin is not depicted in a humbled, veiled state, but shown wearing a crown and holding an elaborate staff.  Her image in the round has attracted supplicants who act out great gestures of humility and devotion before her, in a way that the masses of pilgrim devotees inside the church, before the “original” miraculous conduit, cannot.  Her image hints at the gold and gem studded reliquary cult statues of the Romanesque period which acted as conduits for the divine and as channels of communication between an individual devotee and their chosen saint.  The majesty of the sculpture here becomes directly linked with social hierarchy and monarchical motifs rather than with the Heavenly Jerusalem. The gold and gems are no longer a skin which acts as an allegorical representation of the saints majesty; it is transformed into an image of majesty on earth, two figures fully clothed in the material of the socially elite.  Below this sculpted image sits a fifth representation of the Madonna and Child, the “real” peasant woman with her child, who sits in physically manifest flesh and blood before the image.  This wood cut gives the viewer a wide experience of the possibilities of the “real;” is the real image the mother in the flesh, the miraculous image, the standard under which the crowds go off to war, the image of the church, or the cult statue which exists outside of the church area? 

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The print which gives us this image full of action and evidence is itself a copy.  The layers of reproduction and proliferation in this beautifully crafted depiction present the aura of the votive within Saint Augustine’s Republic based understanding of the hierarchy of the universe from flesh to divine existence.  In this print votive objects and actions create ripples of devotion around the cult image which perpetuate more images enabling more ripples of votive acts and objects to form and interact with one another.  The church is surrounded by a snaking line of processing pilgrims who give a wide berth to the figures who lie prostrate, encircling the majestic Madonna and Child. There is no way to know how faithful or fanciful Michael Ostendorfer was in his representation of the Pilgrimage to the New Church at Regensburg.  It is not a depiction of one instance of time, but of many personal, individual moments compiled by the artist into one grand, still moment of votive action.   

The cult image was a source of controversy and fierce popularity in Romanesque Europe.   It provided devotees with an image to concentrate their faith and communicate their acts of piety and devotion to the intended recipient.  It was a conduit of veneration, a two-way channel which communicated both the words of the supplicant and the miraculous actions of the saint between heaven and earth.  The cult image is a translation of the immaterial divine into material form which perpetuated and expanded votive culture in Western Roman Christianity.  This exchange forms a symbiotic relationship; votive objects need a cult image to exist, and the cult image needs votive offerings as reassurances of its power.

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Medieval Matter Monday: Spring in Manuscripts


MS G.7 Fol. 218v, Morgan Library

This beautifully painted manuscript is a Hungarian breviary made for Domonkos KaIlmaIncsehi, named bishop of Oradea in 1495.  It was made by Francesco de Castello in c. 1474.  A breviary is a manuscript which contains all of the liturgical texts for the Office, and can be used in private or in the choir; they were a status symbol and a means of displaying wealth through a pious manifestation.  These types of late Medieval, early Renaissance texts are a culmination of many practices from the early middle ages;  and are essentially a compilation of psalms, scripture, the writings of the ancient church Fathers, and hymns and prayers.


The border marginalia of this manuscript are particularly beautiful.  A large image of the Crucifixion takes up one page.  Fascinatingly it depicts not only Jesus crucified, but Dymas, with an angel, and Gestas, with a devil clasping their naked souls. Birds and naked children, putti, cavort in the borders with the flowers of spring and four medallions depicting Christ in Gethsamane, the Deposition, the entombment, and the heraldry of Domonkos. 


In another page from this manuscript a hairy wild man, who signifies the human fear of nature, the other, and the unknown, fights a bear with a spear.  The appearance of plants in the margins of books has meaning to the medieval artist and to the viewer.  They are both decorative borders and deliberately symbolic.  The content of each flower had to be rendered with an accuracy which was more important than the accurate depiction of human figures.  The increasingly naturalistic look of plants throughout the middle ages is due to the specific meaning of each individual leaf and petal and the medieval understanding of the uniqueness of the natural world. The lady bug in the center of this image displays the coming of spring to the viewer.

In the words of Bernard of Clairvaux, “So plentiful and astonishing an array of contradictory forms… that one would rather read in the marble (images) than in books and spend the whole day wondering at every single one of them.”  These spring margins provide the reader/viewer with an expanse of imagery to spend the whole day wandering through.

Medieval Recycling: A foot and dome.


Hanging Lamp in the Form of a Sandaled Right Foot, Byzantine, 1st-5th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is a sculpture titled Hanging Lamp in the Form of a Sandaled Right Foot at the Met.  It is a composite object which has been repurposed, or “spoliated.”  It is an example of the complicated nature of objects’ status during and after the transition of the Roman Empire from ancient Roman paganism to European Christianity.  The architectural components of the sculpture are a later addition, and the original foot sculpture is from a pagan Syrian temple site.  This piece was transformed from a pagan lamp into a ritual Christian object by the addition of a domed form.  

Hagia Sophia, a building which signified medieval Christian power and strength, was constructed in 537.  The bottom half of the lamp is from the 2nd century, or perhaps slightly earlier, and the domed top is from between the 5th and 6th century in Constantinople.  It seems clear therefore that the domed structure at the top is a reference to the domed top of the imposing symbol of Roman Christianity in the early medieval period; Hagia Sophia. This Christian addition functioned as a reminder of the power of Christianity over pagan religion.  The second crucial function of the dome transforms the performative use of the sculpture.  As a Syrian object, the foot was used as a hanging lamp.  Later, as a Christian object it was given a dual purpose with the addition of the open dome as a thurible, a censer which could be held in the hand during rituals.


View from above of Hanging Lamp in the Form of a Sandaled Right Foot


Medieval Matter Monday: The Blue Fall


Example pages of the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, (c. 1412CE), Museé Condé, France; MS 65.

The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the most widely known and studied Medieval manuscripts. Its pages are frequently used to introduce Medieval art to students as it maintains its status as the best surviving example of French Gothic manuscript illumination. It is also rare among Medieval objects due to the unusual knowledge of the artist’s identities; the Limbourg brothers. It was made between 1412-1416CE for the Duke of Berry, but all three artists, and their patron the Duke, died in 1416, which left the manuscript unfinished. Later artists embellished the manuscript further, however, the work visible today is still mostly that completed by the three Limbourg brothers.
This manuscript is well know for its dazzling use of blue, a signature of the Limbourgs work, made possible through their excessive use of expensive lapis lazuli pigment. One fascinating page which uses a vast amount of this rich blue is the page depicting the “Fall of the Rebel Angels,” a scene unrelated to the calendar year and not generally found in books of hours. It instead depicts the narrative of the fall of the angels, first written of by Enoch, the great-grandfather of the biblical Noah, in his Apocrypha. This story was popularized in the Medieval period and solidified in Christian folklore by the writers Dante and Milton. The Limbourg brother’s image was influenced by a painting by the Master of the Rebel Angels, one of the two surviving panels of a polyptych made around 1340CE.


Master of the Rebel Angels, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Siena, (c. 1340CE), Louvre, Paris. 

The first of the three books of Enoch relates the fall of the “Watchers.” The ancient Aramaic word for watcher, “irin,” became the ancient Greek word “angelos,” which is the basis of the contemporary English word “angel.” This early story about the angels of the Judeo-Christian God centers around their lust for human women. In the Apocrypha of Enoch the Watchers fall for human women through watching them, and subsequently introduce sinful instruments to them, such as the mirror, cosmetics, weaponry, and sorcery. Eventually God sends a great flood which kills off all of the offspring of the Watchers and humans, and binds the original Watchers in “everlasting chains” under darkness (as written in Jude 6).


Limbourg Brothers, Fall of the Rebel Angels, in the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, (c. 1412-1416CE), Museé de Condé, France; MS 65.

Blue is a complex and fascinating color with a lineage of otherworldly symbolic connotations across cultures throughout the world. In this image, the blue pigment of the robes pushes the falling figures back into the sky, yet, as they approach the ground, the sky behind them lightens and their bodies emerge more distinctly. I believe that this refers to their fall from celestial grace; the invisibility of their bodies’ matter is stripped from them. They do not consist of the divine immaterial, but instead stand out harshly against the blank white sky of the earthly realm. This object display’s Medieval beliefs about the nature of the divine. It was believed that divine objects (and therefore angels) were invisible to the human eye. God was conceived of as incorporeal, non-compositional, and therefore ineffable and completely inexpressible by thoughts or language (see Medieval Philosophy and Modern Times p. 162). It seems that the profusion of blue in the Limbourg brothers works served not only to display the wealth of their matrons and patrons, but to express the invisible power of the celestial God.


This subject may have survived because of its appeal to human nature; it provides proof that even the celestial creations of God can fall to the sway of carnal sin.  Even more specifically, it points out that love and sexuality can create stronger ties than previous loyalties to family, friends, or lords.  The story of the fall of the angels helped alleviate the guilt associated with sin in the Middle Ages because it provided an example of divine sin.  It gave comfort to audiences through their ability to identify with the stories’ anti-heros.

Medieval Matter Monday: Berserker Chess



The Lewis Chessmen, Walrus Ivory, (c. 1175CE), British Museum.

Game pieces offered sculptors a limitless opportunity in the Middle Ages. Although there are excellent examples of game pieces of all types, chess sets in particular provide fascinating, beautiful, and intricate sculptures in the round. In a previous article I have discussed chess as a medium which enabled Medieval Europeans to enact courting rituals and which allowed for alone time between the sexes (as women were normally supervised in the presence of men). These are actions performed after the onset of a ‘chess culture’ in Europe; the initial motivations are more closely related to cultural exchange and the development of war strategy- rather than sexual strategy.

The Lewis Chessmen traveled to the Met Cloisters  From the British Museum in 2011.  They are an amazing collection of pieces found in a hoard on the isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland. The pieces were divided between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. The sculptures are extremely individual.  The pieces fall into categories, but then become differentiated within each type; the kings beards differ in length, the knights wear distinctive gear, and the rooks are carved as enthusiastic foot soldiers.  One piece is particularly interesting; he bites down on the top of his shield, barely containing his frenzied eagerness for battle. Scholars have identified such figures as berserkers.  A berserker is a soldier of Odin from Norse mythology, known from the Heimskringla of the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson.  Snorri’s account is a recording of an earlier, lost poem from the late 9th century.

“[Odin’s] men went without their mailcoats and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields…they slew men, but neither fire nor iron had effect upon them.”

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This section of the Heimskringla of Snorri describes the berserkers, and also quite accurately describes the actions depicted by the foot soldier rooks.  The word “berserk” derives from the old norse words for “pelt” (serker) and “bear” (ber).  The berserkers are described as being violent and shapeshifting and are part of the basis of werewolf stories.

Chess is believed to have originated in India in the 7th century.  The game was referred to as “chataranga” in sanskrit, a name which references the four sections of the Indian army; the elephant, calvary, infantry, and chariot regiments.  Islamic invasions cross fertilized this game with China, Sicily, and Spain, and by the 10th century there is conclusive evidence that the game was well known and played throughout Europe.  This game has continued, with many changes, universally from this time onward.  It reflects an inherent human fascination with strategy and war.  It displays the imaginative abilities of people and sculptors across the globe and challenges previous isolationist theories about the Middle Ages.

Here are a few more of the Lewis Chessmen:

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lewischessmen-02-1500px_700x934.jpgTo end, here is an exquisite game piece from the same period, but oceans away:

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Elephant Chess Piece. Ivory. 11th century, made by Yusuf al-Nahili, India. Bibliothéque Nationale de France.

Compared with this:


Queen Chess Piece, Whale Ivory, 13th century; Scandinavia. Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Medieval Matter Monday: A Visitation in Crystal


Master Heinrich of Constance (German) The Visitation, ca. 1310–20 German, Walnut, paint, gilding, rock-crystal cabochons inset in gilt-silver mounts;

This beautiful gilded sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes from the Dominican convent of Katherinethal in present day Switzerland. It depicts the Visitation of Mary (on the left hand side) to her cousin Elisabeth. Both women are pregnant with Jesus and John the Baptist, respectively. The interior of Mary’s clothing has red pigment while the interior of Elizabeth’s drapery has gray-blue cloud forms. There is a boldness in the figure of Mary which is diminished in the figure of Elisabeth; Elisabeth wears a veil with a chinstrap, while Mary does not, and the subtle differences in coloration are significant because they lend a sense of force to the figure of Mary.


Detail of Mary in the Master Heinrich Visitation

Gesture and body position here are very important. Elisabeth places her hand gently on her heart, yet that hand also loosely holds a scroll with words stating “Who am I, that the mother of the Lord should visit me?” (Luke 1:43). This is inscribed in latin (VNDE HOC MICHI VI VENIAT MAT(ER)) and it flows across her body from her hand. Mary stands in a swayed-back position, a typical portrayal of feminine beauty in this period, yet she is the one placing her hands on Elisabeth. Her hands are positioned on top of Elisabeth’s hand and shoulder and hint subtly at her higher status.


Rock crystals adorn the stomachs of each of the figures acting as signifiers of the divine nature of each of the children, although Elizabeth’s child is John the Baptist and not a figure of virginal or miraculous birth.  At this time rock crystal was viewed as a material which transfixed one of the most elusive forms of matter; water.  This solidification of intangible matter had clear parallels with the invisible divine spirit.  The presence of rock crystal implies that pregnancy and childbirth is itself divine.; a subject with which women in convents would be acutely aware, as they were frequently called upon to assist in births alongside or as mid-wives.  This element of the sculpture speaks to a specifically female audience and their reverence for the feminine body, but it also affirms the standard view of the period which portrays women as vessels, and not creators, of life.

The rock crystal is elongated on both of the figures, reaching up to touch the heart, or more accurately, the chest cavity of each woman. It covers their womb and protrudes in place of regularly sculpted pregnant stomachs. Here, the rock crystals are the unborn children. Rock crystal was significant in the Medieval period for its transparency; clear glass was not available, and this translucent material captured and fixed light in a way that was unlike any other material available at the time. In the relatively dim interiors of Medieval architectural constructions, these crystals would seem to glow, flicker, and hold onto any available light sources, a condition which is not often recreated in contemporary museum and collection settings. In a culture where vision was physical the act of trapping the immateriality of the divine, embodied by light, had transformative powers over what were otherwise common materials. (for more information on Rock crystals in the later Middle Ages see this excellent article by Stefania Gerevini).


Medieval Matter Monday: Evil Cats


We all know that cats on the internet pose a serious threat to users attempting to do work. The exponential proliferation of cat imagery is a daunting task to sort through for anyone, and frequently results in hours of lost time. Generally, these images are shared, liked, and created under the assumption that cats are cute, harmless, and helpless animals. These assumptions about cats were not made in the Medieval period.

They were instead viewed as the epitome of evil. In the earlier middle ages they were seen as a necessary nuisance; one of the most effective tools against the infiltration of mice onto valuable and often fast depleting stocks of grain. But what appeared to be their obvious pleasure in torturing and slowly killing their prey earned them a reputation as evil doers, and eventually as incarnations of the devil itself. (For more information about why cats were despised in the Medieval period, see this excellent article on In the mid 14oo’s William Caxton wrote that “the devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous.”  This idea is illustrated in this image by Jean Tinctor, from Bruges ca. 1470-1480:


Here we see witches worshiping the devil in the form of a cat, performing the “Osculum Infame” or the “Kiss of Shame,” urged on by another demon.  This was believed to be the customary greeting of witches who convened with the devil at sabbats.

One disturbing discovery in the holdings of UPenn depicts cats strapped with sacks with flaming contents to be used as siege weapons against enemies that could not be infiltrated otherwise, as depicted in this manuscript image from the 1500’s:


Clearly, cats were viewed as disposable animals by the end of the Middle Ages.  This feeling of animosity towards cats resulted in many strange depictions of cats in Medieval art works. Catalogued bellow are but a few of these glorious, distant, yet strangely familiar cat depictions:







From these images it should be clear that depictions of cats are found mostly painted or printed on paper or vellum.  This is significant because paper and vellum painting, and indeed, printing, were viewed as lowly arts during the Medieval period.  Painting had not acquired the “high” art status that it possesses today, and works on paper are still frequently viewed as lesser than those on textiles, or made in other materials such as stone or metal.  This speaks to the low status of the cat itself; their images are not made in the space of more sacred materials and instead are only allowed to inhabit lowly and private materials found in objects such as books or pamphlets.

Medieval Matter Monday: The Castle of Love

Siege of the Castle of Love Late Medieval  (c. 1350) made in France. Ivory, with traces of polychrome and gilding. in the Louvre collections.

Siege of the Castle of Love
Late Medieval
(c. 1350)
made in France.
Ivory, with traces of polychrome and gilding.
in the Louvre collections.

This Beautiful ivory roundel from the Louvre depicts a common late Medieval scene of knights attacking a structure identified as the castle of love.  The scenes in ivory depicted here resemble this roundel from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and this one at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The round composition reflects its past functional uses as the backing of a mirror; it is the general scholarly consensus that these were frequently given as gifts, usually by suitors to women.  They are without doubt secular objects which served to remind women of their place in society and to reinforce the view that women were hopelessly bound to be overcome by love; this is an object with romantic but subjugating intentions for the recipient which emphasizes the accessibility of the female body to men.

What I have found interesting about this particular type of narrative is the underlying implications of an all-female castle in the Medieval mindset.  Is this a reflection of actual communes of women?  Is this a narrative which developed out of other stories of strong female communities (such as the Amazons)?  What is the relationship of the castle of love trope to the reality of convents of celibate women?  The two central female figures in the Louvre Castle of Love roundel embrace each other in a very tender manner, knowing they are to be taken from their feminine seclusion.  I believe that this speaks to the Medieval conception of female and male space as two segregated, separately functioning places in society which could be breached only through chivalric or forceful male actions. I also believe it speaks to female camaraderie in the middle ages and the beneficial influence of women functioning in groups as a protective measure within a male-oriented society.

Siege of the Castle of Love (detail). Late Medieval  (c. 1350) made in France. Ivory, with traces of polychrome and gilding. in the Louvre collections.

Siege of the Castle of Love (detail).
Late Medieval
(c. 1350)
made in France.
Ivory, with traces of polychrome and gilding.
in the Louvre collections.

Play: Nuns, Cribs, and Psychology

The miniature crib known as the Crib of the Infant Jesus presented in a solitary plexiglas case at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a fascinating work deserving of attention which it rarely receives. This piece is generally seen as a trivial and low-art object; a crib which contained a doll of Christ, probably made in a convent by and for nuns. Other museums have chosen to display similar objects with the “figurine” of Christ actually resting on the bed; the Met has dissociated this crib from any implication of playful function, and would not display a figurine even if it had a Christ figure suitable to this piece. There is a generally admitted fear in identifying or associating this beautifully sculpted object with toys or play because of the negative connotations given to those objects and actions in past scholarship. In other words, toys are not art objects.

(c. 1400CE) Made in Brabant, South Netherlands Wood, polychromy, lead, silver-gilt, painted parchment, silk embroidery with seed pearls, gold thread, translucent enamels

Late Medieval, (c. 1400CE)
Made in Brabant, South Netherlands
Wood, polychromy, lead, silver-gilt, painted parchment, silk embroidery with seed pearls, gold thread, translucent enamels

This multifaceted crib has prompted me to rethink this ingrained attitude towards objects of play. In general, human children have always exhibited an intense affinity for play. Play sculpts the individuals conception of and interaction with reality and allows for the development and growth of abstract thinking. The world in a child’s eyes is understood through toys and by extension these objects provide the foundation of adult knowledge.

There is a deep psychological draw created by dolls. They are invested with life by their human activator and even seem to hold onto the memory of or connote the personality created by past play. The numerous contemporary adult horror films or fantasy children’s stories about dolls or toys coming to life (often imbibed with a ghostly or magical spirit) and harming or helping people attest to this unconscious yet well known idea. The depression in the center of the Met’s Crib of the Infant Jesus is an impression left by a doll, not just a figurine, as some museums have termed it. What makes this theoretical and invisible object a doll and not a figurine? A doll is a figure which is activated by play; a statement which necessitates the further question, what is play? Play is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary first as an action which “engage(s) in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” This article by child psychologist and research Professor Peter Gray on the value of play suggests that this definition is, in fact, wrong. Play does serve a practical purpose. Gray states that play “is a means by which children develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities… It also provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning and insightful problem solving.” One of his key points about play is that it has structures and rules which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the actors.

These ideas about play can be applied to performative objects such as this crib from the late middle ages. If play is the foundation of action, and if play is a system of mentally established rules which exist within the space of only the play system of belief then play is the foundation of all interaction and is very closely linked with ritual. In the end, the debate over wether or not nuns or lay women “played” with this and similar objects is pointless. The true debate is over the importance of the combination of action and object and the significance of interaction with this object in shaping the devotional lives of those who used it. The relegation of things classified as “play objects” to lowly art forms is a reflection of the prevalent scholarly dismissal of the significance of play and performance in the visual world.