Monday, 25 February 2013

Nuns and Needles

                In my last post I wrote about the flourishing culture of Anglo-Saxon female scribes, largely connected with English conventual life. Its final and greatest flowering  came in Winchester, located at a convent founded by Alfred the Great: the Nunnaminster of St. Mary’s in Winchester, where his daughter Æthelgifu was installed as abbess on lands deeded to Alfred’s queen Ealhswith. A group of manuscripts associated with the Nunnaminster have been identified by Malcolm Parkes as being copied by female scribes; they include the Book of Nunnaminster, the Trinity Isidore, the Parker manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the Junius Psalter. The Book of Nunnaminster, which originally came from Mercia, preserves forms of confession and absolution and prayers containing female grammatical forms, while the Parker Chronicle contains the contemporary record of Ealhswith’s land donation for the minster (Parkes). Pam Robinson has furthered this research, attempting to identify some of the Nunnaminster scribes by name. If there is an “Alfredian revival” of learning in ninth- century Wessex, then part of the credit must go to the Anglo-Saxon nuns who contributed to the accessibility of texts.

But the Alfredian revival of learning in convents and monasteries was ultimately unsuccessful. The weaknesses in education and focus that King Alfred deplored continued, and by the second half of the tenth century, a major initiative was undertaken to reform monastic life, making (almost unilaterally) the Rule of St. Benedict the governing system in them. St. Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury, 960-988), Æthelwold (Bishop of Winchester, 963-84), and Oswald (Bishop of Worcester, 961-92) undertook what is now called the tenth-century Benedictine Reform, with the support of King Edgar (959-75). The Regularis Concordia (between 963 and 975) established a written agreement among monasteries about uniform practices, among them being upgraded education for monks and a new emphasis on celibacy and a separation of monasteries and convents, with distinct roles for male and female religious. As a result, the practice of abbesses reigning over double monasteries came to an end, as apparently did the existence of convent scriptoria as well, with that task being delegated to male scribes. Relatively few Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that are associated with women can be identified after the Benedictine Reform, and Pam Robinson and I can only identify one named female Anglo-Saxon scribe after the imposition of the Regularis Concordia.
Maniple Terminal

But what happened to the artistic impulses of these religious Anglo-Saxon women? Here I move into the realm of conjecture, but I would argue that they stopped writing with their styli and took up their needles. Less than half a century before Anglo-Saxon women apparently stopped copying manuscripts, we see the first surviving examples of one of the most desired of all medieval arts: English embroidery, opus Anglicanum. The art of embroidery was already known in Anglo-Saxon England, with major centers in both Canterbury and Winchester, where those active centers of women’s copying were located. Aldhelm in De Laudibus Virginitatis describes these feminine accomplishments: “The shuttles, not filled with purple only but with various colours, are pushed here and there among the thick spreading threads, and then with the art of embroidery they adorn all the woven work with various groups of figures” (Christie 1).

 In England, the oldest datable examples of English religious embroidery, now assembled in a stole and maniple in Durham Cathedral, were commissioned by Queen Ælflæd for Bishop Fridestan in Winchester between 909 and 916, at just about the time nuns began to be eased out of their scriptoria. The program of embroidery is ambitious, involving portraits of 21 carefully-chosen prophets and saints, linked together by patterns of winding foliage and beautiful examples of tablet embroidery (Ivy; Christie). The stole is marked by two tablets identifying both the original donor and recipient, much as an ex dono inscription would do in a manuscript, again consonant with scribal practices. Several scholars who have written on these tapestries have suggested that a scribe or illuminator may in fact have pricked out the pattern for the embroiderers to follow; or, if I am right about who these embroiderers might have been, they might be former scribes transferring their methods of work from one medium to another.
Detail of Maniple of St Cuthbert

Catherine Karkov has recently argued that the program of illustration in these vestments is an articulation of sophisticated political theories about kingship (73-76), and the level of work is consonant with such an important argument. These embroideries  apparently remained in royal possession, and the vestments were part of a donation made by Ælflæd’s stepson King Athelstan to the shrine of St. Cuthbert in 934, after which they were probably assembled into their current form and eventually buried with the saint’s uncorrupted corpse (Coatsworth passim). When Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in 1827, the vestments, still largely intact, were removed and preserved; they are widely regarded as the finest examples of early English embroidery, with their elaborate undercouching and gold-wrapped silk threads (Owen-Crocker 311). To see these embroideries in the Treasury of Durham Cathedral, where they are on exhibit today, is to be struck by their artistic and technical sophistication; the details of foliage and figures are highly reminiscent of some of the finest manuscripts of the Winchester School, such as Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert (Cambridge Corpus Christi College, MS 183) and the Benedictional of St. Aethelwold (British Library Additional MS 49598), copied by a monk of the Old Minster in Winchester in the 960s, about half a century after the Cuthbert embroideries were made. As you can see, the iconography and letter forms are very reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination, including the portrait of Etheldreda in the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold.

There are other early embroideries whose patterns also resemble manuscript illustrations. In the early 1980s, Millie Budny identified a group of late 8th or early 9th century embroidery fragments preserved in the church at Maaseik as being Anglo-Saxon religious embroideries associated with the veneration of Saints Harlindis and Relindis, both women educated by Anglo-Saxon missionary nuns. While the saints themselves were renowned for “the work which is accustomed to be done by female hands in various ways and varied adornment, namely sewing and weaving, designing and working, and arranging gold and pearls on silk” (Budny 354), these embroideries are the work of southern English workshops, traveling the same route as the manuscripts and vestments sent by Eadburga and other English religious women to missionaries in the Rhineland. With a major embroidery center at Canterbury, only a short distance from Minster Thanet in Kent, it’s easy to see that the two spheres of women’s artistic endeavor may have overlapped, with Maaseik offering us the proof.

A tradition of Anglo-Saxon women artists in thread can be identified. As early as the 9th century, Eanswitha, an embroideress at Hereford, was granted a lease for life on a 200-acre farm by the bishop of Worcester, in exchange for renewing, cleaning, and adding to the vestments of the cathedral priests. William of Malmesbury reports that St. Dunstan designed embroidery patterns for a stole to be embroidered by “a certain noble matron, Ædelþrym…which she would then execute in varied embroidery of gold and gems.” Ædelfleda, widow of Byrþnoð, the alderman of Maldon fame, gave the church at Ely a hanging embroidered with the deeds of her husband, according to the Liber Eliensis, while Queen Ælgiva (or Emma), second wife of Cnut, presented to the cathedral at Ely
a purple banner she had made, surrounded on every side by a border of gold embroidery, and adorned with magnificent embroidery of gold and precious gems, as if it were inlaid such that nowhere in England is there to be found any embroidery of equal craftsmanship and value, for her needlework seems to excel in worth even her materials. To each of our saints she offered a silk cloth embroidered with gold and gems, though of less value [than the banner]. She also made coverings for the altar, a large green pall strikingly adorned with gold plates, and above it a cloth of tissue of bright sanguine tint, with a border of gold embroidery a foot broad, presenting a sight of great magnificence and value. (Christie, p. 1, 31)
A slight but steady pattern of women being associated with both books and embroideries can be established, one that suggests how closely connected the two artistic industries may have been.
Maniple Detail

By the time of the Conquest, William of Poitier, chaplain to the Conquerer, conceded that “the women of England are very skillful with the needle and in the matter of tissues of gold,” and when Bishop Odo commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry c. 1070 C.E., he found a wide range of female embroiders to work on it, both secular and religious. (Whether those embroideresses were predominantly English or Norman is the subject of continuing scholarly dispute, and maybe another blog down the road.) In the eleventh century, chroniclers refer to the art of embroidery as acum scribere (to write with a needle) or acu pictura (painting with a needle), testimony to the artistic elements in production of textiles. As these productions may have taken years to embroider, the work involved was certainly comparable to that of copying, rubricating, and decorating a manuscript.
                These tantalizing connections suggest that the embroidery salon may well have succeeded the scriptorium as the provenance of talented English women, providing them a continuing outlet for their artistic visions when theological politics closed the doors of manuscript production to them. The same impulses that led Eadburga, Lioba, and their sisters to copy texts for the greater glory of God and the furtherance of Christianity, when denied expression on vellum, led to works of pious art executed in silk and metallic thread.  An article on opus Anglicanum examples at the Cloisters quotes an unnamed 17th-century historian who wrote that “nuns with their needles wrote histories also” (Young)—and those histories continue to unfold for those of us who take the time to examine the manuscripts and textiles in which they are preserved.

Contributed by: Dr. Jo Koster


Budny, Mildred. “The Early Medieval Textiles at Maaseik, Belgium.” Antiquaries Journal 65.2 (1985): 354-489.
Budny, Mildred, and Dominic Tweddle. "The Maaseik Embroideries." Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984): 65-97. Print.
Christie, A. G.I.  English Medieval Embroidery. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1938. Print.
Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Embroideries from the Tomb of St. Cuthbert.” In Edward the Elder: 899-924, ed. Nicholas J. Higham and David Hill. London: Routledge, 2001. 297-306. Print.
Ivy, Jill. Embroideries at Durham Cathedral. Durham: The Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, 1992. Print.
McKitterick, Rosamond. ‘Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century.” Francia 19.1 (1992): 1-36. Web. 28 October 2010.
Owen-Crocker, Gail R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Rev. Ed. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2004.
Parkes, M.B. “A Fragment of an Early Tenth-Century Manuscript and Its Significance.” Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983): 129-140. Print.
Robinson, P. R.  “A Twelfth-Century Scriptrix from Nunnaminster.” Of The Making Of Books: Medieval Manuscripts, Their Scribes and Readers: Essays Presented to M. B. Parkes, ed. by P. R. Robinson and Rivkah Zim (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997), 73-93.
Whitelock, Dorothy . English Historical Documents 500-1042. 1955. Rpt. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Young, Bonnie. “Needlework by Nuns:  A Medieval Religious Embroidery.” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 28.6 (Feb. 1970): 262-277. Print.


Durham Cathedral Library

Monday, 18 February 2013

She Moves in Mysterious Ways: Re-interpreting Synagoga

     Reviewing the landscape of Synagoga’s historiography one can see that all these studies have interpreted the figure in relation to medieval theology. However theological interpretations of the subject would only be accessible to educated audiences who had enough of an understanding of contemporary theology to be able to apply them to the beautiful downtrodden figure of Synagoga.

     Taking in to consideration the allegorical nature of the figure and the notion that not all medieval spectators would look upon Synagoga as an abstraction of complex theological ideas, since the middle of the twentieth century, scholars have began to consider how specific contexts could have influenced Synagoga's reception. Most of these studies have centred on the depiction of Synagoga on the south facade of Strasbourg Cathedral which was described in detail in my previous entry. 

     The earliest of these studies were carried out by Adolf Weiss, Adalbert Erler and Otto von Simson.[i] All three of their studies identified the square in front of the facade as the seat of local justice and the site of the local municipal courts. Taking into account this legal context, all three come to the conclusion that the eschatological theme and heavenly judgement depicted on the south facade, would be seen by medieval audiences as a reflection of the earthly judgement of medieval legal practices.[ii] 

Within this interpretation the victorious Ecclesia and defeated Synagoga, represent the innocent and the guilty parties of the medieval courts. While their presence in the eschatological iconography of the facade can be interpreted as a depiction of the saved and the damned; the innocent and the guilty parties in God’s final judgement.[iii] This conclusion was confirmed by Bernard Nicolai in his 2002 article, Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach: The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal.[iv] Considering  the context in which the Strasbourg facade would have been seen, these studies concluded that within the right context Synagoga and Ecclesia could surpass their traditional roles as the personifications of Judaism and Christianity and depict the two spectrums of Christian morality; the sinful and the righteous; the damned and the saved; the guilty and the innocent.

     Although these studies were the first to consider Synagoga as more than a representation of the Christian theological conception of Judaism, they still limited Synagoga to the realm of Christian theology by interpreting her representation within the context of Christian salvation history and the Christian understanding of morality. However two recent studies have gone beyond this theological reading. The first of these was carried out by Sara Lipton.[v] In her article, The Temple is My Body: Gender, Carnality, And Synagoga in the Bible Moralisée, Sara Lipton presented a new reading of the figure of Synagoga. 

As the personification of the worldly and flesh oriented Old (Jewish) Law, Lipton presents Synagoga as a representation of the material world and examines the connotations communicated by her figure in the thirteenth century, Bible Moralisée which were illustrated Bibles, accompanied by an illustrated commentary.[vi] These Bibles took the form of a novel in order to present sacred texts and were aimed at a courtly audience.[vii]Instead of examining Synagoga in terms of her opposition with Ecclesia, Lipton examines the figure in relation to the medieval rhetoric of gender and through Synagoga’s relationship with male figures in the manuscript. In the commentary to several biblical passages Synagoga takes on various female stereotypes such as the Disobedient Wife; the Seductress ; the mourning Mother and the naive Daughter and the resentful sister. Depending on which of these roles Synagoga embodied, the figure altered from virtuous to sinful; from feminine to masculine to androgynous; from threatening to submissive and was transformed back again.

     From this analysis the article comes to the conclusion that Synagoga as a representation of the material does not condemn the body or earthly world but rather reinforces its importance and value. This study re-evaluates the previously held belief that the Middle Ages viewed the material and spiritual world as binary opposites with the former being seen as bad and the later as good. A conclusion Lipton illustrates by considering Synagoga's fate throughout the numerous commentaries.

    Nowhere in the commentary or accompanying text is Synagoga condemned or permanently ostracised. She is punished, buried, purged but ultimately redeemed. Synagoga and her corporeal nature are presented not as an antithesis to Christianity but as an integral part of the Christian identity; like women are an essential component of society. Sara Lipton believes that this conclusion is partially dictated by the nature of the Bible Moralisée and its intended audience. As luxurious material goods which were intended to be enjoyed for their material qualities, the Bible Moralisée in which Synagoga appears, praises the physical wealth which formed an integral and growing part of courtly life. Focusing on Synagoga’s femininity Lipton presents the argument that Synagoga’s female body can, in specific circumstances, be a representation of the complex relationship between Christianity and material wealth.

     Synagoga’s female body was also the focus of Nina Rowe’s recent studies. Began in a 2008 paper, Idealization and Subjection at the south Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral, and expanded upon in her book The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century, Rowe focuses on the appearance on Synagoga on cathedral facades, across central Europe, in the thirteenth century.[viii] Examining the opposition of the weak and beautiful Synagoga against the victorious and mighty Ecclesia, Rowe related the figure to contemporary politics and the social status of medieval Jews. She believes that the figures appearance communicated the imperial position towards the Jews. Under royal decree Jews were protected as their economic activity was vital to the wealth of the kingdom. However, Jews were also considered to be royal property. Attacking a Jew was viewed as a similar offence to attacking the King’s horse. Taking this into consideration, Rowe interprets the Strasbourg, Bamberg and Reims Cathedral facades in relation to the position held by the Jewish community within these cities and concludes that Synagoga communicated the ideal identity and social position of the Jew in thirteenth century Christian Europe;

“she is a servile yet integral member of the Christian milieu. Her beauty marks her as an insider within the ideal Christian system. Her decrepitude ensures her submission...she conveys the virtue of a Judaism that maintains a docile presence within the Christian domain.’[ix]

     This study does not present Synagoga as a representation of the theological Jew but rather the medieval Jew; the Jew who would cross the town square, under Ecclesia’s watchful gaze and nod a greeting to his Christian neighbour. Like Lipton related Synagoga to medieval attitudes towards the material world, Rowe interprets the figure in relation to the social position of the Jews in the thirteenth century.

     These two studies can be viewed as an indication of the future historiography surrounding Synagoga. Having considered Synagoga’s relationship to Christian theology, scholars are now beginning to examine the figure in relation to the culture which created her. As Rowe stated, “Synagoga is an abstraction,” a creation of the medieval culture. [x]  Consequently, she needs to be examined within the context of medieval Christian Europe and with respect to the contemporary understanding and conception of Judaism and the Jewish community or even beyond the boundaries of Judaism.

Contributed by: Monika Winiarczyk

[i] see: Otto Von Simson, ‘Le Programme Sculptural du Transept Meridonal de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg,’ Bulletin de la Societe des Amis de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg, Vol. 10 (1972), pp.33-50; Adolf Weis, ‘Die 'Synagoge' am Südquerhaus zu Straßburg,’ Das Münster, Nr. 1 (1947), pp. 65-80; Erler, Adalbert, Das Strassburger Münster im Rechtsleben des Mittelalters (Frankfurt: V. Klostermann, 1954)
[ii] Bernd Nicolai, ‘Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach. The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal,’ Gesta, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2002), pp. 111-128, footnote:70.
[iii] Simson 1972 p.37
[iv] Nicolai 2002 p.111-128
[v] Sara Lipton, 'The Temple is my Body: Gender, Carnality, and Synagoga in the Bible Moralisee' in Frojmovic, Eva, ed., Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other Visual Representation and Jewish-Christian Dynamics in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 2002).
[vi] Sara Lipton, Images of intolerance: the Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible Moralisée (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p.1; see also John Lowden, The Making of the Bibles Moralisées: The Manuscripts, Vol.1 (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2000).
[vii] Gerald B. Guest, ‘Picturing Women in the First Bible Moralisée,’ in Insights and Interpretations: Studies in Celebration of the Eighty-Fifth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art, ed. by Colum Hourihane, (Princeton: Princton University Press, 2002), p.106.
[viii] Rowe 2008; 2011
[ix] Rowe 2008 p.197
[x] ibid p.197

Monday, 11 February 2013

Material and Meaning: Umbrian Verres Églomisés

Figure 1
I find the study of materials and their greater cultural context to be a worthwhile method of understanding medieval art. Indeed, materials themselves offer indications of cultural practices from their inception and should not simply be looked over. In this blog post, I will focus on the cultural forces at work that centre on the use of verres églomisés in two Umbrian Franciscan reliquaries of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The business of relics, both metaphorically and literally, was shaped by the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1213 to 1215, formalising the adornment of relics through papal decree. So decreed, ‘ancient relics shall not be displayed outside a reliquary or be put up for sale’ due in particular to unscrupulous individuals who ‘display them indiscriminately. [1] Yet the choice of materials in these reliquaries may further be seen as grounded in theories of optics, which grant an essential understanding of Umbrian verres églomisés reliquaries in the context of the medieval mind. By considering the greater context of papal decrees, Franciscan theological interests, and medieval understandings of optics, Umbrian verres églomisés reveal the deeper significance of gilded glass, beyond such explanations of cost and speed of production.

A Reliquary Diptych (Figure 1) from the fourteenth century features the Nativity and the Crucifixion, with boxes of texts and smaller images of saints surrounding the central images. The smaller pictorial chambers contain relics, some visible through the glass. Text and images, in this instance those of St. Francis, St. Claire of Assisi, Mary, and St. Louise of Toulouse, inform the viewer of what this reliquary contains. Additionally, two pieces of the True Cross are prominently displayed. (Figure 2) Each chamber in the border contains either a verres églomisés or text indicating the relic contained within. This reliquary emphasises a variety of relics through text, offering them to the viewer for clear identification and visual consumption. The verres églomisés in turn protects and seals the relic safely behind the glass, much like rock crystal though less sumptuous. While the production of verres églomisés follows the papal decree, showing a concern for display of their new saint’s relics through increased viability at the cost of decreased accessibility, the materiality itself speaks to Franciscan concerns over sumptuous culture.

Figure 2
A brief explanation Franciscan politics in the thirteenth century bears examining to illustrate Franciscan devotional concerns in Umbrian verres églomisés. St. Bonaventure entered the Franciscan order in 1243, only twenty-one years after St. Francis of Assisi received papal support for the new Order. In his Major Life written on St. Francis, St. Bonaventure addresses the concerns of his Order, which lacked cohesion due to the absence of adequate writings of St. Francis in light of the changing needs of the Brothers under papal endorsement. By creating a new life of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure sought to unite the two factions of his Order, the Spirituals and the Conventuals. However, it was St. Bonaventure’s generalate and his letter to the custodians in 1257 that is of particular interest to the art historian. Due to Franciscan strict vows of poverty, issues regarding donations continued to be addressed by Order officials. In this instance, St. Bonaventure writes on everything from building material, liturgical tools, to the iconographic themes approved as ‘even here the choice of images was restricted to Christ on the cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, John, Francis, and Antony; if others were found, they were to be removed’. [2] Thus, the gilded glass with its visual references to enamel and rock crystal could be seen as poverty minded Franciscan expressions of more expensive reliquary practices.

The Umbrian Cross Reliquary (Figure 2) contains gilded glass, utilising only black and red, gold, parchment, and coral. The red is only used to highlight the spilling blood of Christ, calling the viewer's attention to the wounds of the suffering body of Jesus. The centrepiece of the cross is a verres églomisé panel of the crucifixion, above which is a relic of the True Cross. The sombre palette of the Umbrian Cross illustrates a leaning towards a limited application of adornment. While still sumptuous, the Umbrian Cross uses the verres églomisés rather than heavy enamel, as 'gilded glass itself was a cheap and quick way of achieving he effects of enamel'. [3] The Franciscan struggles over vows of poverty can be seen playing across the Umbrian Cross. By choosing a more illusionistic material, the reliquary is able to venerate the saintly remains contained within it while also remaining mindful of concerns over wealth and adornment. [4] Yet, the utilisation of verres églomisés also addressed medieval conceptions of optics.

The medieval theory of optics centres around two main understandings of light and the eyes, extramission and intromission. [5] Extramission was the earlier theory of optics stemming from Ptolemy's Optics. Extramission as a theory of vision posits that vision is formed by 'a visual fire emanating from the observer’s eye [as it] coupl[es] with light or fire coming from the perceived object'. [6] These rays are then brought into the areas of vision within the eye and head, creating an image of the perceived object. However, as the 'sensitive' rays emanating from the eyes would gather information, the process of seeing was conceptualised as innately dangerous and open to misinformation due to the viewer’s own lacking either spiritually or physically, while also created dangerous bodily concerns. 'For a proponent of extramission like Augustine, the senses are the dangerous open doorways reaching out to embrace cupidity, bridges between the world and body that have to be strictly guarded'. [7] However, extramission did give way to intromission through the writing of Alhacen's
Kitāb al-Manāzir in the 1030s. Alhacen Kitāb al-Manāzir turns Ptolemy's theory around and proposes that 'objects are seen by means solely of what they radiate to the eye'. [8] Working off of this model, Robert Bacon wrote on Alhacen Kitāb al-Manāzir's theories in his De multiplicatione specierum  in 1260, followed by Witelo's Perspectiva completed in the mid 1270s and finally John Pecham, just five years after Witelo, with his Perspectivac ommunis, all which brought Alhacen Kitāb al-Manāzir's theories to a wider audience. [9] These works brought intromission to the forefront of optics and the understanding of a visual spiritual communion. Vision was 'not only the noblest of senses, but the corporeal origin and requirement of intellectual vision. The necessity of vision for knowing God is granted by all commentators'. [10]  This receptiveness could allow divine grace to enter the penitent through the eyes, especially when viewing sacred objects. By adding this layer of understanding to the visual examination of verres églomisés Umbrian reliquaries, deeper religious concerns are highlighted.

Figure 3

In the article 'The Mass Production of Franciscan Piety' by Dillian Gordon, the production of verres églomisés in Umbria in the late fourteenth century is attributed to Pietro Teutonico and possibly a workshop either operated or influenced by his work. [11] The similarity in iconography, relic placement, and materials attributed to verres églomisés and reliquaries by 'Pietro Teutonico smacks of mass production'. [12] While repeated idiosyncrasies within the verres églomisés do unite the pieces, the concept of mass production of the reliquaries is problematic. [13] While Gordon proposes that the 'gilded glass itself was a cheap and quick way of achieving enamel', the choice of verres églomisés could suggest an interest in protecting valued relics, but restrainedly. [14] The Franciscans battled with egresses in vows of poverty since their inception, and the restrained materials could indicate this concern, as well as intra-Order politics. Furthermore, the repetition of idiosyncrasies with the iconography are more in line with medieval desires for repetition as ‘creativity was much more a matter of the use of sources, including existing works, within established forms’. [15]

The verres églomisés technique granted visual primacy to the relics contained within them by incorporating relics explicitly both in compositional arrangements and in textual markers denoting the type of relic shown. The decrees of Fourth Lateran gave some structure to the maintenance of relics, before which there were no express mandates on their adornment. The glass of the verres églomisés can be seen as a more modest form of rock crystal. The iconographic element, especially in the incorporation of Franciscan relics, ties the reliquaries to the Brothers Minor. This modesty
of materials could indicate an interest in maintaining a balance between sumptuous devotional objects and Franciscan ideals of poverty. Umbrian verres églomisés were more than mass produced devotional objects from a rapidly growing Order. Rather, their material and subject matter, when examined in light of medieval optics, papal decrees, and Franciscan concerns, reveals the verres églomisés reliquaries as intrinsically tied to efforts to understand divinity while honouring the Franciscan ideal of poverty.

Work Cited:

[1] Nuechterlein, J. 2005. ‘Hans Memling’s St. Ursula Shrine: The Subject as Object of Pilgrimage’. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions (Leiden, Brill Academic Publishers): 51
 [2] Bourdua, Louise. 2004. The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy (New
           York, Cambridge University Press): 24.
 [3] Gordon, Dillian. 1994. ‘The Mass Production of Franciscan Piety: Another Look at Some Umbrian verre églomisés’,  Apollo: The International Magazine of Art & Antiques, 394: 34
 [4] Even with the relative peace St. Bonaventure brought to the Order, Franciscan conflicts with vows of poverty continued. Bourdua, 2004, 25.
[5] Devons, Samuel. 1985. ‘Optics through the Eyes of the Medieval Churchmen’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 441: 210.
[6] Camille, Michael. 2000. ‘Before the Gaze: The Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing’, Visuality before and beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 204.
[7] Ibid., 206.
[8] Smith, A. M. 2004. ‘What Is the History of Medieval Optics Really About?’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 148.2: 182.
[9] Smith, 2004, 182-3.
[10] Hahn, Cynthia. 2000. ‘Visio Dei’, Visuality before and beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as  
           Others Saw (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 188.
[11] Gordon, 1994, 37.
[12] Ibid., 41.
[13] Ibid., 36-8.
[14] Ibid, 34.
[15] Hubert, Susan J. 1998. ‘Theological and Polemical Uses of Hagiography: A Consideration of Bonaventure's Legenda Major of St. Francis’, Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 29: 53.

Figure 1-2: Reliquary Diptych, ca 14th Century, Verre églomisé, painted and gilded wood, parchment, (open): 6 13/16 x17.3 x 22.3 x 4.6 cm,  (closed): 17.3 x 11.2 x 3.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17.190.982
Figure 3: Umbrian Cross Reliquary, ca 14th Century, Gilded glass, parchment, coral. S. Maria degli Angeli

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Equivocal Woman: Shifting Perceptions of Synagoga

     Synagoga and Ecclesia first appeared in the ninth century in Northern France and Southern Germany, where they were intended as representations of the Old and New Testament and personifications of Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Through their depiction in carved ivory panels, to stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations, the figures developed a distinct iconographical tradition, which featured prominently in the pictorial arts, contemporary drama as well as in Christian theology, appearing in commentaries, exegesis, and sermons.[i] For example, Ecclesia and Synagoga were the main actors in Pseudo-Augustine’s sixth century Sermo Contra Paganos, Judaeos et Arianos, (Sermon Against Pagans, Jews and Heretics) as well as central figures in the twelfth- century exegetical sermons of the French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux.[ii] The ubiquitous presence of the figures in medieval art and literature makes it almost impossible to engage in medieval studies without coming across Synagoga and her Christian counterpart.[iii]

     Any discussion of the figures must begin with a description of Synagoga and Ecclesia’s traditional iconography. In order to do so, it is perhaps best to turn to, what is acknowledged as one of the most celebrated examples of the motif; the south facade of Strasbourg Cathedral.[iv]

     On the right of the facade is the regal Ecclesia. Adopting a powerful stance, her legs are set wide apart as she throws her shoulders back in an upright posture. The heavy drapery of her robe gathers in orderly folds at her feet and she is the image of might and stability. Every movement of her body appears decisive and controlled as she tightly grips a cross in her hand. A crown sits firmly on top of her head and identifies Ecclesia as a ruling Queen. No aspect of Ecclesia’s appearance communicates inertia, uncertainty or any other weakness. Her power and strength are absolute.

     Standing across from Ecclesia, to the left of Solomon, is the figure of Synagoga. Although her beauty matches that of Ecclesia, unlike her counterpart Synagoga is the image of weakness and defencelessness. Her stance is weak and she is hunched over. Her movements seem uncertain and she appears to be slipping out of the design, with her elbows protruding beyond the facade. The drapery of her robe falls in a muddled pile at her feet, giving the impression that she may trip over it. Her frailty is further emphasised by the blindfold tightly wrapped around her eyes which represents the Jews inability to see Christ as their true Messiah. In her hand she holds the tablets of the law which are slipping from her grasp and tangled up within the holds of her robe; symbolising the Jewish attachment to the now obsolete Old Law. Like the broken staff in her hand, Synagoga looks damaged and defeated. She is isolated and turns away from the rest of the facade. Her only symbol of power was a crown, which is no longer visible, located at her feet.  It suggests Synagoga is the overthrown Queen who was once powerful but whose time has now passed. [v] 

     Together, Synagoga and Ecclesia represent the contrast of defeat and victory; of subordination and power and of despair and hope.[vi] This opposition of conquered and conqueror was a defining feature of the motif from the eleventh century onwards and creates a powerfully dramatic but also highly enigmatic image which begs further investigation.

     In light of her omnipresence and striking appearance, it is not surprising that since the late nineteenth century Synagoga’s flimsy beauty has inspired a wealth of literature and numerous interpretations.[vii] One of the earliest studies of Synagoga was carried out in 1894 by Paul Weber. His fundamental text Geistliches Schauspiel und kirchliche Kunst (Religious Drama and Church Art) studied the relationship between pictorial representations of Synagoga and her depiction in medieval drama.[viii] Weber’s study viewed the figure as the embodiment of medieval anti-Semitism. He concluded that despite the figure’s beautiful appearance, like the deformed male Jew of Christian art, Synagoga condemned medieval Jews. Therefore initially the figure was seen as a further manifestation of Christian anti-Semitism, reflecting the writings of the Church Fathers, such as John Chrysostom, who condemned the Jews and accused them of immorality and madness.[ix]

     This negative interpretation of Synagoga was questioned by Wolfgang Seiferth. His text, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, reached a more ambiguous conclusion.[x] Studying the development of the iconography of Synagoga, from the ninth through to the fifteenth century, he concluded that due to the allegorical nature of the figure it denies any concrete definition. Seiferth traced the use of the female allegories or personification to Classical Antiquity when female allegories would often be used within a historical context to represent ideas which they did not literally represent. [xi]  Using the example of the two female personifications of conquered lands depicted on the armour of the statue of Augustus at Prima Porta, Seiferth shows how multifaceted an allegory could be. Building of the argument that the meaning of the personification is volatile and strictly dependant on the context in which they appear, Seiferth concluded that when removed from the initial context the female personification could stand for anything.

     This interpretation draws from the classical understanding of the function of the personification as presented by Morton Bloomfield, who stated that the connotations of a personification are not determined by what it represents but the predicates that are attached to it.[xii] As such Seiferth presents Synagoga as a far more complex figure which reflected the dual nature of Judaism in medieval Christian theology.[xiii] While the Jews were accused of deicide and condemned they were also acknowledged as God’s first chosen people. This can be seen in the writings of the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux who adopting the fourth century ideology of St Augustine stated, ‘slay them not least my people forget.’[xiv] He believed that Jews should be protected as they are living relics of the Old Testament, and their conversion is a condition of the second coming of Christ. Thus he presented the Jews as playing a vital role in the past and future of Christian salvation history.

     For Seiferth, Synagoga’s allegorical nature could accommodate the various incarnation of the Jew in Christian theology. Therefore rather than interpret the figure as a positive or negative representation of Judaism, he believed that the connotations of the figure were directly related to the specific circumstances of her representation. A similar conclusion was reached by Bernhard Blumenkranz who believed that Synagoga could both condemn the Jews and communicate their position within Christianity and Christian salvation history. However, Blumenkranz believed that the downtrodden appearance of Synagoga, contrasted against the victorious Ecclesia always communicated a sense of subordination and while the figure may not have been a negative representation, it did present Judaism as inferior to Christianity.

     Ruth Mellinkoff’s study of medieval iconography supported this conclusion stating that the figures had a firmly established iconographical tradition which was intended on communicating the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Synagoga’s traditional attributes of a blindfold, slipping tablets of the law and a broken banner all communicate weakness which was emphasised by the contrast with Ecclesia who’s attributes of a crown and upturned chalice are indicative of power.[xv]

     These early studies focused on Synagoga and Ecclesia’s iconography in light of the Christian theological conception of the Jews; a conception which at times appears almost schizophrenic. While failing to agree on whether Synagoga was a flattering of damning representation of Judaism, all of these studies concluded that despite her beauty, Synagoga’s dissolute and defeated appearance communicated the secondary role attributed to Judaism in Christian theology.

     What these early studies have provided is a solid foundation for the examination of Synagoga. However, there is a limit to how much can be achieved through iconographical analysis which is only examined in relation to Christian theology. Although these studies are a logical starting point, this approach fails to acknowledge Synagoga’s prominence and also the complexity of medieval Jewish-Christian relations. In medieval Christian Europe “the Jew” was not a mystical creature only featured in theology; the Jewish community played a significant role in medieval society and like their Christian counterpart was influenced and shaped by social and political change. Simultaneously, Synagoga was not limited to theological contexts and clerical audiences. Featured on public spaces such as cathedral facades, which would have been visible to Christians and Jews alike, it is necessary to consider the possibility that the figures could have functioned out with the context of Christian theology.

     More recent scholarship has begun to take these wider considerations into account. Accepting the complexity of Synagoga’s iconography and the context in which she was displayed, scholars such as Sara Lipton and Nina Rowe are beginning to consider Synagoga’s multifarious nature more carefully. By building on the previous scholarly tradition, Lipton and Rowe are paving the way for a new chapter in Synagoga’s scholarship, whose contribution and significance deserves a blog entry of their own.

Contributed by: Monika Winiarczyk

[i] Wolfgang S. Seiferth, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, trans. by Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970), p.108; for example of drama see: John Wright, trans., Play of Antichrist (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1967).
[ii] St Augustine, Sermo contra judaeos, paganos, et Arianos de Symbolo, Migne, P.L. XLII, 1117-30 and  Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘Sermones Super Cantica Canticorum’ 14.2.4 in Opera, ed. by Jean Leclercq et al. (Rome, 1957-77); Migne Patrologia Latina 42, 1115-1139.
[iii] Nina Rowe, ‘Rethinking Ecclesia and Synagoga in the thirteenth century,’ Hourihane, Colum, (ed.), Gothic Art & Thought in the Later Medieval Period: Essays in Honour of Willibald Sauerlander, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) p.265
[iv] Nina Rowe, ‘Idealization and Subjection at the south Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral’ in Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. by Mitchell B. Merback (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p.179 and footnote 13 for list of example of Synagoga’s appearances on Cathedrals.
[v] This crown is no longer visible but the image shows a sixteenth century engraving which shows that originally there was a crown located at Synagoga’s feet.
[vi] Nina Rowe 2008 p.179 and footnote 13 for list of example of Synagoga’s appearances on Cathedrals.
[vii] See: Rowe 2008; Seiferth 1970; Nina Rowe, The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Bernd Nicolai, ‘Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach. The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal,’ Gesta, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2002), p. 111-128; Otto Von Simson, ‘Le Programme Sculptural du Transept Meridonal de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg,’ Bulletin de la Societe des Amis de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg, Vol. 10, 1972, p.33-50 and Adolf Weis, ‘Die “Synagoge” am Südquerhaus zu Straßburg,’ Das Münster, Nr. 1 (1947), p.65-80; Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: signs of otherness in northern European art of the late Middle Ages (Oxford : University of California Press, 1993); Annette Weber, ‘Glaube und Wissen-Ecclesia et Synagoga,’ in Wissenspopularisierung: Konzepte der Wissensverbreitung im Wandel, ed. by Carsten Kretschmann (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2003); Herbert Jochum, Ecclesia und Synagoga: Das Judentum in der Christlichen Kunst: Austellungskatalog (Saarbrücken: Museum, 1993); Cohen, E., ‘The Controversy Between Church and Synagoga in some of Bosch’s Paintings,’ Studia Rosenthaliana, Vol.18 (1984), p.1-11; Bernhard Blumenkranz, ‘Geographie historique d’un theme de l’iconographic religieuse: Les Representations de Synagoga en France,’ in Melanges offerts a Rene Crozet, ed. by P. Gallais and Y.J. Rious, 2 vols. (Poiteres: Societe d’Etudes Medievales, 1966), II, p. 1142-57; for discussion of Jews in medieval theology see Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (London: University of California Press, 1999), for example p.134.
[viii] Paul Weber, Geistliches Schauspiel und kirchliche Kunst in ihrem Verhaltnis erlautert an einer Ikonographie der Kirche und Synagogue: Eine kunsthistorische Studie(Stuttgart; Ebner & Seubert, 1894)
[ix] John Chrysostom, Logoi kata Ioudaion I.6, Patrologia Graeca 48:852
[x] See: Seiferth 1970
[xi] James J. Paxson, ‘Personification's Gender,’ Rhetorica, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), p.153.
[xii] Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘A Grammatical Approach to Personification Allegory,’ Modern Philology, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Feb., 1963), p.165.
[xiii] For discussion of Jews in medieval theology see Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (London: University of California Press, 1999)
[xiv] Robert Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p.37
[xv] Mellinkoff, Ruth, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, vol. 1 (Oxford : University of California Press, 1993), p.49.