Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Turning the visual stereotype into an object

First and foremost I have to say that this post is not going to make an argument, as it does not have a fixed point that I want to make. Instead it is rather a reaction to my most recent (and not yet finished) readings on Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) and the attempt to link this to my own point of interest. And like my reading, these thoughts are only at an early stage at the moment and probably speculative and somewhat experimental.

This being said, I have begun to wonder about the potential OOO bears to my own thinking and my own studies. With regards to my interest in the depiction of the Other, the obvious answer would be reconsidering objects bearing images of the Other such as manuscripts, maps or stained glass windows and considering them as agents in their own right. Though this consideration appears to be valid enough, I have been more enticed to contemplate the use of an OOO perspective for something that is abstract in its own right. The stereotype itself. Could we we consider the different stereotypes that came to being in the course of human history as objects? As 'invisible' objects, manifested in imagery, in writing? And more importantly, would this perspective on stereotypes expand our learning of the material?

Born in the discourses of identity, religion, politics and many more, every stereotype soon would outlive his parents. Different from its creators, the stereotype, however, is very resilient to death, it continues, adapts and evolves from generation to generation.

So far the most extensively studied Other of the Middle Ages is probably the Jew, or maybe rather, the 'hermeneutical Jew' to use Jeremy Cohen's term. The 'hermeneutical Jew' is a Christian concept that is not related to actual medieval Jewish populaces. The Christian image of the Jew in the early Middle Ages is primarily related to an Augustinian reading of the Jew as an acceptable and necessary part of the Christian world. As witnesses of Christian history, the concept of the Jew did not yet bear  the aggressive stance that developed in the beginning of the late 11th century. It was during this later periods that the Christian concept of the Jew took on the form of the murderer of Christ, enemies of Christendom, and associates of the devil himself.

Now, this is a rather rough sketch of the (or part) of the development of the portrayal of the Jew as the Other, however, I hope it suffices as an illustration. If we consider to ascribe agency to these stereotypes, the view we have on their developments may show changes in comparison to the traditional perspective. The image of the Jew stops being a concept developed by Christian society, being reinvented, changed. It abandons passivity. The stereotype itself becomes an active force in the discourse. The changes experienced by the image of the Jew suddenly are not so much results of the influence of contemporary social/theological/political and economical developments on the old concept. Instead these changes are due to a dialogue between the concept of the Jew and the social discourses. All of them taking part in shaping one another. In this instance, man does not change the concepts, but the concepts and man change each other. All active participants in a mutual development.

However, I do have do wonder, if there is possibly some danger in considering the stereotype/stereotypes as objects, as agents? I cannot help but think that this perspective also gives room for apologetics. Suddenly the human becomes a victim of the agency of the stereotype, A mere recipient, a locus of of manifestation for the stereotype, seemingly freeing the human of his responsibility and even free will. Yet OOO itself points out the falsity such an argument would have, after all there is no real passivity, the recipient is always an active agent in the act of translation, therefore far from free of responsibility. The application of OOO on the image of the Other, it appears, is an act that demands responsibility of the scholar in order to avoid the pit traps it bears regarding the material.

The stereotype as agent, therefore brings about the potential to present a new framework to consider the image of the Other, by viewing certain stereotypes in a larger context and as manifestations of a metaphysical agent that we can only see in its manifold physical translations. But is there anything to gain from this perspective? Anything new we can learn? Or is it just a new intellectual exercise for the inhabitants of the Ivory Tower to enjoy? To be honest, I am not entirely sure just yet, but it remains something I have to think about during my deeper journeys into OOO.


images: 1/Abraham’s burial, Fulda world chronicle,  Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda, Aa 88, fol. 52r 2/ wall painting in the Catherine chapel in Landau

Monday, 20 May 2013

Global + Middle Ages= Academic Innovation?

Catalan Atlas
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the term ‘global’ in relation to the Middle Ages. It is nothing new within the study of contemporary culture, but when applied to the medieval time period it seems to be the current hip catchall. In other words, the idea of using a ‘global’ perspective to delineate or enhance the current debates within the arena of medieval studies has come to be a means of academic innovation. ‘Global’ gives the medievalist yet another way to think, to contextualise, to (sometimes forcibly) fit their area of research in with everyone else who specialises in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the term comes with its own preconceptions and historical baggage that may make it more dangerous than helpful.

Last week I had the privilege of attending the yearly International Medieval Congress held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Of the seminars and events at Kalamazoo,  I attended a roundtable titled, ‘What Was Global in the Middle Ages?’. Since the premise of Beyond Borders is based on the concept of a globalised Middle Ages, I thought it best to see how other scholars define and incorporate ‘global’ into their own research. This is what I found: Confusion. Confusion about how medievalists can agree upon an overarching definition of ‘global’ that addresses all aspects of culture—European, Asian, African etc…

Catalan Atlas Detail 

Overall, I did not find that each panellist had difficulty in applying the concept of ‘global’ within their respective field, but I did find that these applications did not correlate with each other. This led me to wonder—is the concept of ‘global’ so subjective that it applies only to certain areas in different ways, thus making it another alienating factor in the scholarship concerning the Middle Ages? ‘Medieval’ refers to a Western time in history, a time that does not coincide with other cultures or places in the world, for example China, the Middle East and Africa. This leads us to consider what the Middle Ages or medieval means in reference to these cultures, and furthermore, does the aspect of a ‘global’ Middle Ages even fit into their historical repertoire? As you can see, the questions that arise when one considers the ‘global’ Middle Ages becomes cyclical and thus moot. So then, what is the point besides making scholars more painfully aware that we don’t know all the answers and that we too sometimes can be so engrossed in our own specialisations that we become a metaphorical embodiment of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ when asked to consider a medieval global perspective.[1] How do we cope when faced with the task of analysing our specific area of research from another perspective when there isn’t a clear definition of how one should approach such an examination and more importantly what this examination actually means?

Catalan Atlas Detail

I do not claim to have the answers to any of these queries, but I can offer what a ‘global’ perspective means to me as a scholar of magic in the Middle Ages. When I began my studies in Art in the Global Middle Ages at the University of Edinburgh, I considered myself an Islamic art historian who was concerned with pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions of magic. However, as my research evolved I found that my examinations began to, but more importantly needed to, include other cultures’ traditions as well. Let us take the magic square as an example. Within the Islamic traditions of magic is the use of the magic square, but the magic square did not originate as an Islamic tradition, it was a Chinese tradition that spread to India and the Middle East and so on. Hence my analysis of the magic square in reference to ‘Islamic’ magic led me to consider its origins in order to better contexualise its use within an Islamic context. This example does not apply to cultural studies across the board, but it does provide an insight into how ‘looking at the bigger picture’ or thinking ‘globally’ can actually improve scholarship that is relegated to one particular culture or part of the world. Non-Eurocentric expertise does not make a scholar ‘global’, but instead the act of taking the activities of other cultures into account, to me, leads to a well-rounded or ‘global’ perspective. These activities may not directly translate into ones own work, but it may inform it in a broader context. 

Thus, when used with care, the term 'global' may suggest a conscious interpretation of the activities and traditions of other cultures, which not only applies to the enhancement of contemporary scholarship, but to the scholarship of the Middle Ages as well.


[1] This is in reference to Ricky Gervais’s and Stephen Merchant’s acclaimed television show ‘An Idiot Abroad.’ 


Monday, 13 May 2013

Fact, Fiction, & Theory: An Analysis of the Ceiling at Rosslyn Chapel

It is time that Beyond Borders discusses one of the more controversial subjects in academia and popular culture: Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Since the book's release in 2003, the internet has been booming with those debating the facts in Brown's novel. I have to admit that I am a HUGE Dan Brown fan and have been scanning through ten years of articles and blogs on the book. I have read theories involving everything from sacred geometric music theory hidden within decor, to the fact that Rosslyn Chapel is a space ship  that is bound to launch into space upon the second coming of Christ (I kid you not!). As the end of my school year approaches, I feel the need to step away from the traditional academics I've been teaching and write a post questioning the facts and fantastical fiction of this novel. 

Dan Brown states in the cover flap of his book that his work is a blending of fiction and historical fact. This is the subject I wish to discuss today—fact, fiction, and theory.  I had the pleasure of visiting Rosslyn Chapel while residing in Edinburgh and it was here that I first began investigating Brown’s story-line on a more academic level. In this post, I will briefly discuss Brown’s plot points, and follow with a theoretical investigation of the Rosslyn Chapel ceiling. This study has allowed for an exploration into a fictional story that I have enjoyed for many years, but has also led me to question how much of this story fact and how much is fiction. 

My research began with a small publication on the chapel by the Earl of Rosslyn, a successor of the St. Clair family. This is the same St. Clair family Brown named as the descendants of Christ in his book. This theory has yet to be proven, but the St. Clair family does have ancestral connections to the Templar Knights. One aspect of  Brown’s theoretical fiction is thus revealed: The St. Clair’s are descendants of Christ, and later had family members that joined the Templar Knights, or perhaps the more ‘shadowy’ sector of the Templars, the Prieuré de Sion (Priory of Sion), who Brown suggests protect the treasure of Christ—his bloodline, which was continued through a child produced by Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In reality, the Prieuré sought the great Roman treasure hidden at Solomon’s Temple. Although a wonderful aspect of the story, the only factual piece of information is the family’s Templar lineage. There is no evidence of the St. Clair Templar Knights being members of the Prieuré, or that they knew of a secret bloodline of Christ. The Templars were, for those of you unfamiliar with their history, nine French knights that were asked by Baldwin II of Jerusalem to protect Christian pilgrims travelling in the Holy Land. Their numbers grew greatly until the early fourteenth century when the group was persecuted for crimes of heresy. According to the Earl of Rosslyn’s historical recollection, “lodgings were provided on the site of the former stables of King Solomon, beside the site of the ruined temple.” As discussed in a previous post, Dome of the Rock is often thought to be the sight of the former Temple of Solomon and was also a home to the Romans. This fact is significant as it was thought that the Prieuré de Sion’s aim was not to protect, but to find the lost treasure that the Roman emperor Titus left hidden at the sight. The conflicting factor in this is that Dome of the Rock is a seventh century creation. Perhaps the ruins of Solomon’s Temple were still present on the esplanade during the Templar occupancy, but since we cannot prove this, the Solomon and Templar manifestation on the esplanade is questionable. The site of Solomon's Temple is equally as questionable as the treasure that was hidden there. As suggested by Brown and others, the supposed treasure was brought by Sir William de St. Clair, a Knight Templar, back to his home from the East. William is said to have built Rosslyn as a safe-house for his treasure. Many have suggested that the great Templar treasure is buried in the basement of Rosslyn, but that has not been confirmed as no one, including the St. Clair family, has entered the underground compartment in years.

Being that this tale leaves the world with many "maybes" and "what ifs," the best I can do is contribute to the architectural analysis of Rosslyn Chapel and hope that my suggestions are taken a little more seriously than the "space ship theory" previously mentioned. What I would like to propose today is that the Rosslyn Chapel ceiling is a series symbols in reference to the sacred feminine, and ultimately the Virgin Mary, the figure to whom the chapel is dedicated.

The ceiling is a numerologist’s dream. The features are more symbolic of the Virgin Mary verses Brown’s featured Mary Magdalene, but a reference to a female, or a “sacred feminine,” still follows Brown’s storyline. The ceiling is divided into five sections featuring a variety of floral and star patterns from east to west. The patterns are set as follows:

1.      Four-Petalled flowers

2.      Multi-lobed leaves with four-petalled flowers

3.      Double roses

4.      Lilies

5.      Stars

The division of the ceiling into five sections may be a reference to the star shape in section five, a common symbol of Venus or the sacred feminine. Among the stars of the fifth section are angels, the moon, the sun, a dove, and in the bottom right hand corner, the face of Christ raising his hand in blessing. Christ’s blessing may be over the viewer below, or perhaps he is blessing the intermingling of male and female, which are represented as the sun and the moon.The image of Christ among the stars may also refer to five wounds of Christ, represented in each point of the star. 

The foliage of the four remaining sections are Christian symbols of the Virgin and other sacred female characters. The lily is a symbol of chastity and is often seen in the hands of either the angel Gabriel or the Virgin in Annunciation scenes. The rose is open to several interpretations. The rose has been a significant symbol since the Ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, the mother of Horus. Isis has often been linked to rose imagery and also shares the planet and floral symbol with the Greek goddess Venus. In the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary was known as Santa Maria della Rosa. Being that Mary was a rose, Christ was her heir and also a rose, hence the idea of a “rose line” and Brown’s connection to “Roslin,” the name of the town, or “Rosslyn,” the more common spelling for the chapel. Brown also uses the ancient “sub rosa” in his novel, a reference to the Romans who hung wild roses on the doors where confidential conferences took place. The borrowing of this term and the idea of the rose as a symbol for Mary allowed for the creation of the secret of the bloodline lying “under the rose.” Others have suggested that the remaining flowers are perhaps daisies, sunflowers, or marigolds. Daisies were a preferred symbol for Christ’s purity in the late Middle Ages (after the completion of the chapel) versus the regal fleur de lis. Sunflowers were a reference to “the son of God,” though I believe this assumption to be less tangible as the sunflower is not native to the British Isles. I do, however, like the marigold reference as it is a continuation of the sacred feminine and Virgin Mary theme. Marigolds are thought to derive from the term “Mary’s gold,” a reference to the gifts Mary gave to the poor who did not have actual gold. The identification of these flowers is theoretical, but I find the marigold the more applicable of the suggestions being that the chapel is dedicated to the Virgin.

What I can conclude from this study is that Dan Brown did his homework. His thorough knowledge of history, art, religion, and symbolism allowed for his creation of a semi-believable plot line. How far the facts within the novel go will be deliberated with further study, but for now, I recommend you simply enjoy the book for what it is—a blending of history and fantastical fiction.