There are few periods of time as misunderstood as the Medieval age. Previously labeled the “Dark Ages,” it was assumed that the centuries between the Roman era and the Renaissance were bloody, illiterate times, superstitious and miserable.
The scholarship on the Medieval ages has made considerable advances in understanding this era, revealing instead a book-worshipping culture, a period of great art and relative stability. The assumptions have been slow to dissolve, however, as a small controversy erupted in the academic community when the National Book Award and Pulitzer was awarded to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a book that relies on this misinformation and stereotyping in order to prove a point about the dangers of religion.
So it’s an interesting time for the arrival of the six-volume monster The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture. It’s a summation and updating of what we know about the artistic achievements and advances of the era, but it also uses art as a filter to examine life in the Middle Ages as a whole. By reading about cathedrals, you learn about the societal hierarchy. By reading about the great artist Simone Martini, you learn about religious philosophy. It’s an expansive work, beautifully constructed and illustrated, and while it in no way makes for light reading, it’s a treasure for a Medieval art enthusiast like myself.
I spoke with the encyclopedia’s editor Colum Hourihane, about the challenges of putting together such a massive project, and also why his book may serve to re-enlighten us about this era he has devoted his life to studying.
First, I wanted to ask how one begins to set parameters around a project like this. As you say in the introduction, the Middle Ages is the most sprawling era, encompassing a longer time frame than other artistic eras, like the Renaissance. So how does one decide where to start and where to stop?
It was easy to set the beginnings–we basically start at the earliest manifestations of religious art in the third century, art from the early Apostolic period as we define it. One of the biggest problems we had was trying to define the end of the period–what should and should not be included. The medieval period does not end uniformly across Europe and many artists changed styles in their career. Should they be included or excluded was a constant issue that faced us and it was done selectively. We tried to be as inclusive as was possible. I think that explains the addition of an extra volume from what was originally envisaged.
Obviously this is a reference book, and so the information has to be pared to its most basic parts. But there is always a passion that lies behind a specialization like this, and I was hoping you would talk a little more about that. What are your pet eras, the pet artists, the pet mediums in the book that make your toes curl?
Editing the book was a daunting but thrilling experience. There were many occasions when work could easily have stopped because we came across material that we were totally unaware of. We all learned so much in editing the work and not simply because of somebody else’s opinion but also in terms of coverage and material. There were frequently times when I had to stop reading for pleasure and go back to editing!
I particularly liked the coverage of the more tangential and lesser known fields and subjects. I never realized that the medieval world had so many "anonymous" masters. Seeing all of the individuals as one group made me aware that it is not so anonymous a period after all. I believe that this is the first occasion when they are all listed in one publication, covering every medium from metalwork to manuscripts and everything in-between. I very much enjoyed building on what my predecessors had done.
I became obsessed with Medieval art a few years back, thanks to Berlin's fantastic collections. And it's remarkable, the gap between the person who knows nothing about Medieval art, and the person who loves it. By which I mean, there are a lot of misconceptions. Such as, someone recently told me that everyone looks the same in Medieval art because "the concept of the individual had not yet been developed." And the variations I've seen in just the Virgin Marys would seem to negate that. Or, that Medieval art is flat and unaccomplished. But it seems like Medieval art isn't as immediate for the modern viewer as, say, Renaissance art. So I'm wondering if you've seen a barrier of understanding in Medieval art as well, and what those barriers might be.
I must admit I am unaware of that misconception! I've probably been in the field too long and love it too much! I think it has an unparalleled force and appeal to the viewer. It’s fascinating to see how it develops over time and how influences such as religion, politics, social factors influenced it. Even in images of the Virgin and Child, for example, there is such variety in the gestural language and coloration employed that no two are alike.
I know that Medieval art has recently been the subject of many television programs and lots of "popular" books which are certainly opening up the general viewer to the beauties of the field. It is, after all, an art that has left the greatest mark on the fabric of our lives–whether it is in the countryside with castles and abbeys or in towns where street patterns and buildings of the period still abound. Maybe it’s an art that we have come to simply accept without understanding it?
This collection is obviously not for the lay reader. So I'm wondering what you think a good introduction to Medieval art would be.
There is another series of paperback publications on the arts of the Medieval period, also published by Oxford, which are written by experts and cover different aspects of the art–all affordable and nicely written in a scholarly but direct style that I would recommend to anyone wanting to read more on the subject. The series is called The Oxford History of Art.
How did you select the color image plates that were going to be included? Those sections obviously could have gone on for days, perhaps becoming the seventh volume. What was the range you wanted to show in their inclusions?
We tried to include images of the familiar but also of the relatively unknown and attempted to cover as much as was possible in terms of material –from manuscripts to frescoes. Images are essential for such a publication as are drawings and ground plans and Oxford was very accommodating to our needs. One picture can tell a thousand words and our efforts were always to get the image that related to the textual entry.
And, finally, for a long time we considered the Middle Ages to be the Dark Ages–a rather backwards time in our development. But the more we learn about it, the more we seem to be surprised about its sophistication, its devotion to the arts and to books. There was a controversy with the National Book Award in the scholarly community, which recently awarded a book called The Swerve, that again characterized the Middle Ages as a violent, ignorant, illiterate time in history. Why is this misconception difficult to shake?
I think these volumes will hopefully go some way to countering that misconception! Since time immemorial we have felt a need to categorize and catalogue and unfortunately the Medieval period comes between the Classical and the Renaissance–as such it could never compare in popular appeal to those and had to be unfortunately characterized as dark and unknown. Just look at what was achieved in the Medieval period. It is not simply a precursor to the succeeding periods but represents one of the highpoints in civilization.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.