Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Everything and More

Annunciation, 1400s.
The meeting with Jim the geologist and Dan the chemist was terrific. This vivid (look at the breath of God!) alabaster Annunciation from the Philadelphia Museum of Art will help here. What is this profound thrill of newly gained knowledge? What is this fascination with things scientific? There are vague stirrings of a love felt in high school, but it sadly was not pursued.  Now, every piece of scientific information is hopelessly (but wondrously) aestheticized.  SEM images of alabaster? Breathtaking in their intricacies in revealing the structures of the (many) minerals involved in alabaster.  Specularity, heat capacity, hardness scale - all of these frameworks make alabaster more alive, more giving, more fascinating every minute.  Key words as I keep thinking about this: porosity, permeability and calcium.  Alabaster is a 2 on the hardness scale (where talc is a 1 and a diamond is a 10), and in that number lies its malleability.  Alabaster is truly an open stone: it registers a 2 on this hardness scale because it is porous and permeable. Some stones are just porous (lots of open spaces within its structure). Alabaster is also permeable (the connections between the open spaces allow other elements (for us, pigment, gold gilding) to flow through.  The pleasure of this paper will be to struggle to find the language that binds scientific insight with historical action.  Medieval sculptors of alabaster didn't think in terms of porosity and permeability- what were their terms?  I may or may not be thinking of only language here - there is trial and error in seeking a stone that "gives in to" or "works with" (what words will I choose) the human touch. I will be inspired by Jeffrey Cohen and Valerie Allen who invited touch by giving small stones as hand-outs in conference talks, and who first inspired the possibility of thinking of the liveliness of stones. Another part of the joy here will be to witness the transference of these ideas from medieval literature to medieval art. Every object in the world has heat capacity: how long it takes from heat energy to transfer from one thing (the flesh of the human hand) to another (stone).  Alabaster's is rapid.  It responds, acknowledges human touch, welcomes (?) human intervention, avails itself to complex minerals like vermilion, takes in absolutes like gold.  At some point, in some way, medieval sculptors figured this out, and their patrons loved it.  In those years between roughly 1300 and 1550, patrons relished the fleshy, emotive materiality of alabaster: there is an argument to be made for an emotional iconography driven by alabaster's materiality: the 97 heads of John the Baptist that remain bespeak (all too vividly) the theatricality of the stone: the blood of the saint is limpid and his flesh warm to the eye.  The Duke of Burgundy's alabaster mourners are treasured for what are surely their hot tears.  The fullness of the lilies stirred by the golden breath of God in the image above is met in the promise of the Virgin's open hands, in the swags of drapery around her ready belly.  And Gabriel's stunning peacock wings, their vibrant red still embraced by the complex chemical structure of the alabaster after all this time, seem to have just folded.

And then calcium, and its revelation, I'm persuaded, of a medieval knowledge of materials and what they can give.  Alabaster, a.k.a gypsum, is a combination of calcium, sulfur, oxygen, and water: thus the beautiful hieroglyph: CaSO42H2 (dang, can't do subscripts here, that's where you'd put the numbers).  Lots of calcium there.  What I need to ask my colleagues is whether or not calcium is "responsible" in some way for the porosity. For guess where else calcium shows up in huge amounts? Ivory. Calcium phosphate to some. Favorite medieval carving material to others. Hardness level? 2.  This calcium commonality may be a bigger whoop for us moderns, because it likens two separate disciplines - we realized we needed a vertebrate biologist at the table when ivory emerged.  A medieval sculptor existing within no such disciplinary divides could desire both equally for their give to touch, pigment, and gold.  I'll confess that it's the presence of calcium in the human body, too, that thrills me here.  A chemical commonality that reformulates these works of art as material extensions of the human.  Or human participation in their materiality.  Scientific facts, medieval practices, modern desires - let's see how this goes.


  1. Need I even say I love this? I am doing a similar collaboration with a scientist (a geologist who specializes in the terrains of distant planets) as a plenary for the next BABEL conference, and you've provided quite a model for what such a collaboration might yield.

    Also: stop writing a better version of my book!!

    And last, it has been remarkable for me to learn how much of the stone on earth owes its genesis to previously living creatures. Jan Zalasiewicz's The Planet in a Pebble is a great book on this topic.

  2. This is so cool, and exactly why I can't wait to get settled into a college where I can make friends with people in other fields.

    It brings up a question I've been turning over: was there a medieval distinction between organic and inorganic? I haven't seen any sign of it, but I might just not have come across it. But if not, they probably saw alabaster and ivory as quite a lot alike - perhaps more so than we've been used to seeing them.

  3. You do me great honor! Jeff, I remember sitting in that Kalamazoo taxonomies session and starting to wonder absolutely anew about _carved_ stone, and about what happens conceptually as an entity moves from stone to sculpture, about all of the medieval miracles in which the sculpture goes one step further and comes to life. The challenge of language here is so thrilling - how to say these things with/between the languages of the sciences and the humanities? I am continuously inspired by your writing (and your generous sharing of its progress) - as ever (is this fair, Ben?) the perspective of the art historian will be myopic - I love knowing that you're on the terrain of distant planets while i'm looking at the Virgin's belly or a drop of John the Baptist's blood! Materiality, sweet materiality! another grand thing i discovered during that lunch is that alabaster is the result of dried up oceans - its mineral structure comes from the residue of organic forms in the sea. this speaks volumes of Nottingham and its alabaster quarries, but apparently there are alabaster deposits beneath the Mediterranean, which indicates that the Mediterranean has dried up and refilled over the millions of years. !!! What wound up happening at the end of the conversation (and i realize will happen more and more as I work with wonderful, passionate scientists like Jim and Dan) is that the lines blur - between organic and inorganic, between stone and ocean organism - as you shift your approach and your perspective. this alabaster-ivory-calcium thing is enough to make an art historian who loves emotive sculpture happy for years! thank you both for these comments - and Ben, from what I hear of your fantastic teaching, it won't be long before you're settled in somewhere!