Monday, April 16, 2012

Fragmentation, Loss, Utopia

Arma Christi, c.1300
Prester John is only visualized when he is racialized.  I've only seen images of him once he is Ethiopian, later in his career within the Western imaginary.  His early days in India, chronicled in the letter from him that emerges in the 1160s, do not seem to have produced portraiture.  And so what's an art historian to do when she really really wants to teach the letter because a) it's awesome (that bed of sapphire!), b) Uebel's book about Prester John, Ecstatic Transformation, is phenomenal, and c) we need to tackle this issue of non-representation as much as that of representation?  The short answer is that instead of teaching images of Prester John, I presented images of the perception that Prester John produces: lists, fragments, discontinuities.  This move was much inspired by Uebel who treats the fragmentary and the discontinuous in his analysis of the insistent listing (of animals, monstrous races, gems, spices, palace furnishing, landscapes, and more) of the letter.  The more I read Uebel, the more I began to think of the "thrill of the fragment" so prevalent in medieval art.  The Arma Christi above are a simple (but thrilling) enough example: this is one of two pages that present the weapons used at Christ's crucifixion in a completely discontinuous framework that thoroughly fragments that narrative of the Crucifixion.  The sponge filled with vinegar that Christ was given to drink stands (lies?) next to the spear that pierces his side; the three nails that will enter his hands and feet are next to the chalice that will catch his blood.

Arma Christi, 15th c.
There are some extreme examples.  Yes, that's Malchus's ear suspended there, and a soldier's spit in mid-air, and that is indeed the wound of Christ now huge stretched out below (on the ground?).  I asked the students to articulate the experience, the process of looking at this image. At first, it was what it was not: it was not narrative, it was not connected, it was not linear.  Then they offered other terms: spaceless, timeless, suspended... in short (or so Uebel helped us see), utopic.  And this is where it got really exciting for me, being able to connect the fragment to utopia through the framework of loss. For what are these images of Arma Christi but a fragmentation of the Crucifixion, the loss of Christ's body and presence? One that must be compensated for in every Eucharistic performance, one that must be (yes) re-membered in every liturgy.

Stavelot Altar, c. 1175
And so the letter of Prester John is born from this dynamic of fragment, loss, and utopia, one that, for Uebel, defines medieval Christianity well beyond the dynamic as it applies to Christ. My students leaped: "Is the loss of the Garden of Eden then responsible for colonialism?"  (For Prester John, a Christian ruler in India descended from the Three Magi, was always already a colonialist - a product of the colonial imagination, conquering wondrous lands shimmering through fragments, promising a return to the West to enrich and protect it).  Colonialism is too righteous and complex a phenomenon to be explained that succinctly, but one does think of the repercussions of a fragment, loss, utopia dynamic.  Especially when we can see it, and imagine its performance.  We ended class with the Stavelot altar, a portable altar (for when you need to take your fragment, loss, utopia dynamic on the road).  Portable altars have always fascinated me: they carry (reduce, condense) much - namely, the entire liturgical and spatial framework of religious architecture. You're supposed to be able to consecrate a host on them, bring forth the body of Christ, recover the loss through the fragment in this utopia. As such, they are mystical (almost magical) objects themselves, containing relics, as the Stavelot altar does, beneath central crystals.

Adelhaus Altar, c. 875
Or presenting an abstract surface, as the Adelhaus altar does, its central space of consecration filled with the formlessness of porphyry - a resonant echo of Prester John's bed of sapphire.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I also am fascinated by Prester John's letter and have found Uebel's book thought-provoking. I especially love what you say about the importance of thinking about non-representation as well as representation. The fact that he's not imagined visually is actually as important as how he ends up getting visualized later. I think looking at images surrouding the texts is a great way to deal with the issue. And I think it's a good way to get at the fragmentation and loss that you discuss. Further, you might consider the way that the loss of Christ's body gets represented in medieval drama as well. If the quem quaeritis trope begins medieval drama, then the drama starts with a missing body. the Maries seek Christ and find an empty tomb. The meaning is in the the absense of Christ's actual body there.

    1. Hello Kristi - what a joy to discover your blog (, its beautiful writing, and your totally cool project. female travelers are already fascinating, but the watery element of oceans adds an entirely new force to the mix. thank you for the evocation of medieval drama in considering fragmentation and loss. I'm keenly interested in what happens when this loss goes "on the road" - when it travels (thus the altar and, now thanks to your comment, its theatricality, its performance, is ability to set the stage). we're reading John of Carpini and William of Rubruck tomorrow - those first missionaries in China in the 13th century. the images (and the theory) here are harder to come by, but these forays are too rich to pass up. something that didn't make the post is the phenomenon of the letter which (and Uebel points this out actually) itself has a dynamic of loss in the absence/presence volatility of the genre. I look forward to following your blog - and your travels!

    2. Thanks, Anne! It seems that you're teaching such a fascinating and valuable class, and also doing such interesting work. I've really enjoyed your blog, and I'm glad that you like my fledgling one as well.