Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chi Rho Page as Electrical Grid

The ChiRho page from the Book of Kells
I hope that Jane Bennett and Alfred Siewers have met because their ideas have much to say to each other. I combined chapter two of Bennett's Vibrant Matter, "The Agency of Assemblages" with Siewer's chapter from Strange Beauty, "The Cosmic Imaginarium," for our consideration of the idea of landscape in the Middle Ages.  This consideration was also nurtured by ideas of how art historians might reconceptualize medieval landscape (as something other than a lack, or Renaissance landscapes-in-waiting) that reside in a piece I really love by Walter Cahn titled "Medieval Landscape and the Encyclopedic Tradition" in Yale French Studies 1991 (geez, just grabbing the link reminds me of how rich that particular issue is).  I'm going to have time to highlight just two observations that emerged.  The first was applying Bennett's articulated assemblage of the electric grid to Siewer's choice image of the Chi Rho page.  In discussing the massive power outage of 2003, Bennett characterizes the electric grid as "a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood" (25).  And so, with Spinoza's affective bodies in mind, and with Siewer's idea of "the transfer of aesthetic responsibility from the artist to the viewer" (126), we began to wander the landscape of the Chi Rho page. Eyes, butterflies, skin, loneliness, hope, blood, cold, stone, quill, plant, orthodoxy, colonialism, Christ, perpetuity, power, sacrifice, pigment, otter, letter, curve, triumph, fear, voice.  There was more. I appreciated, in a total breakdown of the certitude of the outlook on the world/landscape of Vitruvian man (who, I admit, I have made a bit of our straw man), construction through accretion, rather than through design or implementation.  I had to let go of the art historical impulse to account for everything in the image, to explain all of the iconography, and instead be witness to what emerged in associations and connections. I had to move (ever-inspired by Bennett) from epistemology to ontology. I had to let the cosmic imaginarium of the students, when they allow themselves to be called into the Chi Rho page, do the work.  And even as I write this, I think of going back on Monday and filling them in on the cats and the mice and the Eucharist (the awesome Suzanne Lewis piece in Traditio), and I get excited to do so because of the perceptual work that will have preceded the iconographic work.  I think that I'm struggling with this tension (between the materiality of the image and the wealth of textuality I know to exist behind it) now, because I am aligning images and texts to write about about a work of art of especially vibrant matter, the choir screen at Le FaoĆ¼et. Perhaps I need to let myself wander the landscape of that choir screen as Bennett and Siewers invite me to. There's more to say here, but my own landscape stirs awake with children who have dreams to report and desires for their days.  What I would elaborate upon is Siewer's awesome idea of "inverse perspective" - of the landscape looking out at you, of you feeling called in. Here we go.


  1. Of course, this is a topic dear to my heart, but I love what you've done with it here. That page is inexhaustible.

    Last week, after a couple of frustrating meetings of my manuscripts seminar, I started the class off by showing them an amazing opening showing King James IV of Scotland at prayer, and we allowed ourselves to wander around it, to try to make sense of the weirdly pulsating system of visions, gazes, things, people, and words in the opening. The class took wing from there.

  2. Sharing this now with my Early Irish Art class, who will tomorrow give short accounts of encounters with other pages in the manuscript -- or rather with pages in the facsimile in our library: enlivened initials, holes and tears, tiny animals in the margins. We plan to spend the hour tomorrow looking and exploring together, and now I think we may start with your post. A lush landscape indeed!

    (oh and Ben, we are reading your essay, and Suzanne Lewis's, and Heather Pulliam's, too.)