Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Storied Matter

The past few days days have been a mess of eroding civil rights, further stratification, bad faith, false pieties, nasty politics, worse governing, and general awfulness. Here is an excellent analysis of why Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by our ignominious governor Mike Pence this past week, is so awful. Facebook has been alight with anger and frustration as our hopelessly jerrymandered state was twisted by its legislators into a place in which a business could now legally, in the name of its owners' religious "freedom" (ack! I can still barely write this nonsense), turn away an LGBT person. There's been much talk of "Christian florists" and "Christian cakemakers" as of course this is a right-wing response to the thriving of marriage equality. There's been tremendous protests, and businesses pulling out of the state and events canceled, and lots and lots of call for repealing the law. We'll see. I'm very cautiously hopeful: it's clear the people of the state don't want it, but the legislators (Pence foremost among them), all have their sights set on political careers that might benefit from snuggling with the extreme right. Fools. Hateful fools. Pence backtracked a mile this morning (even claiming that he "abhors" discrimination, that he was a Democrat (gasp!) in high school, and that he's been to Selma - Lord), so maybe, maybe there's a turn coming. Again, we'll see. In the meantime, everyday life here sucks: there was doubt and mistrust everywhere over the week-end, as customers and businesses both are trying to figure out who is what to whom now. Being straight, I can ask if a business is willing to serve LGBT customers with impunity - a nasty privilege. Being a decent human being, I can't believe we are having to deal with this idiocy. A bright, weird connection was made for me this week-end to the theoretical issues of a paper I gave this past week-end in Minneapolis (more on the conference in another post) on "storied matter." The term comes from Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann's brilliant introduction to the spectacular collection, Material Ecocriticism and prizes the "configurations of meanings" that emerge in the interdependence of material forms. I was thrilled to find a resonance with this idea in Linda Seidel's Legends in Limestone, in which she characterizes the tympanum of Autun as "material narrative" - memory and story moving into matter. For me, this week-end, in the very mundane act of grocery shopping, the intersection of storied matter and identity came into painful contact. The food I eat, the people I've spoken to casually these past fourteen years of living here, the businesses and restaurants I've frequented with friends, for projects, in the company of the kids - all of them exist on shifting ground now; all of them are taking on another layer of story. With not a little anxiety, I composed an e-mail to the farmer of our CSA, who is a very devout Christian who home-schools his children (a sign of conservatism if coupled with Christianity around here) to ask him about his intentions around the law. His eggs and vegetables totally matter to our family - I know that something so small and mundane shouldn't (especially as I am inspired to think of these things out of a paper on precious objects), but in their smallness and mundanity, they shape the reality of our everyday lives, they shape the trust of our bodies. Before I could send the e-mail, the farmer sent out an e-mail to his entire CSA and spoke gladly of love and of not letting legislators dictate Christianity to him, of providing for all and of Happy Easter. I think that there will be more moments like that than the other kind, and maybe I don't have to fear that our little (really little, 10,000 people) town will pull apart, will polarize around this issue. None of this is over, as the state legislation gathers to "clarify" the language so that it does not allow for discrimination. In the meantime, I felt apple, asparagus, and bread come alive differently beneath my fingers, as I wondered about the beliefs of those who brought them into being. There's an intimacy, to food especially perhaps (and I think of the trust that we all bring forward when we sit down to share a meal in public or in private), that is startling here - that was amplified for me by the intersection of "making and becoming" that I talked about in my paper. If you have an especially big cup of coffee, you are welcome to stay for the paper. Otherwise, just please hope that civil rights and human decency will prevail in Indiana.

“Declarative Materiality: Inscription and Artistic Process in Medieval Art” (I would now subtitle it: "Making and Becoming in Medieval Art")

"Letters are shapes indicating voices.  Hence they represent things which they bring to mind through the windows of the eyes. Frequently they speak voicelessly the utterances of the absent." When John of Salisbury made this declaration in his Metalogicon from 1159, he engaged the multiplicity of voices and identities involved in the experience of writing in the Middle Ages. By no means confined to the manuscript page, medieval letters projected the voices of authors, scribes, artists, patrons, supplicants, saints, and God himself from an array of surfaces including metal, stone, wood, ivory, and even gems. This dynamic of voice and materiality exemplifies what Jeffrey Hamburger, in his book Script as Image, has called "the plenitude packed into medieval representations of letters," (57).

In many instances, inscriptions on works of art spoke to the artistic process itself. For our work together, I have chosen two inscriptions from the High Middle Ages, one of an intimate the other of a communal scale, that are variants on a phrase of making: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN ("Alfred had me made") and GISLEBERTUS HOC FECIT ("Gislebertus made this"). These inscriptions will hold our attention because of the particular placement of the inscriptions upon the work of art, and what it might reveal to us about the act of making by the artist, and about the event of becoming for the image.

Both inscriptions occur at crucial transitional spaces of the art object: wrought in gold as its frame, or carved in limestone to frame two distinct spaces. Knowledge of gold-smithing, and sculpture are re-marked upon by the presence of the inscriptions, and consequently draw attention to the material process and boundary of the image. In occupying these liminal sites, the inscriptions, I will argue, collapse a series of binaries we have come to expect in art history, between subject and object, representation and presence, animate and inanimate, human and non-human, and material and discursive. The result, I believe, is a call for us to reconsider how being attentive to the making of images can provoke a welcome entanglement between artist, audience, and art. In seeking these moments of "entanglement" provoked by inscriptions, I am inspired by the language and ideas of the material ecocriticism of Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman, whose call for a materially shared existence presents a productive way to keep the making of art part of its perpetually emergent becoming – an art historical mode to which I will return in my conclusion.


The Alfred Jewel, betw. 871-899
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
During his reign from 871 to 899, King Alfred the Great of Wessex made a series of gifts to all the bishops in his realm to invigorate, some have said to instill, readership in his leading clergy. Accompanying King Alfred's own Old English translation of Pope Gregory the Great's Cura pastoralis (On pastoral care), each bishop received an aestel, a "little spear" from the Latin hastula – a pointer for reading. Designed to be both cradled in the hand, as well as slid along the surface of the manuscript page, this pointer guided the reader across the letters of sanctified writing and amplified the sacrality and authority of the text. This remarkable aestel is now known as the Alfred Jewel both for its material splendor and for its inscription reading AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN ("Alfred had me made").

The letters are both binding and boundary to a rock crystal from Roman antiquity re-carved to cover an enameled figure, long thought to be Saint Cuthbert, but now, through iconographic corroboration, more usually identified as the allegory of Sight. The wide eyes of the figure of Sight are amplified by those of a dragon whose mouth would have held the ivory, bone, or wood pointer that tracked the reading.

To hold the Alfred Jewel is to join hands with a master goldsmith working in 20k gold, a high level of purity of the material that indicates its import, most likely from the Middle East, Spain, or southern France. Anchoring his hold on the dragon's head with his fingers, and feeling the rock crystal hub of the aestel press against his palm, our bishop reader would have felt the aestel 's insistent, and wondrously transformative materiality, even as it guided his spiritual reading. The soft bumps of the meticulous filigree that ropes around both the bottom and the top of the inscription are reconfigured to become the texture of the dragon's skin in the filigreed surface of its head animated by the reader's gestures dragging the aestel across the manuscript page. The aestel is a "moving" work of art in all sense of the word: it is seldom still, perpetually engaged in the emergence of its own letters and forms, of the text beneath its pointer, and of its owner as reader.

The letters of the aestel themselves are not only molded in a proportionate harmony that stretches all the way around the rock crystal, they are also marked with interior lines to accentuate their volume and fullness, materializing their words in resonance with the materialization of the words enabled by the medieval practice of reading which called for enunciation out loud, in contrast to our silent reading today. Citing the notable difficulty and expertise of the craftsmanship, Ben Tilghman has suggested that the inscription be translated not only as "Alfred had me made" but rather as "Alfed had me worked" which aligns even more closely with the old English wyrcean (to work). The painstaking work of the aestel may be not just a sign of luxury, but also one of labor, and the legible, tangible traces of the artist's hand (in the expert work of filigree, re-carving, setting, sculpting, and inscribing) project an expertise and a labor of making. When considering only the static object stilled by a museum display, it is the aestel itself that speaks most immediately: "Alfred had me, the aestel, worked." But when the object emerges into its function as a pointer for the reading of valuable text, the experiences and identities of the artist and the reader are brought into play, and we can start to consider how the artist was "worked" or "made" by such an important commission; as well as how the bishop is being "worked" or "made" into the reader King Alfred desires (nay, ordains) him to be. The knowledge of the aestel, in its intimacy with the text, the knowledge of the artist, in his intimacy with the materials, and the knowledge of the reader, in learning the content of the sacred text become interdependent. Making is entangled with becoming; labor, effort, and expertise materialize as endeavors shared by the aestel, the artist, and the reader.

Fluid ontologies, in which one thing becomes another energize the poems that have come to be known as "Anglo-Saxon riddles." Written down around the year 1000, but in existence through oral tradition for generations before then, the riddles begin with one state of being of a material and traces it through its manipulations and manufactures as it becomes another entity entirely. Thus, Riddle 24 begins in the voice of the animal whose hide is used to make a manuscript and ends in the voice of the holy book that will save a man's soul. Throughout the poem, the "I" is constant, even though the identity is fluid. So, too, I am suggesting, the "me" of the Alfred Jewel fluctuates in identities, even as it remains the same making a distinction between subject and object (between artist, aestel, and audience) moot.

The effort of the aestel in being made, that of the artist in making, and that of the reader in becoming are entangled around the object so that, while here I can hold them apart through analysis, in the act and gestures of reading, making and becoming become enmeshed for all three. By picking up the aestel, the reader becomes a part of a community of readers, authorized by the king, sanctified by precious materials, and sealed by knowledge.


The tympanum of Autun cathedral was sculpted in limestone in the 1120s and 30s. Depicting a Last Judgment with a Heaven and Hell frenetic enough to provoke the cathedral's canons to plaster the entire surface over in the 18th-century, the material presence of bodies writhing in apocalyptic agony was too insistent even 600 years after their sculpting. Autun's tympanum continues to stir passions and provoke controversies,

few more passionate and controversial than what and whom are meant by the inscription GISLEBERTUS HOC FECIT ("Gislebertus made this") which succinctly wedged itself amidst the words of Christ at the Last Judgment. The 1999 publication of Legends in Limestone by Linda Seidel questioned, and some will say over-turned, the heroic narrative that a single artist is signified by the phrase, a narrative which had had traction since it was first suggested by George Zarnecki and Denis Grivot in 1960. Wresting "Gislebertus hoc fecit" from the status of a signature to that of an inscription, Seidel's research argued for the phrase carved into the tympanum as a "stone charter" within what she calls a "material narrative" – a heavily material inscription meant to evoke the name of the last Carolingian duke of the late 10th century in a region still tumultuously ruled by the Capetians in the 12th-century of the cathedral's construction. Medieval art historians have been grudging about giving up the unified identity of the "medieval Michaelangelo" as Gislebertus-as-artist had been dubbed. Gislebertus-as-ancestor is a much more fragmented identity, as Seidel's argument positions it, diffused across memory and history. But even, or I would say especially, as an inscription signaling a donor rather than an artist, "Gislebertus hoc fecit" speaks to the effort of making as it elides with that of becoming in the after-life.

As with the Alfred Jewel, though on a radically different scale, we stand before a work of art that announces the effort of its making. The figures of Autun cathedral still sway and stretch with detailed and unusual torment. There is writhing even in Heaven, as resurrecting souls cling to angels' wings in escaping the call of a trumpet of the Last Judgment, and seize the hands of St. Peter in a final plea. A particularly burdened angel is embraced around the hips by a desperate soul while hoisting another wriggling soul's insistently heavy "body" into the architecture of Heaven above.

One of the most poignant scenes in Hell performs the sculptural and acrobatic feat of positioning a figure on the supports of the Scales of Judgment, as he calls out (oh to hear those words!) to the Heavenly side, leaning against the scale, willing and weighing the scales to lean in St. Michael's favor against the grappling demons. In these scenarios of reaching and striving, the making and carving of the limestone sculpture is insistent in the weight and effort of the figures. Angels' wings are thick with stone; hopeful souls are heavy as rock; saints' robes stretch up in slabs. Once again, the effort of the artist is amplified, and identities become fluid, not by and with a reader this time, but through the yearning figures on display for a viewer hopeful or even fervent for salvation. The figures of Autun exist in the dynamic tension between the transcendence of reaching for Heaven and a world weighed down by pathos.

The stone inscriptions speaking the words of Christ in this heavy Heaven take on a significant role as the only element containing the emerging masses of resurrecting souls from their heavenly or hellish destinations. Christ is framed by his own words on the mandorla that encircles him: "I alone dispose of all things and crown the just, those who follow crime I judge and punish."

"Thus shall rise again everyone who does not lead an impious life and endless light of day shall shine for him" reads the inscription separating Heaven from the resurrection.

"Here let fear strike those whom earthly error binds. For their fate is shown by the horror of these figures" stretches out beneath Hell, at one point punctured by the grasping claws of a devil snatching a soul even before its judgment at the scales. These words become material in their enunciation, for as they are traced with the eye or read aloud by a voice, the internal rhymes of the disyllabic leonine hexameters of the inscriptions emerge.

·      Omnia dispono solus meritoque corono
·      Quose scelus exercet me iudice pena coercet

·      Quiseque resurget ita quem non trahit impia vita
·      Et lucebit ei sine fine lucerne diei

·      Terreat hic terror quos terreus alligat error
·      Nam fore sic verum notat hic horror specierum

As the visual space is crowded with figures, so the words around the tympanum are made thick with rhyme. In the midst of this structured, rhyming language emerges "Gislebertus hoc fecit" as a disruptive presence – neither rhyming, nor coupled, unattached, a signifier floating more than ever since Linda Seidel unmoored it from the heroic narrative of the solitary artist. Who speaks these words? Would Christ interrupt Himself in thundering his leonine rhyme? The time and place of the speaking remains open-ended, blurring distinctions of the here-and-now and the hereafter, stretching across past time and future time, sustaining multiple states of being. The Gislebertus inscription bridges words and worlds, collapsing human and divine time and space, and offering immediacy through the knowledge and insistence of its own heavy making.


These two brief excurses around inscriptions that speak (to) the making of their objects seek to expand our understanding of the artistic process in medieval art, not just in the act of creation, but in the lasting fascination with making and becoming. Inscriptions keep works of art "in progress" – they keep the act of making current and perpetual through their evocations of what I have called "fluid ontologies," those identities and states of becoming (of artist, audience, and art object) that gather around matter as it coalesces into event. In articulating the ideas of "material ecocriticism," Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman look to matter as a site of entanglement between what has been kept separate as the human and the non-human (building on the work of ecocriticism that seeks to undo the damaging binary of nature and culture). The gold, enamel, rock crystal, and limestone we have been discussing this morning constitute what Iovino and Opperman call "storied matter" – an "interchange of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites." (Material Ecocriticism, 21). When, in the solitude of his study, the bishop picks up his golden, enameled aestel encased in rock crystal and feels the edges of the letters of its inscription in his palm, he engages the king's favor, his own religious knowledge, and an intimacy with materials that join in the concerted effort of making him (into) a reader. When, in the narrow, crowded viewing space of the tympanum of Autun, the pilgrim looks up to the bodies of souls yearning within stone and hears the inscriptions read aloud to the community around her, she becomes entangled in the time and place of the here-and-now and the hereafter, her own knowledge of Heaven and Hell made vivid by weighty stone, and the potentiality of her being in salvation. "Storied matter," here as highlighted by inscriptions but with a multiplicity of possible applications to works of art, has great potential for art history in the Material Turn, as the field opens up the concept of making to include the "shared becoming" of artist, audience, and art.

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