Observation and Image-Making in Gothic Art

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Jean Givens demonstrates how medieval image making offers new insights into the syntax of visual communication and the function of descriptive art in both sacred and secular contexts. In defining late medieval visual communication strategies, Givens reveals the various modes of organizing and displaying knowledge. Her study of the working practices of medieval artists challenges many assumptions about pre-modern science and art, especially the notion that descriptive art is a natural response to scientific empiricism.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'This is a thoughtful but rewarding book, especially for anyone interested in the Middle Ages …'. W. D. Spence, Yorkshire Gazette and Herald

'… one of the great strengths of this book is that it gives an idea of the connectedness of medieval visual culture. The reader comes to see that carved stone leaves, a painted elephant and a set of architectural diagrams might have more in common with each other than it would seem at first sight … Givens pulls together her many examples and ideas to argue … a reconsideration of, among other things, the relationship of the visual to the verbal as means for communicating information, of the ways that an image can relate to the object or phenomenon that it describes or depicts, and of the making and use of naturalistic or descriptive images within medieval culture … provides much more than an account of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artistic practices … Givens shows the value of a broad and interdisciplinary view of medieval visual culture, and of keeping an open mind when looking at images that might at first seem unrealistic.' British Journal for the History of Science

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521830317
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 231
  • Product dimensions: 6.85 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Jean A. Givens is associate professor of art history at the University of Connecticut. A scholar of medieval art, she has received fellowships from the J. Paul Getty Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Samuel P. Kress Foundation. She has contributed to Gesta, the British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions, and the volume Medieval Gardens.
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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521830311 - Observation and Image-Making in Gothic Art - by Jean A. Givens


THIS PROJECT WAS LAUNCHED BY THREE DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE QUEStions. Did medieval artists work from the firsthand observation of nature? How would we know? And why does this question continue to attract the attention of scholars? Surprisingly perhaps, the last of these questions is the easiest to answer, for the proper relationship between artistic practice and the observation of nature has been debated for centuries. In his first-century Natural History, the elder Pliny observed that it is "Nature herself, not an artist, whom one ought to imitate." Moreover, since at least the sixteenth century, the observation of nature has been described as one of the defining characteristics that separate "Renaissance" from "medieval" artistic practice. As important, scholars in other fields frequently have internalized these art historical tropes and with them, some very durable assumptions about the use of images as tools of visualization and agents for the transmission of visual knowledge.

This project begins and ends with the lively and varied carvings of plants that art historian Nikolaus Pevsner memorably called The Leaves of Southwell. Their unexpected verve notwithstanding, the Southwell sculptures are not unique. Vividly observed leaves, fruits, and flowers are the ornamental focus at other mid- and late-thirteenth-century sites such as York Minster, Exeter Cathedral, the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris, Reims Cathedral, and Naumburg Cathedral, to name just a few of the more notable locations in England and on the Continent. As at Southwell, the sculptures at these sites frequently picture individual species with remarkable precision. Moreover, as demonstrated here, other painted and carved images of much the same date similarly highlight the distinct and particularized physical details of curiosities, birds, beasts, and seemingly individualized human subjects. As virtually every scholar interested in this topic has noted, a few often-cited thirteenth-century sketches also are inscribed with the artists' claims to have worked "from life" or from "the actual model." These comments have been thoroughly debated, but they rarely have been taken at face value (nor should they be). Even so, they confirm the existence of a medieval dialogue concerning the artist's working methods and the authority of visual imagery.

Any discussion of medieval observation and image-making exists within the context of long-running debates concerning descriptive art. The first of these brackets mimesis and the visual arts, specifically the relationship between descriptive facility and artistic achievement, whereas the second opposes "medieval" schematism and "Renaissance" naturalism. In an effort to move beyond these still powerful, if increasingly tired formulations, my strategy here is to expand the frame of reference by offering a wide range of images and image types as evidence of observational practice and by differentiating a series of representational modes. Examination of medieval visual and verbal testimony regarding first-hand knowledge as a basis for image-making leads naturally to discussion of the functions served by medieval descriptive images. At the same time, the fundamental issues discussed here - the ways images reveal their facture and the analysis of the relationships between visual knowledge and the transmission of that knowledge - extend this project's scope well beyond the medieval period.

As a study of craft practice, this essay does not pretend to exhaust the topic. Rather, it is a work of synthesis that builds upon a number of suggestive examples to develop an argument concerning images and their relationship to the world as seen. It focuses on thirteenth-century and early-fourteenth-century England, France, and, occasionally, Italy, precisely because the art of those periods produced more testimony concerning images and observation than the preceding medieval centuries. Some might protest that thirteenth-century imagery is not entirely typical of medieval artistic production or that image-makers in that period were beginning to register the sorts of historical and cultural changes that produced what traditionally has been referred to as the "Renaissance." In response, this essay probes, and ultimately discards this central, enabling distinction between medieval and Renaissance art, and it similarly rejects the assumed primacy of high art on which this familiar duality is built. Demonstrating the interpretive value of a more inclusive range of visual productions, this study presents diagrams used by scholars, maps that served land managers, and pictures of creatures both seen and imagined by healers as evidence of the medieval artist's working methods.

This project is founded on a very full awareness of just how difficult it is to override a lifetime of experience to see what sits before one's eyes. In a study of Leonardo's drawings, James Ackerman framed this opposition in terms of "optical" and "conceptual" rendering: the contrast between an image as it is known to be rather than as it appears at a specific time and place. Ackerman's terminology might easily be taken to imply a competition between the brain and the eye, but this would be a gross simplification of his nuanced readings. As argued here, however, specificity of visual reference - Ackerman's "optical" imagery - implicates a directed kind of looking, one that supplants normal, adaptive behavior. What art schools generally refer to as life-drawing requires the artist to overcome a lifetime of experience in which generalizing, scanning, and selection is normal, indeed, essential adaptive behavior in a world that requires the quick absorption of visual information. In contrast, picturing a specific object or person requires a pace and a kind of inquisitive looking that is unique to the enterprise of making an image from the observation of life.

This study owes a special debt to William Ivins's analysis of the effects of copying on the transmission of visual information and the implications of viewing images as "containers for information." Ernst Gombrich's investigations of visual process and Otto Pächt's study of descriptive observation similarly formed this project from the start. When it comes to the complex and contingent relationships between function and representational codes, the commentaries by William Clark, Madeline Caviness, Michael Camille, Nicola Coldstream, Veronica Sekules, James Ackerman, Claudia Swan, and Paul Binski have proved invaluable. As important, historians of science such as Peter Murray Jones, Linda Voigts, and Karen Reeds have clarified the historical understanding of images as tools of scientific inquiry in ways that are essential to the conclusions and to the methodology sketched here.

This essay addresses the process of looking as well as the semiotics of descriptive rendering by asking how and in what ways medieval viewers may have exploited the potential of visual imagery. To the extent that visual representation provides access to modes of organizing and displaying knowledge, medieval descriptive observation offers a remarkable case study of both artistic practice and the traditional interpretive means of art history. As argued here, the decision to make a descriptive image registers an image's function and its intended audience. The insights offered by medieval image-making apply to the art of other times and places by refining our sense of the syntax of visual communication and, by extension, the functions of descriptive art in both sacred and secular contexts. If this inquiry permits us to see the medieval images surveyed here afresh by clarifying and refining the vocabulary we apply to such works, then it will have achieved its goal of characterizing the still broader relationship between observation, naturalism, and the capacity of images to inform.



At Southwell a degree of truth to life is reached which never between the first and the thirteenth century had been attempted in the West.

-Nikolaus Pevsner, The Leaves of Southwell.1

WHEN ARCHBISHOP JOHN LE ROMEYN OF YORK ISSUED A DECREE ON the 25th of January 1288 concerning the financing of a chapter house at Southwell Minster, he invoked his authority to provide a structure appropriate for the canons - a body that would come to include such notables as a future archbishop of York and an intimate of King Edward Ⅰ.2 Elaborately vaulted, glazed, and ornamented with sculpture, the chamber that was ultimately provided for the deliberations of these worthies signaled the chapter's pretensions in a manner typical of the finer productions of English sacred architecture of the late 1280s and mid-to-late 1290s3 (Fig. 1). This point would not have been lost on the canons. Much of the elegant detailing is positioned at eye level where it would have been clearly visible to them. A gabled arcade frames the meeting chamber and forms seats for the canons; another arcade lines the vestibule that links the chapter house to the north aisle. Sculpted capitals and figural endstops articulate the wall surface along with the shafting of the tracery and blind arcades, and still more ornamental carving edges the gables and the doors leading from nave to vestibule and from vestibule to meeting chamber. Romeyn's chapter house also rewards sustained viewing of the sort that almost certainly took place during the canons' meetings; and when we look closely, we see (as the canons must have seen) that much of the ornament is composed of sculpted leaves, fruits, and flowers that often can be identified as the plants of the English countryside, both then and now. The medieval chapter of Southwell Minster debated lofty business, including penance for the brethren and management of the estates, in a setting that resembles a leafy bower.

Architectural ornament, including the carving of capitals and moldings that are as much structure as decoration, normally figures as a minor subject in standard histories of medieval art, often simply as a diagnostic tool for dating.4 That said, the sculpture at Southwell has attracted more than its share of attention, less for the grand effect surely envisioned by the chapter than for the manner in which the carvings picture natural subjects and the questions they stimulate about their medieval making. Rather than the stylized ornamental vocabulary derived from classical types, the Southwell chapter house features:

oak, maple, vine, may, rose, hop, fig, etc., delicately carved in exact imitation of nature...as if leaves with their stalks had been plucked from the trees or plants, glued on to the bells and petrified there. The work is so cleverly done that it almost disarms criticism, and it has sometimes been regarded as the most beautiful and perfect type of Gothic foliage. Against this, however, it must be urged that they are in the nature of applied ornament rather than architecturally part of the building. They suggest a temporary adornment like beautiful clothing which is removable rather than a permanent portion of the structure. They do not impart a sense of rest and strength, but look as if a strong gust of wind might blow them away.5

Evidently offended by the Southwell carvings because they violated his sense of decorum, the author of the study of medieval ornament cited here recalls classical authorities such as Vitruvius when he suggests that architectural ornament should express themes of load and support; it is properly "architecturally part of the building." In contrast, the ornament at Southwell seems to have a life of its own, powerfully - if inadvertently - evoked by the fiction of "temporary adornment." This backhanded praise by Samuel Gardner contrasts with the appreciation voiced in Nikolaus Pevsner's well-known essay on the Southwell sculptures, a popular account by one of England's best-known architectural historians. Pevsner responded to the verve and freshness, the "finesse" and "decorative unity" of this program as well as to what he regarded as the originality evident in the work of craftsmen who, in Pevsner's words, went "for inspiration to nature, the nature, it seems, of the English countryside." In highlighting the naturalism of the Southwell carvings, the comments of art historians like Pevsner and Gardner register long-standing Western critical debates concerning art and nature as well as artifice and imitation. Gardner's reference to leaves "plucked" from nature and "petrified" comes close to invoking the sort of image-magic described by the Ancients in which the boundaries between life and art are blurred; and his remark that the results of this mimetic exercise have been judged by some as particularly accomplished - "the most beautiful and perfect type of Gothic foliage" - recalls artistic competitions elsewhere. Pevsner, on the other hand, reminds us of the artifice of the Southwell carvings, a result of the artist's craft that achieves a "balance of structure and decoration" along with a "balance between nature and style" rather than an unmediated record of objects in the world.6

This insistent focus on the foliate carving in the chapter house and vestibule has the effect of distracting our attention from the other subjects represented at Southwell. This generally overlooked body of work includes elaborately coifed male and female heads positioned as endstops and over the abaci to the capitals, as well as other miscellaneous subjects that include: the dragon tucked into the foliage to the left of the entrance from the vestibule, a mildly contented cow that masks an awkward juncture in the stonework of the vestibule, a shepherd and his goat, a pair of dogs attacking a hare, pigs feeding on acorns, roosters, a hound, two lions, a merman, several foliate heads and "green men," a serpent on the reverse of the doorway from the vestibule to the nave, and a small figure gathering grapes pictured over the entrance from the vestibule (Fig. 2). The notion of playing with scale, spatial disjunction, and discontinuity in such "images on the edge" of medieval devotional settings is a familiar feature of late-thirteenth-century English art. Similar vignettes exist elsewhere in sculpture of the period - including, for example, the male and female figures with many and varied costumes that serve as endstops in the chapter house of York Minster as well as wild and domestic animals figured in the ornamental carving located in structures devoted to sacred use such as the eastern arm of Exeter Cathedral. Thirteenth-century devotional manuscripts, particularly those of English origin, sometimes pair scripture with animals, hunting scenes, and selected plants in what is, at least in part, a dialogue between sacred text and secular gloss. By extension, at Southwell, the sacred core that animates the structure would have been the words and deeds of the brethren as they actively participated in their canonical obligations of assembly, penance, and confession. These acts are first framed by the lush garlands of leaves, fruits, and flowers that outline the canons' seats and entry, then punctuated by the odd assembly of figures.

Wherever the gaze of the canons may have rested, the attention of modern scholars has been directed toward the foliage ornament and, more specifically, the ornament composed of naturalistic leaves even though medieval sculptors at Southwell employed several descriptive modes when it came to botanical subjects (Fig. 3). The sharp gables that mark each canon's seat are outlined by garlands of rippling forms that distantly recall organic growth patterns but no specific plants. In contrast, the splayed and flattened leaves that fill the triangular gables over the seats include shapes characteristic of individual genera but not lifelike growth patterns. Finally, registering still another representational mode, the foliage that composes the capitals and the carving of the vestibule doorway bends, moves, and overlaps, seemingly animated by the vitality of growth itself if not the effects of the environment. Indeed, the leafy capitals persuasively extend into the viewer's space or, more precisely, the space once occupied by the medieval canons as they deliberated.

This last body of work vividly demonstrates what art historian Michael Camille neatly called Gothic sculpture's capacity to close the distance with the "beholder's liminal space."7 The leaves of Southwell pursue this correspondence between art and life still further in the manner in which they frequently can be identified to the genus and even the species level. Judging from combinations of leaf shapes and flowers or fruits, they include familiar plants, among them: oaks, grapes, cultivated roses, hop, maple, hawthorn, and ivy. One of the figural endstops wears a crown of hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna Jacq.), identifiable by the leaves' characteristic elongated, lobed form; and hop (Humulus lupulus L.) is shown with its ridged palmate leaves and distinctive, papery bracts (Fig. 4). These features also are clearly visible in the admirably clear photographs by naturalist Roger Phillips, a comparison that also demonstrates the ways artist and photographer produce images that differ when it comes to individual features. At Southwell, the carving represents a leaf with five lobes, whereas the specimen selected by Phillips and pictured in the upper left corner of his photograph has three. Both are forms common to this species, and both photographer and sculptor picture the fruit in full flower, in this way highlighting the plant's most characteristic form (Plate I).

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Gothic naturalism; 2. The testimony of sight; 3. Images and information; 4. The uses of likeness; 5. Models and copies; Conclusion: the mind's eye.
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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    sources for medieval works of art

    The focus of Givens's study is art in thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century England and France, and to a lesser extent Italy. The question is how artists came to depict animals and plants, including details of these. Givens mainly deconstructs commonsense and even scholarly presumptions about the work, or craft, of the medieval artists. One would assume that with their subjects from the world of nature, artists simply looked at subjects in the wild or samples of these in their studios. But that wasn't the way the medieval images came about. The 'informative images [of the medieval artists] may well be diagrammatic or schematic.' They may have been done on vellum, canvas, or paper or on wood or stone from images in other works of art or from iconic cultural images (or expectations) with the artist's own conscious or unconscious visual biases or religious, instructive, etc. intentions involved. 'Two artists recording the same subject in life or two specimens of the same species are likely to emphasize different features and thus provide some of our best evidence of observational practice.' Given's study is not only a concentrated analysis of medieval art in some European countries, but it also touches on the wider, perennial subjects of creativity, art and society, artistic craftsmanship, the material and psychological sources of art, and the unique accomplishment of a work of art. Givens is an associate professor of art history at the U. of Connecticut.

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