History as a Visual Art in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance

History as a Visual Art in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance

by Karl F. Morrison


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ISBN-13: 9780691601014
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1098
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 9.90(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.60(d)

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History as a Visual Art in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance

By Karl F. Morrison


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05582-4



Some friends have suggested that I begin these inquiries with a word about method. By what method can we apprehend a way of understanding that is not linguistic, and that is not equivalent with interpretation? The idea of an introduction on this subject is appealing. However, in some important ways, every text discussed or referred to in the following pages requires the development of a special method. When I work with texts, I read them to grasp the message of the letter and also to explore what is unsaid between the lines of written words. Sometimes this work requires attention to the formal organization of a treatise. This is true, for example, if the number of chapter (or book) divisions corresponds with some part of a symbolic code worked out by numerologists, or if an author followed a repetitive pattern of organization. Sometimes it requires attention to elements of composition other than deliberately calculated ones. Authors can unconsciously indicate their casts of mind by the frequency with which they quote certain "test passages" from Scripture, or by the kinds of metaphors they use, for example, metaphors of predatory animals, plants, or games.

But, always, thoughtful readers have to interrogate the texts before them, searching out negative values as well as positive ones. What do these authors tell us when their narratives plainly suppress information that was at hand, or when, in their effort to preserve the memory of events, they committed significant actors (such as women) to the river of forgetfulness? Let us say that I have tried to learn how to interrogate texts so that they can answer from their silences as well as from their words and, above all, I have tried to bring to the surface the ways of thinking and feeling that dictated the shapes that their formal structures eventually took. My object is to recover both abstract ways of thinking about the creative process and traces left by the creative process itself in works of art.

I am not sure that this endeavor can be redacted into method. "Method," after all, is a rational and scientific word. We have to deal with ways of feeling perhaps even more than with ways of reasoning, with esthetics more than logic. And, although the works with which I have been concerned were tailored to esthetics quite different from his, I am persuaded that Hans-Georg Gadamer's general rule applies to them:

From its historical origin, the problem of hermeneutics goes beyond the limits that the concept of method sets to modern science.... The hermeneutic phenomenon is basically not a problem of method at all.... It is concerned to seek that experience of truth that transcends the sphere of the control of scientific method wherever it is to be found, and to inquire into its legitimacy. Hence, the human sciences are joined with modes of experience which lie outside science: with the experience of philosophy, of art, and of history itself.

Or, as other writers conclude, general method does not have "more than heuristic value"; for subject matter "takes hermeneutic precedence over the method to allow for a whole spectrum of possible particular correlatives ... depending on the subject matter itself." Method has little hold on what once was called the god-intoxicated poet.

But I cannot follow these reservations so far as to deny the possibility of hermeneutical study. Some silences have much to say, if we can listen to them. We take our stand at a point from which we can see the creative work of critics diverge from that of artists (whether authors, painters, or performers). Apart from the maker and the critic, the audience intended by the maker has to be considered, and then distinguished from the procession of unintended audiences through the centuries. Therefore, we shall also have to gain some perspective on ways in which one puts, or finds, feeling (esthetic judgment) inside a work, that is, on how a reader's or spectator's imagination plays inside the artwork. But what entices the imagination to go inside the work, to play in and with it, in the first place? What drew Hamlet's uncle into the words and gestures of the play so as to make it a trap wherein to catch the conscience of the King? And, conversely, what at any given moment are the barriers to empathetic participation? There is no way to avoid asking for whom, and under what conditions, the outer shell defining a work's capacities became a net in which the imagination was snared.

If, indeed, every text requires its own method, any discussion would be very diffuse. However, readers accustomed to the normal, and reasonable, expectation of critical method may find useful some further explanation of why that expectation could be misplaced if it were directed toward the materials here being reviewed. Consequently, under the guise of the following fable, I should like to explain the omission of a statement of critical method and, at the same time, indicate the contours of a hermeneutics of nonlinguistic understanding.

* * *

The tradition of the symposium was a long one in the West. Both Hebraism and Hellenism conveyed this institution—a feast that counted philosophical discourse among its pleasures—to the post-Roman world. There, surrounded with religious persons and literati as they reclined at table, great prelates rejoiced in exchanges of light banter, in debate and conversation about histories of kings and judgments of philosophers, about natural sciences (including arithmetic and astronomy), about Scripture and the teachings of the holy Fathers—in short, about God and the world. Some passed the whole night in such diversions, until cockcrow, and slept through the daylight hours.

Other interpretive diversions at these feasts were linguistic only in part, or not at all. The entourage might include (among many others) physicians and actors, interpreters of dreams, casters of horoscopes, bibliomancers, craftsmen who supplied the ornaments and vessels of the table, musicians, and even "pantomimes, who are wont to entertain common folk with obscene gestures of [their] bodies." The bishop himself might be adept in several of these kinds of interpretive ventures, and in one other to which I wish particularly to draw your attention: the casting of dice.

Let us imagine a symposium at the table of Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen (1043–72). Anticipating a journey, the archbishop has just taken the auspices, and he has settled in for an evening of discourse and dice. A handsome man, yet resolutely chaste, he exults in the nobility of his descent and in the splendor and power of his see, which he takes pains to display in many enterprises. He glories in sumptuous liturgies, with thundering choirs and clouds of incense. He boasts that he will rebuild in gold, and in the exotic model of Benevento, the church that his predecessors had built in silver. The dark days are still ahead when his rapacious and corrupt agents will bestow on harlots the jewels pried out of crosses, and, suspecting that he resorted to magical arts, his people will hiss at him as they hissed at heretics. Then, beset by enemies, stripped of the vice-regal powers that he adored, and barred from the papacy that he coveted, Adalbert to some seemed to have gone insane. But in these earlier times, he left no demand of opulent hospitality unattended so that he could gain, not only the reward of virtue from God, but also unstinting praise from men.

He played at dice. Given the splendor with which he surrounded himself, we must imagine that his gaming set was not of ordinary wood, bone, or even ivory, but that it was of some costly material, like the dice set of rock crystal recorded as a gift to the monastery of St. Hubert in Angers. There is no need to imagine that he cast his dice with a great apparatus such as copyists of the Utrecht Psalter placed at the foot of the Cross. It is enough to think that they were presented to him on a tazza, in precious metal, rather like that represented in Abbess Herrad's Hortus Deliciarum. We are not concerned, for the moment, with this reminiscence of Petronian luxury. We are not even concerned with the fact that dice-playing, in which Adalbert passed whole nights, had been steadily forbidden to all clergy from late Antiquity onward, and that universal and local acts of legislation continued to repeat this prohibition long after Adalbert's day. We are concerned with the playing. Above all, it is stochastic; it is kinesthetic. According to Isidore of Seville, some considered it allegorical, since they played on a board marked to represent past, present, and future. That was certainly the view of casters who resorted to dice, as well as to auguries and dreams, for prognostication.

But figural interpretation is more distant from the stochastic action—the surprise in the play—than the archbishop's fist, smashing the face of his opponent bloody. The casting of those glittering crystal cubes, the allegory and the fist, not to mention the response of the bloodied victim, are expressions of the awe and passion at the point where gambling intersects with prognostication, ritual acts prescribed by the divinatory cults of hazard and prophecy. But it is also true that they address the climactic surprise in different ways, some with the logical game of language, others in modes of play closed to reason but open to instinct and intuition.

I cannot tell you the hour, since the waterclock has frozen. The barriers of physical time have been cracked through, and we have passed into the unity of psychic time.

Other participants in this imaginary symposium stand at a little distance from the gaming board. Villard d'Honnecourt is there, drawing on a little sheet of vellum, and a Goliardic poetaster smirking over his latest blasphemy, "The Gamblers' Mass," together with a visitor from overseas, John of Salisbury, who is taking notes for his inventory of courtly follies. Villard ends with a sketch; the Goliard, with a composite of melody, rhythm, and language; and John of Salisbury, with a rhetorical disquisition. Each has played a different game, kinesthetic to be sure, like the cast of the dice and the blow to the face, but far removed from the stochastic (or, more precisely, aleatory) action at the board. Their works stand generalized, abstract; they lack the passion for the unforeseen, the awe of divination, the surprise of the throw and the smashing fist. Every work is interpretive, of course, but in a different medium, shaped by the peculiar conditions, limits, and possibilities of that medium. Every work is a memorial of how one game was played and an excuse for others but a souvenir, and not itself the play of imagination, a footprint, but not the pacing.

A crowd of critics have been observing Adalbert's game and the jeux d'esprit contributed by Villard, the scholiast, and John to the feast. They are envoys from a distant land, ruled by Queen Entelechy, and, as ambassadors, they wear golden chains of signification. Their queen considers surprise an unpleasant lapse of reason against which one should be both forewarned and forearmed. As she said in one of her notable allocutions: "What occasions the aberrations of human cogitations through the perplexing labyrinths and abysses of admiration is not the source of the effects, which sagacious mortals visibly experience to be the consequential result of natural causes. 'Tis the novelty of the experiment which makes impressions on their conceptive, cogitative faculties; that do not previse the facility of the operation adequately, with a subact and sedate intellection, associated with diligent study." Dismissive of surprise, the queen also does not countenance divination, for all understanding depends upon the "ratiocinating faculty." She is not, like Adalbert, a person for whom the greater the stakes, the more irresistible the game, and for whom the most compelling stake is honor. Although they sacrifice on different altars—to Structuralism and Deconstruction, for example—Entelechites practice homotextuality in common. Theirs is "one of those cultures where it is believed that intelligence is located in the mouth, not in the brain."

As far as homotextualists are concerned, Villard's sketch, the scholiast's song, and John's discourse are equal and equivalent. A scholar named Gombrich, who sometimes travels with the Entelechites, takes up Villard's sketch. Naturally, he regards it as a text, an ideograph or a pictograph. The point of departure for interpreting the work, as he said when he saw a sketch Villard made of the Wheel of Fortune, is the character of the drawing as a means of transcribing "the philosophical distinction between 'universale' and 'particulars.'" Its abstract schematization, he said, was a device by which viewers could apply to themselves concepts generalized in the drawing. The whole enterprise of interpretation depended upon "the language of art."

Gadamer, on this occasion, agrees: "The experience of art must not be side-tracked into the uncommittedness of the aesthetic awareness." "Language is the universal medium in which understanding itself is realized. The mode of realization of understanding is interpretation.... All understanding is interpretation, and all interpretation takes place in the medium of language, which would allow the object to come into words and yet is at the same time the interpreter's own language." Consequently, what objects as texts mean is what they mean when we understand them, whether or not "we can gain from the tradition a picture of the author and whether or not the historical interpretation of the literary source is our concern." Whether the "text" is picture or writing, "the horizon of understanding cannot be limited either by what the writer had originally in mind, or by the horizon of the person to whom the text was originally addressed." Interpreting is a game of language, a form of translation, in fact, in which the interpreter brings "himself and his own concepts into the interpretation ... so that the meaning of the text can really be made to speak for us." Thus, "the text that is understood historically is forced to abandon its claim that it is uttering something true," even though, inasmuch as language bears its own truth within it, interpreters are drawn into "the truth of play," played in fact by the game of language, a continuing and changing "event of truth."

This speech, Rabelais said scornfully, gave a general idea of why Entelechy was also known as "Whims," and why the only way to arrive safely in her land was "to trust to the whirlpool and be led by the current." If Entelechy never ate anything at dinner but such discourse as this—the sounds of language, categories, abstractions, antitheses, transcendent prolepses "and such other light food"—it was no wonder "that she never visited a close-stool but by proxy."

A murmuring also rose from the others, whose life-styles did not include homotextuality. How, they wondered, could Gombrich "read" Villard's sketches as "ideograms" or "hieroglyphs" since they did not correspond with spoken words, had no syntax, and lacked the long duration and malleability of a common language? Villard himself points out, with some irritation, that Gombrich has rested his theories on drawings that are no more than sketches. The drawing of dice-players is one of many trial runs in which he practiced representations of draperies, anatomic proportions, and perspectives. Indeed, the sketchiness of the Wheel of Fortune that Gombrich judged a transcription of logical propositions was nothing more than a test run abandoned in midnight, if anything, hardly more than a stage toward a completed picture, with modeling and color, such as the representation of Fortune's Wheel in the manuscript of the Carmina Burana.

Learnedly quoting Ovid, Giraldus Cambrensis says that what we have here is art practicing its major function: to conceal itself. Villard was just practicing his eye-to-hand coordination when he drew the dice-players with two unrelated animals on the recto of a sheet of vellum and added other doodlings later. Later, Villard turned the page upside down and filled it with two other subjects: a mechanical fountain and a labyrinth. Then, he drew, on the verso, a ground plan of a tower at Laon, a sketch of some evidently unrelated structure, and to be sure, there was also upside down—probably the first drawing done on the page—a man's head.

The long, continuing debate over iconoclasm kept alive the distinctions between writing, which was self-explanatory, and visual images, which were not. One such distinction was that the representative function of literary works respected the integrity of the letter, while the representative function of visual images demanded suspension of disbelief—the acceptance of an image as if it were the absent subject. This difference lay at the heart of the topos of lying painters. Thus, while literary texts required a hermeneutic of understanding, visual images required one of deliberate, stylized misunderstanding.


Excerpted from History as a Visual Art in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance by Karl F. Morrison. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. ix
  • List of Illustrations, pg. xi
  • Preface, pg. xiii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xxv
  • Abbreviations, pg. xxvii
  • CHAPTER 1. Interpreters at the Feast, or A Dialogue between Ancients and Moderns, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER 2. History as an Art of the Imagination, pg. 20
  • CHAPTER 3. Cognition and Cult, pg. 48
  • CHAPTER 4. From One Renaissance to Another, pg. 92
  • CHAPTER 5. The Kingdom of God: A Silence of Intuition, pg. 139
  • CHAPTER 6. The Hermeneutic Role of Women: A Silence of Comprehension, pg. 154
  • CHAPTER 7. Text and Time at the Court of Eugenius III: A Silence of Multiplication, pg. 196
  • CHAPTER 8. Conclusions: A Word on “Medieval Humanism”, pg. 245
  • Index, pg. 251

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