Meaningful Spectacles: Gothic Ivories Staging the Divine

Article excerpt

The history of metheval art in the West is that of a struggle to transform into meaningful spectacle the spiritual impoverishment of visible things that had been delegated to a "second order" of signification. - Michael Camille, Gothic Idol, 19891

In The Sense of Order, Ernst Gombrich recounted a conversation he had with Erwin Panofsky in Cape Cod while they were walking Panofsky's dog Jerry in the summer of 1951:

He [Panofsky] told me how puzzled he had been in his student days by the expression "Godiic painting." He could understand the application to buildings or decoration, but in what sense could a painting be Godiic? I summoned my courage and asked "Do you think that all this really exists?," to which he replied with an uncompromising "yes." Only later I realized that in his lectures on Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism he had just committed himself to another attempt to justify the Hegelian tradition of governing spirits.2

Gombrich, citing this anecdote in the midst of a discussion of the diorny issue of Hegelian Zeitgeist, proceeds to take up the question Panofsky posed and to examine whetiier "there exists a link between a painting and its frame, or more specifically between all the elements of a Godiic altar, the shrine with its sculptures, the wings with their reliefs and the painted panels and the architectural detail of its fretwork setting." Gombrich's solution for complex objects like the late fifteendi-century High Altar of Blaubeuren Klosterkirch is a type of guilt by association: we the twentiedi- and twentyfirst-century art historians are so attuned to seeing late metheval paintings within Godiic frames that "Godiicness" is transferred to the painting or sculpture, itself devoid of such characteristic features as pointed arches, flying buttresses, or rib vaults. If the only quality these objects share is their spatial proximity, Gombrich avoids the uncomfortable ideological ground of having either frame or sculpture participate in an undefined and mystical Spirit of the Age. The paintings are, for Gombrich, Godiic merely by virtue of their habitual arrangement and our built-up expectations, and not the result of an "organic unity" of a period style.3

A version of Panofsky's question diat summer day in Cape Cod leads to an examination of the rationale behind the pervasive use of microarchitectural forms on ivory carvings from the diirteendi century. Just before recounting his discussion with Panofsky, Gombrich had enumerated ivory diptychs as among the types of objects passively adorned with the fashionable architectural ornaments of the day.4 That such objects today are habitually called "Godiic ivories" seems self-evident: the material of elephant ivory and the miniature architectural frames are taken as their defining features (Fig. 1). Yet if we avoid treating the marriage of ivory and microarchitecture as axiomatic, we find the choice behind this union of material and ornamental form not only sheds light on the use of microarchitecture as a prevalent artistic choice in the diirteendi century but also demonstrates a visual response to a pressing intellectual and societal concern. In refusing to probe more deeply for fear of discovering Hegelian roots, Gombrich misunderstood Panofsky's thesis and brushed aside an instructive question for the understanding of a widespread phenomenon in the Godiic period: the use of microarchitectural frames.5

In Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951), Panofsky had tried valiandy to redefine an age's unifying aestiietic tendency, its style, by replacing Zeitgeist with habitus, or habit of mind.6 In the text's introduction, Panofsky speaks about indefinable "parallelisms" between intellectual trends and artistic forms, but these generalizations too are set aside in favor of a more concrete assessment of a specific time and place where philosophers and masons coexisted in close proximity and, he argues, intermingled. Panofsky's thesis was diat the Scholastic intellectual formation shaped a mental habit diat generated what we know as Godiic architecture. …