Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

From Minor to Major: The Minor Arts in Medieval Art History

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

From Minor to Major: The Minor Arts in Medieval Art History

Article excerpt

From minor to major: the minor arts in medieval art history Review of: From Minor to Major: The Minor Arts in Medieval Art History, edited by Colum Hourihane, Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2012, 336pp., 257 col. plates, 42 b. & w. illus., £00.00 [$35.00] pbk ISBN 978-0-9837537-1-1

This richly illustrated book brings together sixteen essays that explore a number of different types of medieval art objects that are usually given appellations such as 'minor', 'decorative', 'applied' and 'ornamental'. In his introduction, Colum Hourihane states that the changes in medieval art history over the last 20 years mean that a re-evaluation of the field is now timely. Despite this shifting landscape - a more 'holistic' approach to study and the softening of 'the hard edges of old- fashioned connoisseurship' - he notes that there has been 'no single study of the minor vis-à-vis the major arts' in the last thirty years.1 The essays in the volume, he says, examine the minor versus major divide in different ways: many stress the lack of such division in the medieval period, others accept a division but emphasize 'the primary nature of their own material' and others explore how divides that have developed from the historiography are no longer applicable.2 Many of the authors thus situate their subjects in relation to the hierarchy of the arts as first established by Vasari and highlight the problematic nature of their objects - size, anonymous author- or ownership, secularity, ephemerality - that complicates their status as 'art' in the received sense and which has relegated them to a 'minor' position. Several also note the role of the Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement in making some of these objects areas of intense study in the nineteenth century, whilst recognising that this revival in itself often had a certain agenda. There are many calls in these papers for the objects under consideration to be reclassified as 'major'. This has already happened for manuscript illumination, as the authors Paul Binski and Thomas E. Dale both point out. Yet as Binski notes, the privileging of manuscript illumination as a 'major' art can also be misleading for the interpretation of the sources and evolution of other 'minor' arts.3

The variety of media and objects covered in this publication is wide. As Hourihane remarks, 'minor' is used to refer not just to individual media outside of architecture, sculpture and painting, but also to those areas of medieval studies that have been neglected'. Thus the secular arts (including jewellery and profane wall paintings), stained glass, misericords, byzantine art, tapestry, alabaster sculpture, seals and coins, are the subjects of essays that in some cases offer new interpretations of well-known material (such as Laura Weigert's analysis of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries), and in others highlight the limitations imposed by historiography (especially the case for Byzantine objects considered by Sharon E. J. Gerstel and Alice Walker). Other essays highlight the ways in which unusual or neglected sources can be exploited to enrich our understanding of different aspects of medieval culture (such as the musical iconography on misericords).

Paul Binski's article 'London, Paris, Assisi, Rome around 1300: Questioning Art Hierarchies' takes examples of 'mixed media' works to explore notions not only of hierarchy but also of innovation. The issue of invention, he claims, 'leads us to treat great and small alike with scepticism, and to look harder instead at the middle, at the zone of cooperation between the arts'.4 The first object of his discussion, the Westminster Retable, offers the chance to re-examine the links between French and English art in the early fourteenth century and in particular the relationship between panel painting and book illumination. Binski argues for a rethinking of the traditional hierarchy, established by Panofsky amongst others, in which book illumination ('more reliable because more complete') is given primacy over panel painting. …

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