Medieval Rising: Art from the Middle Ages Appeals Today Because of Similarities in Time

By Wecker, Menachem | National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2017 | Go to article overview

Medieval Rising: Art from the Middle Ages Appeals Today Because of Similarities in Time


Wecker, Menachem, National Catholic Reporter


When he first saw "The Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden" at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, Jeffrey Forgeng was puzzled by the choreography of the circa-1300. Central Italian fresco, later transferred to canvas. Jesus appears where you'd expect him, towering over 12 apostles. The problem lay in the golden circles above their heads.

"The halos are a giveaway that Judas isn't there. That seems really weird," said Forgeng, who in 2014 became the museum's first curator of arms, armor and medieval art.

After studying the work extensively Forgeng understood two aspects of the Last Supper On the "angsty unpleasant side," Jesus tells the group, "One of you shall betray me." This painting emphasizes a component other than the betrayal--the Christian fellowship of a shared meal, which unifies members of the church and lays the framework for the ritual of the Mass. The work was created for a nunnery so the nuns, who shared daily communal meals, would have found personal significance in the fellowship theme.

"It basically edits Judas out and substitutes in maybe St. Paul or St. Matthias," Forgeng said. "It gives you this convivial banquet scene, and it lavishes attention on the place settings and on how the diners are sharing cups with each other in typical medieval fashion."

The work is one of several that Forgeng uses to teach visitors about religious subjects depicted in medieval art. "There's something kind of weird happening in this image, but the weirdness has a purpose. You look at the pieces and you say 'Yeah that makes sense,' " he said. "Even if you don't believe the story you can understand it as a story"

Good storytelling is crucial when sharing works that are hundreds of years old, particularly in a time when attention spans are rumored to be shorter than ever That shouldn't jibe with medieval objects, which require patience and imagination to understand. Yet fascination abounds on TV and in movies, games and books for the Middle Ages--whose very name conveys a sort of halfway house between antiquity and modernity

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The widespread appeal of "medieval-seeming materials" drives students to enrol in medieval literature classes at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said English professor Jeffrey Cohen, who directs the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies there.

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But parallel to that looms what he calls a "dark side of this resurgent interest in all things medieval." Just before World War II, there was a similar fascination with medieval materials, and extremists today are drawn to the Middle Ages, "especially via ardent fantasies of racial purity and white origins," Cohen said.

Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, the world's largest medieval studies advocate, has seen similar momentum.

"We all know what brings students and museumgoers through our doors. 'Game of Thrones,' Lord of the Rings, 'Vikings,' Harry Potter, film, even 'Dungeons & Dragons' and pseudo-medieval video games all feed the flames of medieval random," she said. "It's our job to take that enthusiasm and direct it toward productive and fact-based pedagogy"

But she has also observed the dark side of interest in the period that followed the Dark Ages.

"Given the increasing misappropriation of medieval crusader rhetoric by American white supremacists and the constant misinterpretation of movements like [the Islamic State] as 'medieval,' just to name two examples, our work is more important than ever," she said. "As scholars who grapple with the complex, multivalent and multicultural Middle Ages, it is incumbent on us to work to set the record straight."

At the University of Notre Dame, where Robin Jensen teaches history of Christianity undergraduates gravitate toward the Middle Ages more than they do to prior or subsequent periods. …

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