Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Museums & Exhibitions

The Met, Medieval Catholicism, and the Popular Imagination

The steps leading up to the front entrance of the Metropolitan Museum in New York are always busy, but are probably rarely so photographed as they are on the evening of the annual fund-raising gala in support of its Costume Institute. That was doubly true last month, when the Met Gala attracted extra column inches thanks to its theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Was it intriguing and inspirational, or trivialising and offensive?

The frisson of controversy ensured that social media lit up as the first red carpet photos appeared online—that and the elaborate celebrity outfits. Madonna appeared in a Gothic take on Sicilian widow’s weeds, Jared Leto channelled a louche version of Jesus Christ, Superstar which honestly wasn’t so far from his everyday dress sense, while Chadwick Boseman was attired as a particularly suave pope. Others came as angels, or Byzantine icons, or Sistine Chapel ceilings.

The looks attracted amusement, admiration, and criticism. Olivia Munn’s clumsy description of her gold mail dress (“…inspired by the Crusades. I love this dress”) was thought distasteful by some, while Piers Morgan claimed to be offended by the entire event. (Well, Piers would, wouldn’t he.) More interesting conversations, however, centred on the (art) historical references in the attendees’ attire, like Rihanna’s boldly irreverent spin on papal attire, or Zendaya’s silvery dress and severe pageboy hairstyle which echoed nineteenth-century takes on Joan of Arc.

In my little corner of the Twitterverse, many medieval historians were delighted to see the Middle Ages, high fashion, and pop culture juxtaposed in such a prominent way, and yet equally wondered why it was that so many attendees had interpreted the gala’s theme to mean something both medieval and western European? There were exceptions, of course. Some wore starker outfits that seemed to take their references from the clerics and religious sisters of the Counter-Reformation period and beyond—but this was a shift in chronological focus, not in geography. Where were the tributes to the exuberant colours of Latin American Catholicism, or to the vibrant church in Africa, or to the heavy influence that the faith has had on the art and culture of the Philippines? Hundreds of millions of modern Catholics and their faith traditions were largely ignored.

And given the focus on medieval Catholicism, why was there so little room for subversion or critique? After all, there’s a tradition, almost two centuries old, of adopting medieval clothing styles to further feminist critiques. Certainly Lynda Carter made a statement with a golden Star of David barette and a crown that proclaimed “Never forget” in Hebrew, as did Lena Waithe in her suit and cape in the colours of a racially-inclusive pride flag, but they were in the distinct minority. Frankly, I was surprised no one even tried for a cheeky spin on a Catholic schoolgirl outfit.

When I trotted up the steps of the Met Museum a few days ago, it was to a whole lot less fanfare than had greeted the Met Gala guests and without a $30,000 ticket clutched in my hand. (No, admission to a high-profile event thrown by Vogue editor Anna Wintour doesn’t come cheap.) I was curious to see how the exhibition proper had interpreted the theme—had the celebrity attendees’ choices presaged it, or had the curators made some very different choices?

The short answer is that the exhibit runs along very similar lines to the gala. To an extent, I’m sure, this is a function of the space within which the exhibition is housed (the permanent medieval galleries of the Met proper, and the museum’s branch at the Cloisters which is dedicated to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages), of a large number of the objects on display being direct loans from the Vatican’s historic collection of vestments, and of the fact that the couture designers most likely to draw on a Catholic aesthetic in their work are from white, western backgrounds.

An ensemble by Viktor & Rolf, from their Autumn/Winter 1999–2000 haute couture collection, currently on display in the Cloisters. I dubbed it Sparkly Vulcan Space Nun.

And clearly a lot of thought was given to the layout of the exhibit and the objects to be displayed. Hieratic statues of the Virgin and Child were placed either side of an austerely cut gown; an Alexander McQueen confection of gauze and faux armour was placed, recumbent, opposite the tomb effigy of a high medieval knight. The sleek, sweeping curves of three hats by Philip Treacy invited comparison with the late medieval reliquary busts of three virgin martyrs and their elaborately coiffed hair.

But while I thought that many of the individual garments were stunning (oh, to have the resources and the occasion needed to sport a black Alexander McQueen dress with full-length train over a pair of leather motorbike trousers), and some of the arrangements of objects thought-provoking, as a whole the exhibition left me asking the same questions as had the Met Gala: why was such a limited story being told?

The artistic impact of global Catholicism was absent, and there was little sign here that any artist has ever been moved to reject Catholicism or defy the Church. There was apparently no room in this exhibition for, say, a screen showing the video for Lady Gaga’s 2010 hit “Alejandro” (in which Gaga, dressed as a nun in a red latex habit, swallows a pair of rosary beads; maybe not one to watch with your nana) or a mannequin displaying one of the see-through outfits she’s been known to pair with a nun’s cornet while onstage (you probably don’t want to click on that link while at work).

This is not an exhibition particularly interested in ideas of conflict or resistance.

A nuntastic row of mannequins.

The exhibition is interested in the relationship between fashion, faith, and power, but it seemed to me mostly in some very particular ways: the ways in which dress can be used to assert allegiance, hierarchical status, and gender roles.

Perhaps this is why celebrities were so quick to equate “Catholic” with “medieval” in their clothing choices for the gala. After all, in popular culture the Middle Ages are associated with showy displays of power, with monolithic identity, with exclusion—and what’s better suited to modern celebrity than that?

Walking the Medieval Mile Museum

Very few medieval buildings have survived the centuries without major changes, and the former church of St Mary’s in Kilkenny is not one of them. Over the years, it has lost and regained a steeple, a chancel, and sheer square footage; its roof dates mostly from the early modern period; its medieval frescoes are almost entirely gone and chunks of its plaster ceiling are missing. Though still hemmed in by the close formed by the houses of Kilkenny’s prosperous medieval merchants, St Mary’s now feels a little removed from the contemporary bustle of the city’s High Street. The building’s long and complicated architectural history makes it the ideal home for what is, I think, the country’s newest museum: the Medieval Mile Museum (MMM).

The entrance of the Medieval Mile Museum through the west end, beneath the building’s 19th-century steeple.

I had a quick look around the MMM yesterday, and while the space is still settling a little into its new identity as a museum, it’s already a wonderful addition to Ireland’s cultural landscape. The architects and conservationists who collaborated on St Mary’s transformation into the MMM clearly thought long and hard about how to balance the abstraction of a museum with the physicality of a medieval structure with a varied history.

From the exterior, the building’s original ecclesiastical function is clear. St Mary’s was founded as Kilkenny’s parish church at some point in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century—certainly by 1205—by William Marshal, lord of Leinster. Marshal is a figure well-known to medieval historians, a powerful Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman who also built the first stone castle in Kilkenny. (It lies just a short walk from the MMM). The church’s size and grandeur, and the impressive tombs which still surround it, are testament to the civic pride and mercantile success of Kilkenny’s medieval burgesses.

Interior, Medieval Mile Museum, Kilkenny. Looking west towards main door.

But step inside and you’re in a place whose purpose is civic pride of a different kind: to gather and showcase the highlights of the medieval and early modern material heritage of Kilkenny City and its surrounding county. Right now, tomb slabs, effigies, and some replica high crosses predominate, though more artefacts are apparently due to join them this coming autumn. The interior’s bright white walls set off the items on display as effectively as any purpose-designed gallery. Glass inserts in the floor provide glimpses of crypts and the original medieval floor level; a great section has been cut out of the ceiling plaster over the crossing, letting you look up into the roof’s timber beams.

A lot of thought clearly went into considering light and making sure that sight-lines are uncluttered. I visited on that rare feature of an Irish summer, a sunny day, but it’s hard to imagine the MMM feeling gloomy even in the depths of winter. Pretty much every direction you look creates interesting juxtapositions between artefacts, and thoughtfully placed benches encourage you to sit and take advantage of that. This is one of the aspects of the museum which will surely make it attractive to visiting school groups.

The MMM extension. It looks like it rests on the medieval chancel walls, but is actually suspended above them.

The building’s original footprint has also been restored thanks to a new extension made of wood and lead. The extension’s simple lines and muted colours complement the existing structure while recreating the volume and visual density of the lost medieval chancel (which was mostly dismantled during the eighteenth century). From the exterior, the two parts of the building look seamless; yet from the interior, it’s clear that the extension floats over the remains of the chancel walls and the tombs below. There’s something quite arresting about seeing something so massive be made to seem so weightless.

This new chancel houses some of the city’s medieval and early modern manuscript treasures, including pieces of civil legislation (concerning, for example, how to punish “bawdy hoores and cnaves”), various royal charters and the priceless Liber primus Kilkenniensis. Another large window here lets you look out over the rooftops of Kilkenny and try to imagine how much of the skyline would be at all familiar to the people who wrote the texts which surround you.

I would have liked if the room provided a little more contextualisation of the individual documents and of the circumstances and settings under which they were produced, but that’s perhaps the inevitable lament of the medieval history nerd about something which is aimed at the general public. (Give me more about the institutional relationship between the bishopric and the town!) Still, there are some little gems to discover, like the thirteenth-century charter issued by a bishop of Ossory which let friars in Kilkenny tap into his water supply—but the pipe they used couldn’t exceed a certain diameter. Helpfully, as you can see below, he attached a metal ring to the charter specifying the exact size.

A charter of Geoffrey de Tourville, bishop of Ossory, allowing the Dominicans of Kilkenny to use his water supply. Late 1240s.

Working with the history of St Mary’s, its original structure and later interventions, was a very sensible idea on the part of those involved in the MMM’s creation. It gestures generously to the past, but is confident in its developing identity as a modern institution.  The new museum is sure to become a fixture for those who research and teach the Middle Ages.

Pratt’s map of Kilkenny (1708), now at the National Library of Ireland. St Mary’s Church is marked D.

The Space Age and the Digital Age: Linking Museum Exhibits and the College Classroom

View of the exhibit space and the "Explorer's Legacy" exhibition.

View of the exhibit space and the “Explorer’s Legacy” exhibition.

When I first came to the University of Iowa, the north lobby of the Main Library was a drab, dated, and draughty area that had little sense of identity or purpose. It was used to display holdings from the library’s Special Collections, but students passed through in a hurry, on their way to classes, coffee, and maybe even to check out some books. Now, after almost three years of renovations, the old lobby has been transformed by the library’s staff into a much more welcoming gallery and exhibit space, one that invites the visitor to linger.

I was really excited to get to explore the new gallery and its first exhibition, “Explorer’s Legacy”, and to see how this new space has the potential to blend digital humanities, archival research, public engagement, and the hands-on teaching of history. Teaching history at the college level is less and less confined to teaching in the college classroom—or rather, there’s an increasing recognition that there are multiple places on the college campus and in the wider community that can function as a history classroom.

Plus, hey, outer space: exciting even to a medievalist.

Just in case you hadn't figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.

Just in case you hadn’t figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.

James Van Allen

The inaugural exhibition focuses on the career of renowned UI astrophysicist James Van Allen (1914-2006), particularly his work on the Explorer missions. A native of the state, Van Allen earned his MS (’36) and PhD (’39) here before beginning his long career as one of the university’s most distinguished faculty members. In the 1950s Van Allen and a team of his graduate students created a set of scientific instruments that were launched with the first US satellites to reach space: Explorer 1 and Explorer 3. The data collected on these missions led to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Though Van Allen is most well known for his involvement with the Explorer missions, he was the principal investigator for scientific investigations on no fewer than 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions, and discovered one of Saturn’s moons in 1979. That’s the kind of legacy that gets you a building named for you on the UI campus.

Bounding Space…

The exhibition contains many of the elements which you might expect to find in a museum: photographs and maps, physical objects and labels, and there’s a lot to linger over. But for me, one of the most evocative parts of the exhibition is its audio element: the visitor moves through the space to the soundtrack of the low rumble of static and frequent, steady pings. This is the sound of the Van Allen Explorer tapes, of data beamed back to Earth from the satellites and stored on hundreds of reel-to-reel magnetic audio tapes. The preservation and digitisation of these tapes was a difficult and expensive challenge, but Special Collections staff were able to save this unique part of the Explorer mission’s historical legacy.

Close your eyes and listen for a moment, and you’re transported to a place very far from Iowa. It’s a wonderful way to create a connection between a visitor to the exhibition and the sense of discovery which no doubt Van Allen and his team experienced. There’s no seeming pattern to the sounds (at least to this non-physicist) but you can’t help straining to detect one anyway. Nowadays, it’s easy to call up sophisticated visualizations of the Van Allen Belts online without ever leaving the comfort of your own living room, but there’s a visceral quality to standing in a quiet, shared place and listening to the dawn of the Space Age that just can’t be beat.

That, to me, is one of the most appealing aspects of the digital humanities—the ways in which it lets me, as a scholar and a teacher, create whole new sensory experiences for people. History becomes more than a series of dead letters, pinned to a page. It’s got a rhythm you have to learn to listen to.

Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen's experiments.

Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen’s experiments.

… and Expanding the Classroom’s Scope

The exhibit also ties into larger archival and historical projects here at UI. There’s the Explorer’s Legacy website, which combines long-form historical narrative with some of the archival materials relating to Van Allen held in Special Collections. It fleshes out the story of the Explorer missions for those whose appetites have been whetted by the exhibit, and would make great reading in the history classroom.

But even more useful for those of us who want our students to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of historical research are the archival materials related to Van Allen and the Explorer Project which have been uploaded to DIY History. DIY History is a crowd-sourced transcription project which was launched in 2011 by the UI’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, which helps to make large quantities of digitised primary sources searchable and therefore accessible to the general public.

For most students, the scholarly labour which goes into producing editions of texts is invisible, but primary source documents don’t magically appear in sourcebooks or on websites. They are the product of hours of transcription and translation, of puzzling over sometimes illegible handwriting, of figuring out the most accurate way to translate an idiom from Latin, of compiling the footnotes and other scholarly apparatus that help to provide a fuller picture of a document’s historical context.

When students are encouraged to contribute to DIY History, they’re not only furthering the reach of these archival resources, they’re also acting as historians—practising the kinds of skills that historians find invaluable in their everyday work.

(Not to mention that this medievalist is pleased that even in the Space Age, knowing how to read cursive is still a very useful skill.)

“Explorer’s Legacy” runs from now until April 8, and is free and open to the public. Gallery hours:

Monday-Saturday: 10am—5pm
Sunday: 11am—5pm

Hardin Library Medical Incunabula

Above from left: Nuremberg Chronicle; Ars Moriendi; Niccolo Scillacio’s “Que in hoc libello continentur”; Celsus’ “De medicina.”

I headed away from my usual campus haunts today, across the river and up the hill to the Hardin Medical Library. Tucked into a corner of the library’s fourth floor is the John Martin Rare Book Room (pictured left), which holds the University’s collection of rare medical books, including some fifteenth and sixteenth century incunabula. The curators held an open house this evening, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to explore some of their collection.

While medical history isn’t my field, I find incunabula fascinating from the perspective of the history of the book. It’s not just the shift from handwriting to type, or from parchment to paper. Here you have reprints of texts that have often existed already for centuries in the manuscript tradition, sometimes still with hand-painted rubrication and illumination, sometimes reproducing the medieval system of scribal abbreviations. You can see the process of working out this new technology right there in front of you.

6a013486c64e2e970c01a5119080a2970cFor example, this text (right) is Mondino dei Luzzi’s (d. 1326) Anatomia, in an edition likely printed in Leipzig in 1493. This is one of the first texts which teaches anatomy in a systematic manner, written around the time that the body also began to be dissected in an orderly fashion. (The frontispiece for this book even has a woodcut showing a dissection in process; the body being dissected looks remarkably sanguine about the fact that his intestines are on display.) The printers recreated the scribal abbreviations used in the original text, even though the work involved in creating all those type pieces for each individual symbol must have been painstaking. The whole volume is annotated in a late medieval or early modern hand—which I had to admit was quite impenetrable to me—and liberally sprinkled with some beautifully sketched manicules.

So far, so medieval, yet the economies of scale which printing introduced meant this edition was able to reach many more people than manuscripts of Anatomia ever did. I wonder if the wide margins were a feature deliberately designed by the printers to appeal to note-taking medical students? It’s certainly an easily portable size, and it’s easy to imagine someone taking this along with them for reference on the go.

6a013486c64e2e970c01a511907fe7970cSome other highlights of the collection include a ca. 1470 edition of Jean Gerson’s (1363-1429) Tractatulus de cognicione casittis et pollucionibus diurnis, the first printed book to address sexual matters; Pietro d’Abano’s (1250-ca. 1315) Conciliator differentiarum philosophorum et medicorum in a beautifully illuminated edition of 1476 (see left); a massive three volume set of Avicenna’s (980-1037) Canon medicinae, which was printed in 1498 and is said to have been the first edition of Avicenna’s work printed in France; and an even larger copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

I spent my walk home trying to think of ways to incorporate these holdings into the next class I teach—I think they’d appeal to a lot of undergrad students, particularly those from a STEM background. Even if they can’t read the texts themselves, there’s still a lot to be said for getting to experience the origins of your field through a physical object. And to be honest, thinking about lesson plans was a good distraction from the fact that I was trudging through the mother of all rainstorms which had not just turned my umbrella inside out, it snapped the handle in two. Midwestern weather is always an experience.

“Coptic Textiles” at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin

Being from Ireland, I’m pretty used to heading into a museum and seeing artefacts which have been preserved in the acidic, anaerobic environment of an Irish bog. The items in the newest display at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, however, were preserved in very different conditions: the dry desert climate of Egypt.

The “Coptic Textiles” exhibition is tucked into a small corner of this small gallery, which is itself tucked into the side of the Nassau Street entrance of Trinity College. It includes a number of pieces made between the 5th and 11th century.

They are a vivid illustration of the kinds of cross-cultural contacts which existed in medieval Egypt. As well as the indigenous Egyptian and Romano-Egyptian motifs, there are distinct hints of Byzantine or Islamic artistic influence. Some of them are tiny fragments; others, like the example I’ve included here to the left, are largely intact. This one—showing a cavalryman or maybe a saint—is some sort of medallion which I imagine must once have been affixed to clothing.

I do have to talk in terms of hints or possibilities, though, because the puzzling omission from this exhibition was the almost complete lack of interpretive material. I understand that pieces can have shaky provenances or can be difficult to date precisely, but there was no explanation as to the individual pieces—no illustrating maps, nothing about manufacturing techniques, no explanation even as to how the exhibition was arranged. I thought I detected clusters of motifs or techniques, like several small, vibrant pieces which seemed to show humanoid monsters with exaggerated male genitalia, but it was difficult to understand them without context. Overall, “Coptic Textiles” is no doubt fascinating for those who are interested more in the aesthetic qualities of textiles, but a little frustrating for those of us who would like to learn more about the textiles’ history.

The exhibition runs at the Douglas Hyde Gallery from now until 19 March.

“Lumières de la sagesse” Exhibition – Musée de l’Institut du Monde Arabe

This Saturday I paid a visit to a new exhibition at the Musée de l’Institut du Monde Arabe, called “Lumières de la sagesse – Écoles médiévales d’Orient et d’Occident,” which runs from now through to January 5th, 2014. Curated by Djamila Chakour, it seeks to explore the role of formal education in the medieval world (primarily the 9th through to the 15th centuries), and how it contributed to the circulation of knowledge between Western Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World.

The exhibition focuses primarily on manuscripts, and there are about fifty beautiful examples here, gathered not just from Parisian libraries and museum, but also from as far afield as Leiden, Aberdeen, Bologna, Copenhagen and Riyadh. The genres on display range just as widely: from medical treatises and philosophical works to Latin-Arabic dictionaries and commentaries on Euclid. Combined, they give one a real sense of how knowledge was created and transmitted as higher education became institutionalised over the course of the medieval period, and of the awareness which medieval peoples had of their cross-cultural contacts. For example, this wonderful fifteenth-century manuscript illustration from Italy (now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), which shows the “fathers of medicine” talking to one another on a rather Escher-esque staircase: Asclepius, Hippocrates, Ibn Sina, ar-Razi, Aristotle, Galen, Macer, Albertus Magnus, Dioscorides, Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, and Serapion.

6a013486c64e2e970c019affa92516970cThe final display case in the exhibition holds something that is sure to fascinate any medievalist: the original foundation charter of the Sorbonne, complete with its original wax seal, still attached by its silk threads. It’s surprisingly small and unassuming, looks like many other thirteenth-century charters, and is much less physically impressive than many of the larger works in the exhibition, yet is a key piece in the history of one of Europe’s most important universities.

Located as it is on a somewhat awkwardly shaped mezzanine level, the sens de la visite of the exhibition, as the French put it, isn’t always entirely clear. The explanatory material accompanying the exhibits is mostly useful, but contains some odd lacunae. The exhibition is obviously tailored to a general audience, and there’s only so much which one can fit into a couple of lines—but if, for example, one has opened a medical text to a series of sketches of mandrakes, it would seem necessary to explain them! They’re eye-catching but not necessarily something most people could identify. It was also not always immediately clear which manuscript was which—the placards were numbered but the artefacts weren’t, and there was one case where four different manuscripts were described but only three were on display. There, even the process of elimination didn’t help us identify which manuscript the third one actually was. These quibbles aside, “Lumières de la sagesse” is a highly worthwhile visit for medievalists and non-medievalists alike.


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