Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Notes from Crown and Veil, 1

I admit that art history is one of my weak points.  Certainly I am just as capable of admiring a pretty image as nearly anyone, and I can differentiate between Romanesque and Gothic to some extent, but my knowledge of art history is not that deep.

So this volume's focus on art history is a welcome corrective for me, providing a different point of view and things to think about. And it has pretty images, too.

Three of the essays in Crown and Veil really focus on the visual: Jeffrey Hamburger and Robert Suckale give a general introduction to the art of religious women, Carola Jaggi and Uwe Lobbedey deal with architecture, and Barbara Newman discusses women's "visual worlds." 

Hamburger and Suckale give what seems to be a good overview of what is known about women's art in the Middle Ages, with some interest in reconstructing how works of art were used within the cloister. This sort of reconstruction of the material world of a monastery is immensely useful, I find; it helps give a real sense of what monastic life was like. They devote attention to textiles as well as sculpture and painting, and discuss monastic works of art as functional rather than merely decorative, serving a variety of practical and devotional purposes within the community. Very different from encountering the art in museums, moved far out of its original context.

Jaggi and Lobbedey's essay on architecture emphasizes diversity: although there appear to be general patterns in the layout of many monasteries, they cite many variations, most based on the local conditions of each community. This fits in with ideas I've encountered elsewhere, that communities of nuns were often idiosyncratic and relied heavily on local founders and supporters.  Some of their comments provoke further questions.  For example, they mention the grille as a popular measure of enclosure in German houses of Dominican nuns.  I don't entirely know when this feature originated and how/when/where it spread, though. As I recall, in the 15th century a lot of Spanish nunneries had grilles installed--so they didn't have them before--yet the German Dominican houses have them in the 13th century.  An interesting question, I need to see if anyone has really looked at this.

Finally, Newman emphasizes a special connection between women and images, looking both at visionary nuns and at guidance for nuns that emphasized visualization as part of prayer.  In some ways this essay reads like a boiled-down version of work she's done elsewhere (her extensive work on Hildegard of Bingen, for example), but it's a nice summary of some of her points.

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