Medieval Sensations

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In His Own Words: Chris Bedford, Director of the [...]

“That day we read no more”: Art and the Senses at the Walters by Kerr Houston

Although the Walters Art Museum’s new exhibition A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe is a fine show on several levels, it’s not entirely successful in the ways that its organizers intended. Thinking about why that is can be, I suggest, a fruitful exercise in its own right.

Certainly the show’s basic premise – that medieval objects often solicited a multi-sensory experience, rather than a merely visual response – is a valid one. Indeed, it is a point that has been made repeatedly in medieval scholarship over the last two decades. Thus, as Richard Newhauser pointed out in a 2014 cultural history of the senses in the Middle Ages, the so-called ‘sensory turn’ can fairly be called one of the most important developments in contemporary medieval studies.

And certainly the works assembled in this show do their part. In what proved to be her last project at the Walters, medieval curator Martina Bagnoli (who recently left to become the director of the Galleria Estense, in Modena) drew extensively on the Walters’ own collection while also securing loans from a range of international institutions. The result is an impressive slate of more than 110 deeply various and frequently magnificent objects that consistently reward close study, and that do evoke and appeal to the senses in a range of interesting ways.

But before we get to those objects, we need to deal with what we might call the conceptual logic or the theoretical framework of the show – for this is, it’s fair to say, an aggressively curated show. The objects are often exhibited in groupings that are meant to prompt certain readings, and the numerous wall texts likewise emphasize (as we will see, below) specific lines of analysis. Furthermore, in an attempt to evoke the multi-sensory environments of the Middle Ages, several of the rooms feature looped recordings of a garden and a refectory bell, and in another we can discern the circulating scent of incense. Nevertheless, despite such active curatorial efforts – or, really, because of them – an attentive viewer who walks through will be faced with a number of partial impressions, unexplained decisions, and unresolved tensions.

Indeed, the tensions are evident in the show’s title. For one thing, the reference to art is curious, for its openly anachronistic quality and thus for its tacit acceptance of modern, rather than medieval, modes of thought. In the Middle Ages, the term ars connoted technical skill, in a wide range of fields of production. But in uncritically invoking the post-Enlightenment notion of art, the current show relies upon the much more recent notion of a primarily visual discipline – which, of course, is precisely what it is claiming to complicate. At points in the accompanying catalog, to be fair, Bagnoli does step away from the term, choosing to refer to objects, instead of to art. But it’s the title, nonetheless, that’s printed boldly on the wall – and that nudges potential viewers to think in terms of received categories, instead of challenging them.

Then, too, there’s that reference to medieval Europe. Boasting one of the richest and most comprehensive collections of medieval material in the world, the Walters is one of the few museums that can conceive of a show that might responsibly treat the visual history of a continent across an entire millennium. As we walk through this show, though, we quickly realize that it is neither broadly medieval nor broadly European. Nearly all of the objects on display were made in Christian, western Europe between 1100 and 1500.

There is nothing, in other words, from the cosmopolitan Muslim courts of Spain, or from the rich monasteries of Byzantine Greece, or from the dynamic kingdoms of Eastern Europe. And there is nothing, either, from the earliest centuries of the Middle Ages. To be precise, then: this is a show of objects associated with late medieval Latinate origins.

Even that modification of the scope of the show, however, won’t quite suffice. For in fact the objects on display can be linked almost exclusively to religious or courtly, aristocratic settings. That’s due in large part, admittedly, to the fact that it was in those environments that patrons were able to commission especially impressive examples of workmanship. But in concentrating entirely upon products associated with late medieval elites, the show seems to suggest, oddly, that sensory pleasure was somehow divorced from the everyday lives of most individuals.

Indeed, that’s an idea clearly articulated in the show’s opening wall text, which stresses the appeal of the garden in medieval culture. “Secluded from the chaos and filth of cities,” we read, “perfumed with the aromas of flowers, and resonating with gurgling fountains and singing birds, gardens evoked the beauty and harmony of God’s primeval orchard.”

houston_2Engraved and gilt copper handwarmer, c. 1240-50 (© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY)

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that the vast majority of medieval Europeans were never allowed near a private garden. What strikes me here is the stereotypical dismissal of urban life as chaotic and filthy. It’s a clumsy simplification – and one that was in fact satirized by the well-known 13th-century theologian Jacques de Vitry. In a famous exemplum, Jacques described a peasant who was leading his donkeys through medieval Montpellier: as he moved through the city, he suddenly encountered the spice market. Confronted with the exotic smells of herbs and imported spices and surrounded by the ubiquitous grinding of mortar and pestle, the peasant fainted – and could only be revived when a shovelful of comfortably familiar manure was waved under his nose.

Cities, then, could provide multi-sensory environments that were hardly merely filthy. But the anecdote also bears a subtler, deeper meaning: the realization, that is, that our abilities to process sensory input are largely contingent upon our own experiences and expectations. We process and interpret the data provided by our senses, Jacques seems to suggest, in ways that are cultural and even individual.

Given that realization, though, the Walters’ decision to play a recording of ambient sound recorded at Ladew Topiary Gardens (in Monkton) in the first room is especially curious. Is the Walters suggesting that we – having just left the steady automobile traffic of Center Street – will respond to the noise of the garden in a manner comparable to a Gothic observer? Jacques’s story clearly complicates such an assumption – but in this sense, he is hardly alone. In an important 1988 rumination on medieval art history, Herbert Kessler addressed what he called museological attempts to create, through the introduction of recorded sound into the galleries, “an ersatz ‘context.’”

Ultimately, Kessler concluded, such an approach was inevitably flawed. “Though a commendable motive to reestablish an original environment underlies it,” he wrote, “the approach is destined to fail because it must inevitably ‘recreate’ a context that never existed… To recreate the psychological aura needed to provide the historical dimension of medieval art, a spectator’s informed imagination is better than mock apses and piped plainsong.” In short, the sound from Ladew may be utterly pleasant to our ears, but it suggests a view of history that is simultaneously wishful, simplistic, and even misleading. But enough, for the moment, about the rhetorical frame that surrounds the show. Let’s walk inside, and see what we see – for, despite the overlaid sounds and scents, the objects on display are presented in a conventional manner that supports a merely visual response. (After all, as Bagnoli candidly told the Sun, “you can’t go around letting people lick the works of art.”)

The first full room, devoted to an exploration of some of the ways in which the senses were understood in the Middle Ages, is one of the strongest, largely because of the variety of objects and ideas on display. A remarkable 13th-century drawing of a head and hand clearly identifies the sense organs and offers a whimsical cross-section of the brain, distinguishing a region in which sensations are processed from areas associated with the faculties of imagination and memory. Although coarse by our standards, the image implies an abiding interest in the physiological processes through which sensation takes shape.

Importantly, however, in the minds of most medieval philosophers and theologians, the five senses were not of equal merit. Touch was often denigrated, because of its reliance upon vicinity, while sight was often celebrated as correspondingly abstract; it suggested the immateriality of faith to some. Again, though, it’s important to note that such academic preferences were far from universal.

When Chaucer’s Chauntecleer yearns for the feel of his mate (“For whan I feel a-nyght your softe syde”), we sense that he was typical of an equally common, if less refined, tradition of thought. And in fact another object in the same room vividly evokes the pleasure of touch. A copper sphere, on loan from the Musée de Cluny, cries out to be held, weighed, turned: roughly the size of a baseball, it is an object designed with the hands in mind. In fact, it was designed to be a handwarmer: filled with a burning coal, it would have aided a clergyman on a winter day by preventing his fingers – needed to turn the pages of the missal, on the altar – from seizing up with cold.

houston_4Antonio del Massaro da Viterbo, Communion and Consecration of Santa Francesca Romana, c. 1445 (courtesy of The Walters Art Museum)

The next few rooms consider the potency of multi-sensory experiences in explicitly religious contexts. Again, this is a topic that has generated a rich band of scholarship over the past decade: I’m thinking, for example, of the insightful work of Jacqueline Jung, Bissera Pentcheva, and Liz James. (“Inside a Byzantine church,” James memorably wrote in 2004, “things smelt and people smelt.”) Oddly, none of those scholars is cited in the catalogue’s 10-page bibliography – but their work informs this section of the exhibition nonetheless.

In a 15th-century painting of a vision attributed to the Roman abbess Santa Francesca, for instance, we see the saint receiving communion from Saint Peter, below an altar on which sit the Virgin and Christ child. The scene is quiet, formal, reverent, and characterized by an intense imminence: Francesca, kneeling on a floor of inlaid stone, leans forward, about to taste the Eucharistic wafer, and if the host of angels above were to break into song, we sense that the effect would be truly remarkable. After all, as Pentcheva has noted, the marble floors of churches created extremely reverberant acoustics: a fact that makes this taut scene all the more effective.

Finally, the last few rooms of the exhibition are devoted primarily to the idea of corporeal pleasure: to banquets, physical care, and romantic attraction – for, as Thomas Aquinas observed in a passage reproduced here as a wall text, “None can live without some sensible and bodily pleasure.” Again, though, the manner in which the exhibition explores such an idea implies a largely aristocratic and determinedly polite outlook.

houston_5Lady Bathing, early 1500s (Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge (© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY)

Two intricately decorated 15th-century spoons are typical of such an approach. Made of gilded silver, enamel, and masterfully worked silver foil, they feature tiny stars and tendrils, inviting a closer look – even as they also appeal, through their varied surfaces, to the hand and the tongue. Still, it is obvious that only a tiny fraction of medievals ever enjoyed sensory pleasure of this sort; spoons like this were playthings unknown to those who lived outside the court.

And what of the most universal bodily pleasure of all? Sexual pleasure – which required little, of course, in the way of material means – was widely discussed in the late Middle Ages, and in fact even Aquinas was open (as John Giles Milhaven once observed, in a useful essay) to the idea that sexual pleasure is in some ways a positive good. A splendid 16th-century tapestry depicting a nude woman in a bath gestures openly towards potentially carnal pleasures (indeed, in an accompanying tapestry not shown here, she couples with a man), but is primarily explained in terms of health. Repeatedly, in fact, attraction is thus sublimated into a variety of more abstract forms: the curators stress temperance, and spiritual love, and moral purity.

I’m reminded of Peter Schjeldahl’s reaction to a 2002 exhibition of Surrealist work that featured a curatorial emphasis upon desire as a path to self-knowledge. “All this heavy breathing,” complained Schjeldahl, “suggests feelings so classy that I am impressed right out of feeling them.” At the Walters, too, sheer sexual pleasure is abstracted – and, in the process, repressed.

houston_3Master of Charles of Durazzo, Birth tray with the Triumph of Venus, c. 1400

But some things simply can’t be repressed so easily. In the last room, a beguiling late 14th-century Florentine birth tray from the Louvre depicts a radiant Venus, fully nude, and with vivid rays of gold emanating from her pudenda and radiating outwards, towards a group of admiring knights. Likely commissioned in anticipation of a birth, this tray could have been used to carry restorative snacks – nuts; dried fruits – to the recovering new mother; it was probably also subsequently hung, to commemorate the birth.

Following a 1962 article by Eugene Cantelupe, the accompanying wall text reads the painting in terms of a highly symbolic combination of chaste and sensuous love. But as we consider the stupefied knights, we’re also reminded that when this desco da parto was executed, it was widely assumed that sight was in fact a form of touch. The popular theory of extramission, after all, held that we see by emanating visual rays, which effectively feel and illuminate the world around us: hence Alberti’s famous reference to “rays stretching between the eye and the surface seen.” Even as Venus emits rays, then, so too do we, and according to one school of medieval thought, we thus simultaneously see and feel the goddess’ divine form.

With all of this in mind, then, the large projection, in the exhibition’s final room, of a video recently taken at Ladew, is more than a little confusing. The curators seem to be suggesting that we have somehow come full circle: where, upon entering the show, we were greeted with the sounds of the garden, we are now confronted with its appealing forms and colors. And yet, perhaps the most appealing aspect of this show is its reminder that we simply cannot experience a garden in the way that, say, a 15th-century nobleman might have.

Too much has changed; the very ways in which we sense (and conceive of sense) have evolved. After all, as C.M. Woolgar noted in a recent book on the senses in late medieval England, taste in the 15th century could also mean touch, and the Anglo-Saxon term read encompassed both yellows and reds – for brightness, rather than hue, was a primary point of emphasis. And so on.

The show seems to want to end on a comforting, essentializing note: perhaps now, it suggests, we can see the garden in a more confidently medieval manner. But the truer lesson, I think, is the more complex and less romantic one: we ultimately cannot know the world in a manner that might be called medieval.

That’s not, of course, to refute the importance of trying, or to deny the varied appeal of the objects displayed in this show. Rather, it’s to accept a point made by Kristen Burkholder, in a recent study: “A historical study of sensory perception is inevitably limited. The physical world that was sensed is now long gone, only a few of its artifacts preserved.” So what, then, are we to do? Well, perhaps the great medieval poet Dante offers an answer. In Inferno, he encounters Francesca, a well-mannered woman who recounts (at once mournful and, we sense, defiantly proud) her romance with Paolo, which was stoked as the two read a courtly romance. The words on the page inflamed the passions of the couple – until, Francesca famously remembers, “That day we read no more.”

Sight is fundamental; reading is powerful. This is as true now as it was in Dante’s day. But sight can give way, as well, to the other senses: to the abstract complexity of smell, for example, or the orgasmic power of touch. And as it does, sensory experience becomes irreducibly individual, subjective, unverifiable. It is a remarkable fact that we can now, in downtown Baltimore, gaze at a 15th-century spoon, or peer at the 9th-century Fuller Brooch, on loan from London, and imagine tracing our fingers over its inlaid designs. But, in the end, sight can offer only so much. Francesca may have ended up in hell for exploring her other senses so fully, but it seems clear that she is not ashamed of that fact – even if the pleasures that she gained are not wholly known to us.


Author Kerr Houston has taught art history and art criticism at MICA since 2002. He is the author of the book An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2012), and his recent writings range from an article on a metaphorical aspect of the Sistine Chapel chancel screen, in Source, to an extended essay on Candice Breitz’s Extra, in Nka.

A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe at The Walters Art Museum is up through Sunday, January 8, 2017. More information is available here

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