The relationship between the beholder and the work of art has been a major topic of interest in art history as a discipline over approximately the past 40 years. Nevertheless, I find that the most useful conceptual tools for understanding this relationship come from the work of literary theorists writing about the relationship between the reader and the text; specifically Hans Robert Jauss’s work on reception in combination with Wolfgang Iser’s on response.
Jauss focuses on the reader or beholder’s share in this relationship, introducing the term “horizon of expectations” to refer to the store of experiences, ideas, and concerns that readers bring to texts or beholders to works of art. According to Jauss, this "horizon" forms the background to the text or artwork as foreground, the question to which the work is an answer - or to which it is made to answer as it is virtually re-made in the minds of its readers/beholders in order to fit within their horizons, match their backgrounds, or respond to their concerns. This horizon is variable and multi-layered. It changes over time as later readers/beholders bring different sets of experiences and interests to surviving texts and artworks, so that the work of the historian of literature or art is in part the reconstruction of past horizons. It begins with the reader/beholders’ prior experiences and expectations about texts or works of art themselves and from this innermost horizon extends a much broader one formed from the reader/beholder’s life experiences. This broader horizon stretches in different directions for different readers and beholders, responding to the differences in their social roles and experiences.
Thus medieval men and women, members of the clergy and lay people, would have had differing horizons for the sculptures that are the focus of the book and so would have remade them through reception in different ways. A central premise for this book is that motherhood would have formed an important part of medieval lay women’s horizons for these sculptures; that motherhood would have formed a background of experiences against which these women would have understood the works of art, and that the meanings of their maternal experiences would have been a question that they looked to the sculptures to answer.
While Jauss’s work explicates the reader/beholder’s contribution to the making of meaning, Iser’s focuses instead on the role of the text or, by extension, the work of art. His interest is how the form of the text or artwork shapes the reader or beholder’s experience of it. Both perspectives are of equal importance. For as much as the beholder comes to the work of art with specific experiences and interests, so the work of art presents her with specific forms and figures to consider in the light of those experiences and interests. Thus neither the beholder nor the work of art is a blank slate for the other’s inscription of meaning. Instead both are active agents in the process of meaning-making and its outcome is a creative synthesis of their contributions. However, the two perspectives differ as they enter into historical work. Jauss’s work on reception stakes out of historical difference and distance as the horizon of expectations shifts over time, whereas Iser’s work on response emphasizes instead the possibility of continuity and contact over time. According to Iser, the historian-as-reader or beholder’s response will be scripted by the text or work of art itself in much the same way as the historical reader/beholder's was and that will allow the later reader/beholder to experience a previous historical situation – at least to some degree.
Iser’s work thus encourages me to take my own responses to medieval artworks seriously as avenues towards historical understanding. This book is shaped by my responses to medieval sculptures in two ways. First, I chose the specific sculptures to be considered here based on my responses to them: these were works of art that stood out to me as being potentially productive to consider in relationship to medieval women’s experiences of motherhood. And so I can speculate, at least, that they would have likewise appealed to the lay women who were among their original beholders as potentially productive sites for thinking about their own maternal experiences.
Even as I trust my own responses to the sculptures, however, I also need to acknowledge my own horizon of expectations, the experiences and interests that I bring to these works of art and so to this book as my act of meaning-making. I began writing about motherhood as a context for understanding images of female bodies in medieval art in my doctoral dissertation and this book is a continuation of that work. In turning to motherhood, I was looking for a way of writing about these artworks that was not shaped by the medieval church’s highly misogynistic teachings about sexuality and sin. In the light of Howard Bloch’s work on medieval misogyny as a discourse of citation and repetition, I was concerned that continuing to write about this discourse, even in a critical light, only served to perpetuate it.
My horizon for this project, furthermore, is personal as well as scholarly. I am not a mother and so motherhood is not an experience that I bring to these sculptures, nor to this book. However, during work on my dissertation, I was briefly pregnant and I chose to terminate that pregnancy. As that happened at approximately the same time as my turn to motherhood in my writing, it is clear to me that there is a relationship between the two. While I do not regret the choice that I made, it seems clear that my turn to writing about motherhood in my scholarship is also my effort to understand this experience that I chose not to have in my own life.