Wednesday, October 7, 2015

To Free Writing

I've been thinking a lot about scholarly processes lately; about the how, rather than the what, of what we do.  I started focusing on this issues while working on my contribution to last year's Babel Working Group meeting in Santa Barbara and it led to the session that Asa Mittman and I organized for this year's Babel meeting in Toronto and my own contribution to that session.  The session as a whole is summarized in a post on the Material Collective's blog and so the point of this post is to highlight my own contribution.  This took the form of a video entitled "To Free Writing" which is available here.  The text in the video was developed through my process of freewriting, which I documented in additional videos (Freewriting 1, Freewriting 2, Freewriting 3Freewriting 4, Freewriting 5, Freewriting 6, Freewriting 7, Freewriting 8, Freewriting 9, Freewriting 10, Freewriting 11, Freewriting 12).

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Moissac/Transi Chapter: Introduction

I'm back to the idea of "writing in public" and so of posting parts of the book as I write them, if only as a tool to get myself to actually write them.  The chapter I'm working on now is in many ways the hardest: it's the one I started with, but I've never been happy with it, and so a lot of my anxiety about the project is lodged in it.  Now I think I've finally figured out how it should work, but I'm still struggling to get myself to work on it.  Here is the Intro which includes an overview: let me know what you think.

The woman stands with her head bent down and turned slightly to her right.  Her thick locks of hair continue this downward movement as they extend down and out over her chest and shoulders.  One lock on her left side stands out as it extends straight down, crossing over the prominent horizontal bars of her ribs, and leading to her breasts.  Here the shape of this lock of hair is repeated, reversed, magnified, and multiplied as the heads and hanging bodies of two snakes that have attached themselves to her breasts.  The snakes’ bodies loop up and over her bent arms and then trail down around her legs.  The loops in their bodies form a line with her bent elbows and this line draws attention to her navel, positioned in the otherwise empty space of her abdomen below.  Its prominent mark is further emphasized as it is framed by the angled shapes of the snakes’ bodies above and by angled lines in her groin below.  These lines further extend the downward movement initiated by her head and hair as they lead down between her thighs to where another creature, conventionally identified as a toad but currently little more than a blob, attaches itself to her genitalia.
The line formed by the woman’s elbows and the snakes’ bodies is further extended, and their rounded forms are repeated and inflated, by the bloated belly of a demonic figure that stands on the woman’s right side.  His big belly extends towards her and the prominent mark of his navel further associates his swelling body with her form.  He reaches out to grasp her right wrist and the spreading locks of her hair connect this gesture up into her face.  This suggests the line of her sight, looking down first at his hand on her arm and then at his distended abdomen.  Above this line, the shape of his belly is repeated as another rounded form, another toad, that extends from his face and points to hers.  Here, damage caused by time and moisture has veiled her eyes.
This striking sculpture from the porch of the church of Saint-Pierre at Moissac is one of a group of images of women with snakes attached to their breasts found within the corpus of French Romanesque sculpture and found in particular on churches in western and southern France.  Other examples of this type of image appear on the churches of Saint-Pierre, Aulnay; Saint-Nicholas, Angers; Saint-Sernin, Toulouse; Sainte-Croix, Bordeaux; Saint-Jouin, Les-Marnes; Saint-Colombe, Angoumois; and elsewhere. The Moissac snake-woman sculpture stands out from this group, however, because of its size and its location.  Most of these images are on a small scale and appear in elevated positions; on sculpted capitals (Saint-Pierre, Aulnay; Saint-Nicholas, Angers; Saint-Sernin, Toulouse), in doorway archivolts (Sainte-Croix, Bordeaux), and on the upper reaches of church facades (Saint-Jouin, Les-Marnes).  The Moissac sculpture, by contrast, is a nearly life-sized figure that appears at the base of one of the sculpted side walls of the church’s entrance porch.  These differences heighten this particular snake-woman’s impact upon its beholders, both medieval and modern, by increasing the immediacy of their contact with the woman’s tormented body.  The Moissac sculpture has thus been a focus for art-historical inquiry into this group of images and will be the focus of my work in this chapter.
Most medieval art historians would immediately identify the Moissac snake-woman or femme-aux-serpents and similar sculptures as images of luxuria or the sin of lust, shown personified as a woman suffering torments in hell as punishment for her sexual sins.  Indeed, this interpretation of the sculptures’ significance has come to be such an art-historical commonplace that it has essentially ceased to function as an interpretation: instead luxuria in some form (luxure, unchastity) has come to function as the identifying name or title for these works of art and as a result their meaning as images of sexual sin is now simply assumed. In this chapter, I move to re-open the question of the Moissac sculpture’s meaning to its medieval beholders by re-reading the texts on which the current interpretation is based and by re-assessing the composition of the sculpture’s medieval audience.  I argue that both the texts and the sculpture present motherhood as monstrous in its combination of life with death and the human with the non-human (the demonic and the animal).  In the texts, that monstrous combination appears as women are punished in hell for their acts of infanticide by having serpents draped around their necks or attached to their breasts.  In the sculpture, the attention given to the woman’s breasts and genitalia could suggest either sexual activity or motherhood; however, motherhood is strongly suggested by the emphasis on both the woman’s navel and the demon’s, by the link this creates between his big belly and her form, and by visual relationships between the snake-woman and the demon and pairs of figures in the scenes of the Annunciation and Visitation – the same themes considered in the previous chapter – that are located on the opposite wall of the church’s porch.  The woman’s motherhood is made monstrous, moreover, by the intimacy established between her body, the demon, the snakes, and the toads, as described above.
The meanings attributed to these monstrous forms of motherhood, furthermore, would have differed depending upon their audiences, the readers of the texts and the beholders of the sculptures, who would have approach them from within their own horizons of expectations.  While male monastic readers and beholders may have understood these monstrosities within a moralistic framework, as punishment for the woman’s sins, I argue that lay women among the sculpture’s beholders may have understood its monstrosity instead in in relationship to their own experiences of motherhood. 
To make this argument, I introduce a second sculpture, the transi figure of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendome.  Likely the product of Jeanne’s own patronage, this sculpture uses monstrous forms that are strikingly similar to those of the Moissac snake-woman as a form of self-representation.  Finally, returning to Moissac, I suggest that lay women at this particular site may have been able to see the snake-woman’s monstrous maternity as a form of salvific suffering and so may likewise have been able to give a positive significance to their own monstrous maternal experiences.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Paris, patterns, textures, textiles: A photo-essay

I head home from Paris tomorrow.  I've done a lot of work here: finished drafting an article and wrote my talk for Kalamazoo.  But I've also taken a lot of photographs of the city and done a lot of knitting, producing two now of these yarn-bombs for lamp posts (I'll install the second tomorrow morning before heading to the airport.  It was intended to replace the first, but since it's actually still there, the second will have to go on a different lamp post).  This blog post is meant to tie those last two pursuits together, very visually.  It's also, then, a meditation on one of the things I love about this city; the textures, the patterns, and the details in the architecture, the street furniture, and the street itself.

Yarn-bomb in the Place Louis Aragon on the Ile St. Louis.

Crosswalk on the Rue St. Antoine.

Yarn-bomb detail.

Detail of wrought-iron work on a tomb in Pere Lachaise.
Yarn-bomb detail.

 Architecture sculpture from the Musee Canavalet.

 Shadow-selfie in St. Germain de Pres.

Shadow-trees in the Place Louis Aragon.

Vuillard-selfie at the Petit Palis.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Changes at Chartres

I'm back in Paris working on a number of projects: an article on transi tombs (see my previous posts on the transis of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendome and Henry Chichele), a presentation/provocation for the upcoming Kalamazoo congress on Medieval Studies, and the next chapter of my book.  A few days ago, though, I took a day off from all of that and went on a day trip out to Chartres.  My main reason for going was to see the restoration work that has been done to the interior surfaces of the cathedral.  This work has been somewhat controversial: in the US at least, it began with a piece by Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books, continued with responses by Madeline Caviness and by Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, and then with Filler's response to their responses.  In going to Chartres, I was following Caviness and Hamburger's suggestion that we should go, see, and judge for ourselves.

Having done so, what do I now think?  Well, it sure is different! You can see that in this photo, in the contrast between the old/unrestored surface on the left- the mottled grey - and the new/restored surface on right - the tan/buff/beige with the white faux-mortar lines between the stones (faux because they don't actually correspond to the breaks between the stones).  And I'm not quite sure what's going on with the marbled-pinkish section to the far right.  In general it's a lighter, brighter, softer, warmer Chartres: much less "Dark Ages," which could be a good thing!  After all, the notion of a "dark" "middle" age was invented by Renaissance writers to highlight what they saw as the brilliance of their own time period.  Most medievalists that I know hate that term.

 Even as I write that, however, I'm aware of how much it is shaped by the expectations I had going out to Chartres this time and by the photographs I chose to take while I was there.  I went to see what was different, and so I saw it, and I chose to take photographs that would highlight exactly that difference.  Expectation and photography also played an important role in Filler's scandalized reaction to the restorations: he begins his original piece by remembering his first trip to Chartres, some 30 years ago, and remembering also his prior knowledge of it from photographs.   He apparently expected the building as it stands today to conform to his memory of that prior trip, much as his experience of it then conformed to his prior knowledge of it from, presumably, black-and-white photographs.  Certainly my first knowledge of this building in particular, and of medieval architecture and architectural sculpture in general, came from the black-and-white photos in my college textbooks from 25 years ago.  One of shocks of my early research trips in graduate school was realizing that, even without their original polychromy, medieval stone buildings and stone sculptures are rarely the grey that they appear to be in those photographs, because the stone itself isn't grey but tan or beige or buff or pinkish or a whole range of colors depending on what stone was used, depending on what stone was available in that locality.  And so one of the best things I can say about the tan color used on the interior surfaces is that it is very similar to the color of the exterior stone work, including the stone sculptures, now that they have been cleaned: the photo below comes from the north porch.  Although the cleaning of the exterior raises some of the same issues about photography and expectations: Anne Harris writes wonderingly in her own blog post on the restoration work at Chartres of how a playfully manipulated black-and-white photo of the north transept sculptures better corresponds to her expectations of the building than what is visible there now.

Another of the shocks of those early trips was realizing that these buildings are not exclusively, or even primarily, historical monuments, but are instead still living places of worship and so of human activity.  While I was Chartres on that Friday, people were walking in the labyrinth at the west end of the nave, praying in the Notre Dame de Pilar chapel, sweeping up the altar area in preparation for a mass, working in the gift shop, begging at the western gates, climbing up and down the exterior scaffolding to continue work on the building, and towards the end of the day gathering in "medieval" costumes for some sort of a concert I think (I had to go catch my train before I could see what was happening).  This not a building trapped in the past, not in Filler's memories of 30 years ago, and not in the Middle Ages either.  The restoration work as described by Caviness likewise moves the building through time: the restored faux masonry and painted vault bosses are baased on a fifteenth-century restoration of the thirteenth-century work and the choir has been brought back to a Baroque state.  

And finally even the idea of restoration itself warps time: the "new" restored surfaces, as restorations, are not intended to be "new" at all, but to be in fact older than the "old" unrestored areas!  Time doesn't stand still here, but neither does it move in a simple, straightforward, linear flow.  We bend and twist time at Chartres, through our memories and our expectations - Filler looking to see again what we remembers seeing 30 years ago - as well as through active interventions in the building itself

Monday, January 19, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Islamic Aniconism

As a wanna-be Parisian and a professor of Islamic art, I've been following the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris with interest.  I've been spending a month at a time in Paris every few years since 2006 (I will be there for the month of April this year) and have been teaching courses on Islamic art regularly since 2002.  The latter was my response to 9/11: although a medievalist by training, I've become a self-taught Islamicist in order to teach that material because I believe that Americans need to know more about Islam and because teaching Islam through art history has the advantage of presenting it as part of a sophisticated high culture.

In following reactions to recent events, I've been most interested in two topics: reactions against the "Je suis Charlie" slogan and discussions of Islamic attitudes towards - or against - images and specifically images of Muhammad.  The most recent Charlie Hedbo cover, which I've chosen to include above, brings these two issues together by showing an image of Muhammad holding the now-ubiquitous "Je suis Charlie" sign.  I want to explore that combination here, because I see the two as having in common a tendency to over-simply complex issues and in so doing to collapse the world into a binary of us-vs-them, and because this is a tendency that I want to disrupt. 

The case against the "Je suis Charlie" response is well stated in this piece by Roxane Gay from The Guardian.  If only way to express my opposition to the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is by identifying with them - by proclaiming that I AM them (je SUIS Charlie) - then I loose all ability to be critical of their work, and being critical of it becomes identifying instead with their murders.  And in this way the world becomes divided into us and them, victims and terrorists; you are either with us – indeed ARE us - or you are against us, there is no space in-between.     

Likewise, in this piece also from The Guardian, two spokespeople for contemporary Muslim groups in the U.K. state that Islam forbids images in general and images of Muhammad in particular, and one asserts that this has always been the case - despite recognizing the existence of images of Muhammad made by Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries.   Their position seems to be that Islam is now/has always been what they/the groups they represent say that it is.  What get’s lost when they assert that position is complexity and diversity within Islam, both historically and in the present day.   Image use and its rejection thus become a wedge issue dividing us from them: “we” Muslims don’t use images where “you” westerners/Christians do; or “you” Muslims have this issue with images that “we” westerners don’t share and don’t really understand.

And yet, as Christiane Gruber has pointed out, repeatedly, in the piece I linked to above and in an article in Newsweek and in a piece for The World on NPR and elsewhere, the Koran does not in fact prohibit images in general or images of Muhammad in particular.  As Oleg Grabar discusses in his classic “Islamic Attitudes toward the Arts” from his The Formation of Islamic Art, the Koran doesn’t really say much about art or images and what it does say is oblique: the jinn make statues for Solomon as signs of his prophetic status, but then they also make him water troughs and cooking pots - what are we supposed to make of that?  Grabar goes on to argue that a largely anti-image position did develop within Islamic tradition, historically, over time, in reaction against the Roman/Byzantine/Christian context in which it developed; note that his title here is “Islamic AttitudeS towards the Arts,” not THE Islamic attitude towards the arts, so that he explicitly allows room for multiplicity and for change.

As both Gruber and Grabar state, furthermore, the Koran’s real concern is with idolatry: not with the existence of images, but with their (improper) use in (pre- and so non-Islamic) forms of worship.  And this is a concern that the Koran shares with the Jewish and Christian texts.  It is most clearly stated in the Jewish scriptures/the Old Testament in the 10 Commandments, where God warns first against worshipping other Gods and then against making idols/images of things that appear in the world and finally against bowing down to or worshipping those idols.  The concern in this sequence of ideas seems to be that making images will lead to worshipping them and so to worshipping things other than the one God who is to be worshipped.  The story of how Christianity in particular went on despite these warnings to develop a rich artistic tradition and to incorporate images into its forms of worship is a long and complicated one.  And it is marked at several junctures by rejections of images and image use: specifically in the Byzantine Empire in 700’s and 800’s and in northern Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.  These anti-image episodes were frequently marked by violence, furthermore, although typically violence against the images or artworks themselves rather than against their makers.   This period in Byzantine history is known as Iconoclasm, that is, the breaking or destruction of images.  And in Basel in 1529 a crucifix was dragged out of a church by a horse, hung as if it were being executed, and then buried in the horse’s stall (See Amy Powell's Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum). Thus rather than standing in between Islam and Christianity/the west as defining the difference between us and them, these concerns about images and image use, and the tendency of these issues to spill over into violence, are something that the two religions and their histories share.

Finally, to return to Charlie Hebdo, the real problem with the cartoonists’ work – because I do find it problematic - is not the fact that they depicted Muhammad, but the way in which they did so.  Because unlike the cover I included above, many of their images of Muhammad are highly offensive – and offensive in much the same way as many of their images of Jews and of the Pope.  Thus being offended by Charlie Hebdo is also something that Muslims, Jews, and Catholics, and many many others, have in common.  And this is because those cartoons were meant to be offensive to broad range of different types of people.  But that, of course, does not excuse or justify the murder of the cartoonists.  Nothing could.