Digital Medievalism

This session will discuss the benefits and advantages (or disadvantages) modern technology can bring to the field of medieval studies. Digital technologies have created new methodologies for the humanities. With the help of three-dimensional scanning, for example, researchers can “visit” and study medieval monuments in virtual and augmented reality. Similarly, the increasing digitization of medieval manuscripts make these fragile and often inaccessible objects available to a wider public. With the current social and political climate—the ongoing pandemic creating restrictions for research, and wars threatening medieval monuments and objects—how can technology benefit the study of the Middle Ages? Alternatively, could the application of technology to the field of medieval studies have any disadvantages? 

The field of digital humanities is rapidly growing and advancing. In addition to conservation and archival projects, new technologies bring forth new methodologies. How can these methodologies improve the understanding of the global medieval world? Can virtual and augmented realities help researchers visualize the political and social aspects of the global Middle Ages? Will new technologies expand access to monuments and objects currently hindered by political, social, or public health constraints? And finally, how can the digital humanities be applied in classrooms and museum education? This session will address these questions and more through an interrogation of the role of technology in medieval art research. 

Session Convenors: 

Atineh Movsesian, University of California, Berkley 

Claudia Haines, Tufts University 


Sabina Zonno,  University of Southern California 

Lynn Dodd, University of Southern California 

 Wide Access and Deft Use of Medieval Manuscripts in Virtual Reality

As scholars, we have the privilege of accessing medieval manuscripts for research purposes. Because of our experience in handling manuscripts, which resulted from years of study, research, and pilgrimages to libraries worldwide, we are granted this privileged access by curation institutions. This kind of access is built from personal and scholarly networks, costly travel which itself implies a huge carbon footprint, and an ability to gain permission to cross political borders. But institutions are also seeking increasingly to facilitate wider access to global audiences. Accomplishing this goal can be a struggle because of the implied investment of resources needed (e.g., spaces, staff, conservation treatments, etc.) Moreover, wider access competes with the imperative of preservation.
In our paper, we discuss a virtual reality project by which people can experience medieval manuscripts virtually. The project is being developed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with the support two NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grants. The experience is accessed with a headset that allows a sense of presence in a space while reading a manuscript created with a combination of a 3-D model and parchment simulation that affords real-time page turning by the user. Side by side translations in various languages are accessible along with the interactive features. This allows global audiences to engage with the medieval book while immersed in a relevant spatial and aural environment that is virtually (re)constructed. We discuss the challenges and possibilities of using virtual reality to encourage engagement with and appreciation of tangible and intangible heritage contained in these artifacts. We also address the virtual experience as a training tool for proper manuscript handling. Finally, we discuss universal design elements that support access and inclusivity through advanced, tunable features that allow people with diverse abilities to engage with the experience.

Begoña Cayuela, Independent Scholar 

The Colors of Sant Quirze de Pedret 

To solve certain chromatic problems related to medieval mural paintings is one of the objectives   of the project EHEM (, that aims to create digital layered models of medieval architecture and mural paintings that are as close as possible to the originals at different periods of time, ultimately to provide both an improved perception and experience to the public and an instrument for researchers, restorers, and heritage curators. EHEM stands for “Enhancement of Heritage Experiences: The Middle Ages. Digital Layered Models of Architecture and Mural Paintings over Time” and is developed by a multidisciplinary team with researchers from Italy (Università degli Studi Roma Tre, Università degli Studi della Tuscia (Viterbo), Cyprus (CYENS, Centre of Excellence), and Catalonia (Universitat de Barcelona). The hermitage of Sant Quirze de Pedret (Spain), with its complex architectural genesis in late 9th century, was decorated at the head of the church at two different times by superimposing one layer over the previous one. The discovery of its paintings, their removal and the transfer to the Museum of Barcelona and the Museum of Solsona took place at two different times (1921 and 1937) and with very different procedures, namely museography montages and restoration interventions. 

The different restoration criteria followed over the years have resulted in notable differences in the current chromatic perception, sometimes of different fragments of the same ensemble. In this paper we will review the challenges faced by the team in the process of recovering the colors of Pedret. It will also summarize the experience of determining the material characteristics of the frescoes, the chromatic palettes from the digital images and grouping them in the digital model to offer a unique opportunity to see the paintings on the virtual walls and to regroup pieces originally of the same fresco that nowadays are disperse. 

Kristine Tanton, Université de Montréal 

Meredith Cohen, UCLA 

Digital Gothic: The Case of the Lady Chapel of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (c. 1255) 

Current study of medieval art history focuses primarily on the study of extant works. Even for Paris, arguably the most productive center for Gothic architecture during the Middle Ages, only six of the approximately fifty-five churches under construction between 1200 and 1300 boast extensive bibliographies, while the forty-nine or so others have received little, if any, attention from art historians. This overlooks the vast amount of lost or fragmentary monuments, resulting in a distorted understanding of the field. Digital reconstructions of lost or altered monuments present an opportunity to correct this. In this paper, we will present our collaborative and pedagogical method for digital reconstruction of lost monuments through a case study of the Lady Chapel of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, one of the most lamented lost monuments of thirteenth- century Paris (completed c. 1255 and destroyed in 1802). Recreated according to architectural standards and integrating a wide variety of diverse and sometimes uncertain or inaccurate evidence—from lithic fragments to antiquarian drawings, prints, and textual descriptions—our 3D-digital model of the Lady Chapel brings a new, partially hypothetical yet archaeologically plausible, digital object into the known corpus of Gothic architecture. Analysis of the digital model allows us to better understand the context, reception, design and production of thirteenth-century architecture in Paris. 

Rather than presenting a final or fixed representation of the Lady Chapel, we argue that the heuristic, iterative, and intermedial affordances of digital models enrich our knowledge while offering a compelling path for collaborative research and pedagogy. 

Matthew Westerby, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, USA 

Digital Medievalism and User-Generated 3D Models 

User-generated 3D models are everywhere. As scholars and museums produce and share 3D models to promote research projects and access to collections, how deeply are we reflecting on our methods and the digital spaces we create? Free-to-use apps employing photogrammetry and laser scanning enable devices to produce and share 3D models through a variety of platforms – many promoting user communities through social media and streaming video. User-generated 3D models are convenient vehicles for creating new knowledge about objects and spaces from many points of view, in contrast to the advanced digital experiences produced for Augmented Reality exhibitions, high-quality 3D digital surrogates of objects published by owning institutions (such as museums and libraries), and sources-based reconstruction models produced by academic research teams. In this paper I focus on the proliferation of user- generated models and their user communities as a form of digital medievalism in the global (digital) museum. I propose that the process of scanning is itself a generative activity, comparable to slow looking or sketching, but one that enables successive acts of remediation and interactivity. I explore this idea through reflections on my own process of creating and sharing 3D models of medieval object and spaces, including the twelfth-century Chalice of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection) and the Chapel of Saint Lazarus in the crypt of Saint- Victor in Marseille.


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