Ecologies of Visual Culture in the Global Middle Ages

The study of medieval art and visual culture has recently seen a flourishing of ecocritical and environmental approaches that invite us to explore new ways of thinking about objects, buildings and landscapes. Drawing on the material, spatial, and post-human turns in humanities research, these have highlighted the complex ways in which human creativity and acts of making are entangled with non-human processes and agency. One aspect emphasises the landscape as integral to sacred space, placing built structures within their topographical and ecological contexts, and attending to other kinds of material intervention. Another focuses on materiality, the ‘stuff’ of the natural world from which both buildings and objects were crafted, to better understand their making and meaning. Across the globe, such interactions were inflected by different environments and cultural frameworks. This panel brings together new research on visual cultures of the natural world, as these relate to any medium and geographic region, c.500-1500.

Topics under consideration include: visual representations and perceptions of the natural world; the materiality of objects and buildings, whether animal, vegetable or mineral in origin; lasting interventions in the natural world, from free-standing buildings and monuments to rock-cut structures; ephemeral engagement with natural environments, through ritual and performance, mobile objects and temporary creations; the relationship between the non-human world and the human body; intersections between environmental science and visual culture.

Session Convenors:

Peter Dent, University of Bristol

Lucy Donkin, University of Bristol

Sophie Kelly, University of Bristol

Naomi Speakman, British Museum

Beth Williamson, University of Bristol


Naomi Speakman, British Museum

Into the woods: the British Museum citole and the English forest

The British Museum citole is a unique surviving musical instrument and virtuoso work of art, long admired for its dense decorative scheme that runs across its sides and neck. Notable is the lively interplay of imagined and pastoral scenes which inhabit a range of lush arboreal landscapes. Made of boxwood, it is believed to have been carved between 1325-1350 by a woodworker based in East Anglia and was destined for the English royal court. The instrument has long been of interest to musicologists as well as art historians, who have investigated the citole’s iconography and style from the perspective of manuscript marginalia and architectural sculpture. However, it has never been examined in terms of its real and imagined environment: as an object both from wood and of woods. This paper will present the first analysis of the citole from an ecological perspective, considering the object as a response to and reflection of English woodlands during the second quarter of the 14th century. In doing so, it will bring new insights to the way these habitats were perceived at the English court as well as demonstrating how the socio-political context of the time shaped the instrument’s making and design.

This paper will be divided into three parts:

Mapping the forest:

By mapping the scenes on the citole and identifying their relationship to each other, as well as the species depicted, a three-dimensional picture can be created of the variety and use of woods as evidenced in the citole.

Of medieval wood:

The body of the citole is formed of one complete piece of boxwood. Although scientific analysis of the citole published in 2008 included a brief discussion of the wood’s identification, beyond this there has been little work on the object’s materiality. By returning to the material and considering the distribution and use of boxwood in the early 14th century, we can better understand the citole within the context of its natural resource.

Law and the wood:

Finally, this paper will discuss the citole in relation to the management of English woods and forests in the first half to the fourteen century, such as changes in forestry law and charters. In doing so, I will argue that the citole does not simply show a series of generic scenes derived from the Labours of the Months and popular marginalia, but instead was a reflection of the changing status of the English wood at this time.

Meg Bernstein, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University

Meg Boulton, University of York

Of Elephants, Oliphants, and End Times: anachronic ecologies and storied matter around the Horn of Ulf

The Horn of Ulf is an iconic object, speaking to wider practices around object-based storytelling within the medieval church, existing within rich material and intellectual ecologies. The ivory horn has functioned as a tenure object since its donation to the church sometime in the eleventh century, an act which prompted the oliphant to rapidly accrue various narratives and associations, outside its original ecological environment, looking toward an eschatological future. Much extant scholarship on the oliphant to date has discussed either the stylistic context of and comparanda to the Horn itself, or the legendary stories that surround it, its eponymous owner, and the circumstances of its donation to the Minster, rather than exploring its origin, or the “material mesh” in which it exists. Over the course of the almost millennium that it has been associated with York, the object has become richly entangled with matter, story and environment. While interested in the original ivory horn, we foreground not the oliphant itself per se, but its symbolic, storied and material (after)lives, caught between ecology and eschatology. In particular we highlight the manner in which later lithic replicas of the horn are built into the fabric of the evolving Minster, exploring the interweaving of value, history, narrative, multiple, replica, and simulacra that accrete around the object and its ecologies of stone and bone, in order to reassess the myriad ecological, material and conceptual connections between the Horn of Ulf to both the Minster and the Church; its matter, history, memory and legacy.

Mads Vedel Heilskov, Aarhus University

The Portable Altar as Interspecies Assemblage

Portable altars were in use at least since the 8th century in the wake of Christian missionary activity but gained significant popularity during the 11th and 12th centuries. Most portable altars were shaped as boxes and operated as consecrated miniature representations of the church with the ability to sacralise the space they occupied. Like the church itself, they contained relics following the prescriptions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. While most studies on portable altars have focused on their function in religious practices, showing a development from being travelling altars towards a role similar to that of reliquaries, or on matters of patronage and social ambitions, I wish to shift the emphasis to their materiality and its ecological implications. On the background of actor-network analyses of selected mixed-media specimens, all produced in Lower Saxony during the 11th to 13th centuries, I will put forward a new interpretation of them as interspecies assemblages. I wish to show that portable altars, as assemblages of elements sourced from the natural world, effectively morphed various species (e.g. wood, stones, metals, corals, natural pearls, glues and pigments of plant and/or animal matter, textiles made from animal and plant parts, parchments made from animal hides, and (holy) human bones) into one object. Via its particles, such object was able to contain the very fabric – or “stuff” – of the Christian cosmos.

Zoe Appleby, Case Western Reserve University

Materials in Dialogue with an Aqueous Landscape: Marble, Glass, and Shell in San Vitale, Ravenna

The interior of the Basilica of San Vitale glistens with blue and white Proconnesian marble, red Cipollino Rosso marble, levantine-type glass, and mother-of-pearl shell. Despite a wealth of technical information, no interpretive material study has been made of San Vitale. Through an environmental approach, this paper argues that these materials –marble, glass, and shell– participated in mutual meaning-making with Ravenna’s aqueous landscape in the early medieval perception. In the medieval understanding, marble, glass, and shell were materially related to water, indexing transformations of that fluid. Mother-of-pearl shells, visible in San Vitale’s mosaics, were born from seawater. Glass was related to water through its liquid nature and the scientific belief that the action and acridity of sea-water was essential for the formation of glass. Most tesserae in San Vitale are levantine-type glass, imported likely by sea from the Eastern Mediterranean. The marble of San Vitale, quarried from two Greek islands, was believed to be petrified water, produced through the hardening of vapors under the earth’s surface. Water was pregnant with global and local meaning for early medieval Ravenites. Christians associated water with divine rulership, baptism, the eucharist, Genesis, and Revelations. Water also bore local meaning derived from the aqueous landscape. Situated on a prominent Adriatic port and surrounded by mythically impregnable marshes, Ravenna acquired mercantile wealth and military reputation from the water of its landscape. This paper interrogates the materialities of San Vitale’s interior decoration, arguing that an environmental material perspective reveals the intensely local and environmental character of the basilica.

Jamie E. Forde, University of Edinburgh

An Ecology of Precious Substances in Medieval to Early Modern Mexico

In prehispanic Mexico, precious materials, including gemstones, metals, and feathers of exotic birds, were intrinsic to Indigenous understandings of, and engagements with, the sacred. At base, there existed widespread belief in an idealized celestial realm known to scholars as “The Flower World”—a place filled not just with blossoming flowers, but an array of other polychromic and shimmering objects, including jades, gold, parrots, and butterflies. An interesting feature of prehispanic and colonial painted manuscripts is that some of these distinct substances are represented with virtually identical motifs. What accounted for such visual conflations? These materials ostensibly did not transform into one another in a manner akin to European conceptions of alchemy. Instead, evidence suggests they were all linked by being seen as in states of constant transformation and growth, like flowers and other plants, embodying what we might call vegetal ontologies. In the wake of the colonial encounter, I argue that the fluidity and ever-changing nature of these substances allowed other materials introduced from Europe—including silk textiles—to then be absorbed into conceptions of the Flower World. By adopting silk objects and other liturgical vestments, and folding them into these same Indigenous vegetal ontologies, it became possible for a new syncretic vision of the flowery celestial realm to be materialized in early Catholic churches.

Jessica Barker, Courtauld Institute of Art

Portuguese Monuments and the Ecology of Empire

“He pressed the soles of his feet into the ground of Africa.” This striking phrase is part of the lengthy epitaph inscribed on the monument to João I, King of Portugal (d. 1434). Taking João’s memorial as my starting point, my talk will explore the particular significance of ground, rock, and soil to the nascent imperial ideology of the Portuguese royal court. I will focus on the padrões: massive columnar memorials erected at various points on the coastline of west Africa to mark the farthest points that had yet been reached by European navigators. As Portuguese ‘exploration’ expanded, there was an important shift in the materials of these monuments: whereas earlier versions were constructed in situ from local wood, from the 1480s the padrões began to be carved from stone quarried close to Lisbon and loaded onto ships before the navigators set off on their voyage, meaning that they quite literally transplanted European rock onto the west African coastline. The considerable weight of each monument (over a tonne) needed to be replaced on the return journey to balance the ships: the African ‘goods’ shipped back to Lisbon during this period would almost certainly have included enslaved people. Such an appalling exchange opens onto a broader question of whether we might be able to recover anything of how these monuments were understood by the various peoples of west Africa, especially their understanding of the liminal space of rock and sea.

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