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The Past, Present and Future of Medieval Art in the British Isles

Where are we with writing the history of British medieval art? The arts of medieval Britain once had a peripheral place in broader histories of medieval art where they were frequently understood as passive receptors of Continental influence. Much scholarship has challenged this view and reframed British art as a vital component of European and even global Medieval art. But “British art” was never monolithic: it was created by diverse linguistic, religious, and artistic cultures (Welsh, Norman, etc). These diverse cultures and their art production were shaped and reshaped by colonial encounter from the mission of Augustine and the Viking incursions through the Norman and Edwardian conquests, and yet they retained their cultural, linguistic and artistic complexity. “British art” was also inherently international: the importation of relics and ars sacra during the crusades, the export of luxury goods such as opus anglicanum and alabaster, and the odysseys of artists from Rome to Westminster or architects from Bristol to Prague, meant that British art was framed by global networks of exchange.Recent discoveries such as the Staffordshire Hoard, the Macclesfield Psalter, and the wall paintings of St Cadoc’s, Llancarfan, and the publication of significant studies of Anglo-Saxon through Gothic art in Britain have profoundly changed the scholarly landscape and demand that we reassess some of our key ideas and approaches.

This session will present research that explores British art from a range of perspectives (including historiographical), although each will reflect critically on the place of British art within medievalist art history in general.

Sessions sponsored by the ICMA with support from the Kress Foundation.

Session Convenors:

Amanda Luyster, College of the Holy Cross

Matthew M Reeve, Queen’s University

Speakers:

Heather Pulliam, University of Edinburgh

British art c. 600-1066: the state of the field

Beginning with the Galloway Hoard as an illustrative snapshot of the current state of the field, this paper reflects upon 2023 as a pivotal moment in the study of British Art c. 600-1066. The opening section delineates significant themes and shifts in scholarship, delving into advancements in technological analysis and their repercussions on the material turn and eco-critical approaches. This example underscores a broader departure from connoisseurship and conventional taxon omies tied to specific periods and geographical locations, including ‘Britain’ and ‘600-1066’ in favour of approaches focusing on object biography, materiality, palimpsest, exchange, and fluid borders. The paper then transitions to a more comprehensive survey of recent developments and their potential, such as pigment and parchment analysis, the integration of AI and Big Data, the rapid proliferation of digital scanning and VR models, and the completion of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture. Concurrently, the paper acknowledges and navigates challenges confronted by the field, such as the intrusion of interest from the alt-right, the recent surge in retirements coupled with a dearth of commensurate new posts, and the burgeoning community of scholars grappling with precarious contracts in fractional roles. Finally, the paper identifies the potential and necessity of an increased commitment to dismantle prejudices and foster understanding across cultural divides, particularly in reference to recent debates around gender and heightened tensions between Abrahamic religions.

Meg Boulton, University of York

What lies beneath: reassessing how recently unearthed finds expand the material mesh of the early medieval world


Recent finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard (2009) and the Harpole Treasure (2022), alongside the uncovering of the Lichfield angel (2003), have radically reframed the ways in which we think of the medieval milieu which produced these astonishing material artefacts and cultural monuments, in a very similar manner to the ways in which the seminal find of the Sutton Hoo ship burial 85 years ago caused a seismic shift in scholarship. This reframing works on the lived and local level of Mercian cultural identity in the uncertain milieu of the 7th century, with its shifting and sweeping transitions at the moment of conversion culture; but also connects these gold and garnet objects, with their Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass and semi-precious stones in the case of Harpole, or the painted stone of Lichfield to a wider network of trade and cross cultural contact, as well as transferring some of their reframed significance to other material objects and contexts in this cultural milieu. We see this strongly in the way the Harpole treasure and the Lichfield Angel can and have shed light on the material complexity of stone sculpture, for example. This paper considers the multivalent, polyvocal and cross-cultural significance of these finds to reassess what they say, and what effect these utterances have on the scholarship of this complex, storied and networked milieu.

Matthew M Reeve, Queen’s University

The British invasion(s)? Colonisation, climate change, and the contours of Romanesque and Gothic Art 1066-1350

Although the period 1066-1350 has been bracketed by the Norman Conquest and Black Death in British art history, it is in fact defined by broader processes of colonisation from the Norman Conquest of England (1066) Ireland (1169) and the conquests of Wales and Scotland from the 1270s through the and 1290s. Similarly, the Black Death is now understood as part of broader movement of climate change—the “little ice age” beginning around c. 1300. This paper reflects upon the changing nature of the period and its new orientations, ideas, and institutional configurations. An irony of our post-Brexit world, current scholarship explores a Britain with ever closer connections to Europe, Byzantium, the Holy Land and Africa. Structural changes within the field mean that its interlocutors are no longer solely in Britain but are equally represented in North America and Europe. Although medieval art is often considered a conservative field within art history, the fact remains that medieval art history has always been high tech, developing some of the earliest DH tools from LIDAR scanning to 3D stereoscopic imaging. I begin with these issues and conclude by discussing the relationship of colonisation, stone quarrying, sculpture and architecture in Wales and the English West Country from c. 1170-1350. Doulting stone from Somerset created an industry of art making that used Bristol’s Welsh Backs and the River Severn to float carved and uncarved stone from Bristol to South England, South Wales, Ireland, and the Faroe Islands.

Amanda Luyster, College of the Holy Cross

Seeing ghosts: Islamic and Byzantine textiles and their traces in Gothic England

In the face of material loss from the Middle Ages, art historians assemble the skeletons of narrative. We introduce the bones of architecture, the flesh of illuminated manuscripts. Our narratives for thirteenth-century English Gothic may focus on “Englishness” – for instance, with the drawings of Matthew Paris, or on connections to France and the Continent – for instance, in the forms of Westminster Abbey. My aim is to “dress” these narrative skeletons of English Gothic with textiles. I suggest that when we introduce evidence of Islamic and Byzantine figural silks from inventories, chronicles, material remains, as well as English skeuomorphs of textiles (i.e., imitations in other media), English Gothic takes on a new appearance. I suggest that there is a part of English Gothic that is more far-ranging than we have yet recognized. Islamic and Byzantine silks were hung on the walls of Westminster Abbey; they dressed the individuals who walked its floors. Matthew Paris owned and gifted imported figural silks and wrote histories in which foreign silks play narrative roles. Recognizing the significant presence of Islamic and Byzantine silks in England enables us to recognize copies of imported figural silks (especially medallion silks) in various media in England, including wall-painting, sculpture, and floor tiles. The significant presence of figural textiles from the eastern Mediterranean inflects our understanding of English Gothic creativity – these ghosts are real, or at least, they were real.

Julian Luxford, St Andrews University

Addressing British Art after the Black Death: Problems and Possibilities

Informed opinion about the late medieval art of England, Scotland and Wales has never seemed more valuable. At stake is the advocacy of many thousands of buildings and sculpted, painted, and glazed objects that exist in a public domain increasingly ignorant of them. A huge amount of material in museums and other forms of storage also risks being undervalued, forgotten, stolen, or discarded. Most of this material is largely or completely unstudied by art historians. This is the background to scholarly activity in the field, activity which is commonly said – at least in the UK – to be in decline. The platitude of declining scholarly standards, familiar to students of most aspects of Western art, invites independent study as an aspect of a broader psychological phenomenon. But it is obviously less vital than what is being said about late medieval art now, and the future pathways this discourse can open up. My talk will touch on several issues that seem to be crucial to current work in the field. These include the persistence of ‘piecemealism’ in scholarship and its relevance to understanding larger corpuses of material; the ongoing reluctance of Art History to take the parish church seriously; the slight attention paid to the nature and effects of foreign artistic influence after the Black Death; the apparent lack of interest in artistic continuities during the long sixteenth century; and the challenge of writing Art History, as opposed to something else, in a labile intellectual climate.

Eleanor Townsend, University of Oxford

When is an altarpiece not an altarpiece? The Jesse reredos at St Cuthbert’s, Wells

In 1471 John Stowell was commissioned to produce a stone reredos depicting the Tree of Jesse for the Lady altar in the nave of St Cuthbert’s, Wells. Flanked by projecting wings, it was populated by at least thirty-three polychromed figures of kings, prophets and saints. Broken up at the Reformation, the reredos was plastered over, and rediscovered in 1848. The framework remains on the wall, with hundreds of sculptural fragments in storage. Remarkably, the contract also survives telling us who commissioned it, from whom and when. The reredos is thus clearly significant in its scale and complexity as well as its extensive extant polychromy and documentation. But it remains relatively unknown and has never been the subject of a major publication. The Jesse sits at a nexus of factors that have contributed to its relative obscurity: its late medieval date, its location in provincial England and in a parish church, and its fragmentary condition, but also its exceptionalism: it does not fit easily into taxonomic categories that art history has created, of altarpiece, screen, devotional image and so on. The paper will explore this marginalisation, central to the study of English art of this period, and will ask the question – is the Jesse reredos an altarpiece at all? 

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