Friday, February 06, 2009

Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art

30 January 2009
Arizona State University

With every decade that passes, the subject matter studied by medieval art historians recedes farther into the distant past. But that doesn't stop these scholars from discussing and writing about their passion. Nor does it stop them from publishing.

Corine Schleif, a professor of art history in the Herberger College School of Art, is the editor of the inaugural edition of a new online journal, Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art.

The first edition, titled "Triangulating Our Vision," features Schleif's essay titled "Introduction or Conclusion: Are We Still Being Historical? Exposing the Ehenheim Epitaph Using History and Theory."

"This edition is dedicated to Madeline H. Caviness's triangulatory approach to medieval art," Schleif said. "It aims to rekindle discussions about methodology and the use of critical theory together with considerations of historical context."

So what does this mean to the average person who travels to Europe to gaze at the windows in the Chartres Cathedral, or view other religious works of art, such as Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece?

"The triangulatory approach stresses using not just theoretical insights and not just historical facts and dates, but both -- not one without the other," Schleif said. "It proposes opening up works of art from the Middle Ages not for their own sake but for audiences of today."

In other words, Schleif said, the approach "shows how works of art from the past can be used to discuss the issues that engage us today: e.g. religion, race, the invention of whiteness, the alignment of whiteness with good and darkness or blackness with evil."

An example is the use of whiteness in Medieval stained glass. In her article, "From the Self-Invention of the Whiteman in the Thirteenth Century to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," Caviness explains, "in the later Middle Ages, saints in paradise gleam as white as their garments. By then it had become the norm for glass-painters to use colorless glass instead of flesh tints. A virginal saint might be celebrated in enamels, with a pearly complexion and 'pure' white garment. At some stage, Christians appropriated something of this sanctity by depicting their kind as truly 'white.'"

Did those Medieval artists really mean to imply goodness through whiteness? "We can't go back in time to ask the artists what they meant," Schleif said. "We can only open the works of art through theory, for us today. Only we count."

In her article, Schleif explores the relationships depicted in the Ehenheim Epitaph, a panel measuring 113 by 102 centimeters, which has hung in the parish church of St. Lorenza in Nuremberg since it was painted following the death of vicar general Dr. Johannes von Ehenheim in 1438.

No archival records exist for this work, which shows Saint Lawrence, titular saint of the Nuremberg parish, Empress Cunegond and Emperor Henry II, saints of the Bamberg diocese, advocating for Ehenheim with Christ, portrayed on the right. In this painting, Christ alone stands untouched and untouchable, but clad only in a filmy loincloth.

The inaugural issue of "Different Visions" includes articles from a variety of perspectives and disciplines. "To promote the combined methods of theory and history, we invited well-known art historians, renowned scholars from related disciplines, and young scholars with fresh new ideas," Schleif said.

In helping establish the e-journal, Schleif has learned a great deal about publishing. "The e-journal has advantages and disadvantages," she said. "We can have many images, and it's not as expensive to reproduce them. But the image providers sometimes want to charge even more than for conventional books, and we have to remind them that these works are in the public domain and that non-interpretive photographs are not under copyright.

"The e-journal is free and accessible, and potentially, you can have feedback from other scholars. And, e-books are more work in some ways. More and more, scholars are required to take responsibility for editing and layout," Schleif said. "But considering the status of publishing today, perhaps this increasing responsibility is good for scholars since it allows us to get our work, and get it out faster. As medievalists, they're publishing less and less of our work."

To view "Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art," go to