Some News from Our Project

French and US research institutions entered in lockdown in March 2020. A stated in a previous post, all the activities scheduled for our project in 2020 have been canceled, starting with the workshop we had organized in June 18th. During a Skype meeting at the beginning of the lockdown, we decided not to move to virtual workshops and symposia. The main objective of our project is to create the intellectual conditions for fruitful conversations, exchanges and discussions between scholars based in France and in the USA, to make them meet and work together. The online modality, at this time, was not able to ensure this quality of discussion. That is the reason why we decided in March to move all the activities scheduled between March and July 2020 to the same dates in 2021.

In the meantime, we kept working on several papers and the book project reflecting our researches on abstraction in medieval art! More news soon about all of this and the 2021 activities.

Next Paris Symposium – Cancelled

In this very difficult moment, we have been forced to cancel our next symposium in Paris on Abtraction in Medieval Art, originally scheduled on June 18th. We have informed our speakers yesterday, and we are now working on a new date next Winter to host the conference at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, and close the firt part of our intellectual adventure.

We are deeply sad to postpone this event but safety first, of course.

We hope you are all safe at home with your beloved ones. We will try in the meantime to post news about the project as often as we can, like this beautiful image dated 1375: a visual tool to calculate the level of the see according to the phases of the moon (Paris, BnF, ms. esp. 30, f. 2).

Abstraction in Medieval Art – Our next workshop in Paris (June 18th, 2020)

We are pleased to announce that we are currently wrapping up the program of our next and final meeting in Paris this Spring. After almost two years of research and brainstorming, it will be exciting to share some questions with important scholars who have also been dealing in their own work with the concept of “abstraction”.

The workshop is scheduled on June, 18th 2020 and will be hosted by the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, with the following speakers: Jean-Claude Bonne (EHESS) on Matisse and medieval abstraction; Jean-Claude Schmitt (EHESS) on the use of diagrams in the Middle Ages; Daniel Russo (Université de Bourgogne) on the use of colors in manuscript illumination; Elise Haddad (EHESS) on the depiction of stars in the portal of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne; Anca Vasiliu (Centre Léon Robin) on the concept of image in Philo of Alexandria.

More details soon… For any further information, please contact Vincent Debiais.

Abstraction in Medieval Art – Paris, June 18th 2020, 10h-17h (Institut national d’histoire de l’art 2 rue Vivienne, salle Pereisc).

Princeton Symposium – Some Thoughts From our Speakers

During the reception hosted by the Index of Medieval Art after the symposium in Princeton last spring, Angela Black (Stanford University) conducted three shorts interviews with Herbert Kessler, Pamela Patton, and Cécile Voyer. They kindly offered some thoughts on our project on abstraction that we are happy to share here.

The Creation mosaics in San Marco in Venice studied by Herbert L. Kessler in “Blur”

Prof. Kessler, what excites you most about this project?

It totally decenters traditional art history, which is focused primarily on sacred figuration. And it considers largely ignored aspects of the field and ground ornament, the relationship between architecture and imagery, and of course the basics of image-making, of the materials themselves.

In your paper entitled “Blur”, you spoke a lot about the impact an artwork has on the viewer, or how the viewer impacts the experience of the artwork, particularly when it brings with it a blurring effect. I was hoping you could speak a little bit more about that. When there is abstraction in a work of art, how does that impact the viewer’s experience?

I guess my fundamental argument is that we tend to look at images as concrete circumscribed elements, and yet we know from lots of evidence that the image itself was understood to be failing, failing to represent what cannot be represented, which in Christianity especially was the essence. What I argue in the paper, is that the blurring effect reminds the viewer about the inadequacy of the physical image alone.

Do you think there was knowledge among medieval artists that blur was a way to portray the essence of what we cannot really see as humans?

I introduced a number of medieval texts. I try to keep them as close to the points at which the objects were made in time and place. Our idea of the autonomous artist, as an isolated maker of images, is anachronistic for the Middle Ages. I think it never happened. The integration of theological advisors within the making of medieval art is critical there. We have to think of teamwork, and in that context we could find evidence of such a knowledge about blur and other “abstract” effects.

Dr. Patton, what made the Index of Medieval Art inclined to host the symposium for this project?

We are always inclined to host innovative events promoting scholarship. Nationally, or internationally. Anytime someone has a great idea, we are interested in talking about it. I have to be a little cautious at times about overtaxing the staff because we have so much going on with the new database, and we have our own annual conference in the Fall which takes a lot of time and energy. But when someone comes to you with an idea as good as this one, and especially because Elina and Vincent have been so dynamic about getting in touch with the speakers, that we really could not say no to something like that! It is a great chance to bring people together on campus and see a lot of different scholars who work on similar topics.

Is there anything specific about the project that excites you?

I like the idea that abstraction is being studied for its own meaning, for its own inherent values, because one of the things we are trying to do in the Index is to think more carefully about what subjects are. What is “significant” iconography? The Angel Gabriel talking to the Virgin Marry, of course, in the Annunciation, but it can be a plant, it can be an ornament…

Or a color!

And it can be a color! And this is something very new. In fact, we were under orders not to describe color back in the old days of the Index. We have begun in our new cataloguing to include color, because it can be quite important as an attribute, not to mention on its own. This whole idea that we could be cataloguing abstract forms part of the active iconography is really exciting.

Do you consider this new perspective as a way to expand the boundaries of medieval art history?

I think there is a change in the way people think about art historical scholarship at large really since the 80s and the New Art History movement. It reminds people that iconography is not just matching images and texts. I like the idea that iconography is fluid, that its meaning changes according to its context and viewer. The real opening up of how images and visual things speak to people has been truly exciting in the last 5 or 10 years, and this symposium is very much a part of this movement.

Beatus de Valladolid, f. 120r (la cinquième trompette)

Prof. Voyer, qu’est-ce qui vous intéresse personnellement dans le projet de recherche qui nous réunit ici à Princeton ?

Je trouve ce sujet très stimulant d’un point de vue intellectuel. Il nous oblige à mettre en discussion de très nombreuses notions, comme l’abstraction ou la figuration, et leur pertinence dans l’analyse des œuvres d’art médiévales. On doit ainsi se concentrer sur des objets, des images, mais aussi des démarches artistiques originales, généralement peu abordées par l’histoire de l’art médiéval.

Selon vous, comment penser la connexion entre l’abstraction au Moyen Âge et l’art contemporain ?

Je ne sais pas si l’art contemporain est influencé ou a pu être influencé par l’art médiéval. On sait que Matisse s’est beaucoup intéressé à la question des couleurs au Moyen Âge ; on sait aussi que Picasso était extrêmement sensible au langage des Beatus. En revanche, je pense que ce serait plutôt à l’art contemporain de questionner l’art médiéval sur un certain nombre de choses : sur la matérialité, sur la performance, sur le concept de couleur, sur le langage des formes. Il y a en réalité une convergence des questionnements sur les possibilités ou les limites du langage formel, et le Moyen Âge a sur ce sujet énormément à apporter, car c’est précisément là que beaucoup de choses se passent dans cette réflexion sur la figuration.

Paris – Meeting on October 1st

The second year of our project Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art starts on October 1st in Paris. Members from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland are flying to the École des hautes en sciences sociales for two days of meetings, workshops and visits.

This first event in France for our FACE project will give us the opportunity to present the results of the first year of collective research and to collect insights and comments from our colleagues from the medievalists’ group Anthropologie historique du long Moyen Âge. We will also have the great pleasure to dive into the fascinating world of architectural geometry with Patrice Ceccarini.

Join us salle Mariette (Institut national d’histoire de l’art, galerie Colbert, 2 rue Vivienne, 75 002 Paris) at 9.30 a.m. on October 1st.

Elina Gertsman (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland) Vincent Debiais (EHESS-CRH, Paris)

Introduction et présentation du projet FACE

Patrice Ceccarini (École nationale supérieure d’architecture, Paris)

L’abstraction géométrique gothique. Hypothèses

Elina Gertsman (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland)

Color/less. Vide et abstraction

Vincent Debiais (EHESS-CRH, Paris)

La couleur nue

Abstraction / figural / elusiveness

Title Page of Abbot Berno’s “Tonarius”: Initial D[omino], c.1030, Germany, Abbey of Reichenau, 11th century, ink, tempera, and gold on vellum, Sheet: 21.5 x 15.3 cm (8 7/16 x 6 in.). Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1952.88


From Barnett’s Newman’s zips to the vibrating filaments of a Pollock painting to the
dizzying concentric circles of Op Art, abstract pictorial space has invited the modern, contemplative viewer to consider a realm behind and beyond the canvas. Perhaps upon receiving this tonary, the reader would have experienced a similar sensation of being drawn into abstract space in this medieval manuscript.

This leaf was originally the dedication page of the Tonarius (or Tonary) written by Reichenau’s Abbot Berno (1008-1048) and dedicated to Archbishop Pilgrim of Cologne (1021- 1036), whose name appears below the illumination: DILECTO (the term of dedication) ARCHIPRESVLI PILIGRIMO. Tonaries were manuals that regulated the Gregorian chant melodies used to sing the psalms. Presumably the first illustrated page in the manuscript, the illumination would have invited a reader into the book and into the initial itself. Three immediately recognizable letters emerge from among cloying tendrils of gold. A large “O” in gold and orange contains a small “n” and “o,” which are placed on top of each other on color fields of green and then blue, in the center of the smallest “o.” The DO inscribed beneath the initial indicates the word “Domino,” or “lord or master.” However, even as the initial is spelled out letter by letter, the illustration defies both figural space and language, reaching into the abstract. Floral filigree escapes the frame of the large O and creeps up to the wider frame of the illustration; individual gold-leaf vines outlined in orange weave under and over the framed border, transgressing even this visual space. Other letters from the word “Domino” remain elusive, which leads us to some specific questions about the initial and inscription.

Questions: Where is the “m” in Domino? Is it indicated by the line over the DO? What does the “Q” signify next to these letters suggest? Is the horizontal line running across the central “o” in the initial perhaps the “i” of Domino? Why is the “D” not a part of the initial? Moreover, as we take visual step back, questions arise about the page as a whole. Why does the initial transgress the frame in this particular location? What is the significance of the color and geometry within the initial and framed space? Are they abstract references to the heavenly realms or the cosmos? What specific text does the “Domino” refer to? Could the initial be an extremely abstracted reference to Archbishop Pilgrim himself—a “lord” in the church?

Abstraction / pattern / natural

Sacramentary of Henry II, Clm. 4456, Regensburg, 1002-1014 360 leaves: parchment, illuminations; 30 x 24 centimeters

Borrowing patterns from the mid-Eighth century Carolingian Codex Aureus of Charles the Bald (Clm. 14000), the Ottonian Sacramentary of Henry II was likely produced before Henry II (973–1024) became Holy Roman Emperor. The borders and frontispieces in the manuscript are filled with elaborate and dizzying abstractions. Many are arboreal or floral, while others are solely geometric. A prime example of the abstractions found within the entire codex is folio 16v, which begins what is now known as the Missale Romanum 1962 and reads in near-invisible Latin uncials, “TE IGITVR CLEMENTISSIME PATER” (“Therefore, most gracious Father”). The word “TE” is incorporated into swirls of golden and orange-lined vines over a background filled with varying points of red, blue, and green. The “T” occupies most of the space; the “E” is smaller and relegated to the right side. The “T” is filled with Celtic-like knots, and it intimates heavily the shape of the Cross. Illusionistic and maze-like shapes occupy the borders, with windmill patterns (wreath and clipeus-esque) at the center right, left, top, and bottom margins. Taken in at once, the folio is bewildering. No single detail overpowers at first, and then the words suddenly emerge from the page, as if from ether.

Questions: While borrowing from the Codex Aureus perhaps implies a desire by the illuminator to emphasize an imperial lineage for Henry II, why reuse and expand the abstracted elements? What are the implications of the geometric and arboreal patterns intertwining or appearing side-by-side? How is abstraction used to suggest natural matter (hyle or silva) and perhaps Genesis? Why might these be important to the imperial provenance of the manuscript? How do arboreal and floral designs interact and relate to the materials of the manuscript (ink, paint, gold, and animal skin)? Does this kind of design prompt a certain reaction from the viewer? How and when is the viewer to interact with the codex? How was the page laid out? Is there a geometric root to the seemingly free-drawn designs?

– Reed O’Mara

Abstraction / geometry / interaction

Carpet page, Lindisfarne Gospels book, Lindisfarne, England, c.715-720, ink and tempera on vellum, 34×24 cm, The British Library, London, Cotton MS Nero D. IV, f. 210v

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, most likely produced around the years 715-720 in the monastery at Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721). Eadfrith’s successor, Ethelwald, crafted the now-lost original leather binding, which in turn was decorated with jewels and precious metal by Billfrith the Anchorite. In the third quarter of the 10th century, Aldred, provost of Chester-le-Street, translated word by word the Latin text of the Lindisfarne Gospels in an Old English gloss and added it between the lines of the original text. Aldred was also responsible for the colophon (f. 259r), in which he outlined the history of the manuscript. The creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels book was expensive and laborious. Indeed, 300 calfskins were used to make the vellum, and precious pigments were imported from the Himalayas for the ambitious decoration. Its images display a complex combination of artistic styles, ranging from Celtic and Anglo-Saxon to Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions. The iconographic program includes the canon tables (ff. 10r–17v), a Chi-Rho page (f. 29r), and decorative initials throughout the manuscripts. In addition, each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of the Evangelist writing his text (ff. 25v, 93v, 137v, 209v), followed by an intricately “carpet page” (ff. 2v, 26v, 94v, 138v, 210v), and by the incipit of his gospel (ff. 3r, 27r, 95r, 139r, 211r). Folio 210v is one of the five “carpet pages,” named for its striking resemblance to a Persian rug, composed of intricate abstract design. This folio is located after the illumination with the evangelist John and before the incipit page of his gospel. It is an extraordinary example of a page for pure decoration. The symmetrical composition of the folio displays a central Greek cross, surrounded by four crosses in the shape of a “T”, four vertical rectangles, four “L”-shape patterns, and four small squares. These geometric forms are embellished by knot work, spiral motifs, geometric meanders, and framed by a thick red outline. They stand out against the intricate and meticulously designed background, which shows an extensive interlacing of colorful birds grasping each other’s tails. This complex visual puzzle is contained within a double red frame. Each corner is adorned by a red and blue checkered grid, ending with a zoomorphic gold head. Other similar hybrid animal heads, shown in profile and developed in intricate gold knot work culminating at a green round disk, resting above the images, are inserted in the middle of each side of the frame. 

What is the purpose of the abstraction on this page? How was this geometric illustration meant to elicit meditation from the viewer? The page shows a complex and very intricate design; how was this pattern created and outlined on the folio? Was this geometric design inspired by any other objects made in other media and produced at the same time or earlier?

– Angelica Verduci

Abstraction / color / frame

Produced in Köln between the end of the 10th and the middle of 11th century, several Gospel books display an astonishing quantity of full page “abstract” illuminations. With minor variations, each illumination showcases a wide rectangular shape almost filling the entire page. Often, the central space contains a simple plain color – purple or white – or a series of colored horizontal stripes, framed by a simple combination of lines or a foliated decoration. In some examples, two small lion feet peek out from the bottom edge, while two equally small lilies stretch upwards from the top corners. Because of the presence of such illuminations in at least five different manuscripts, it seems they could not simply be preparatory frames for incipits or for any other kind of decoration that was left incomplete. Moreover, these illuminated pages belong exclusively to books containing the Gospels and are often inserted in key positions: either at the very beginning of the text or mirroring an important illumination such as the Maiestas Domini. The process of production of a manuscript in the Middle Ages implied a tremendous amount of time and resources, which correlates with the meticulous planning of text and illustrations. Because of this, it is sensible to assume that these pages bore a meaning that goes far beyond mere decorative purposes. However, the question still remains: what meaning could this be?

– María Aime Villano

Abstraction / plenitude / creation

Inhabited Initial C, Breviary, 1153, Montecassino, Italy, Europe, 19.2 × 13.2 cm, Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment, Ms. Ludwig IX 1, fol. 259v

The Montecassino Breviary (Ms. Ludwig IX 1) at the J. Paul Getty Museum is an extraordinary example of Romanesque manuscript illumination. It was created in the scriptorium at the Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino, a famed center of medieval learning. A prayer on fol. 248v provides the identity of the scribe (and possibly illuminator): the monk Sigenulfus. Given its small size, the codex was almost certainly intended for personal recitations of the Divine Office. There are twenty-eight highly elaborate inhabited initials throughout the text, constructed through complicated series of images, both abstracted and representational. The letters are consistently obscured by their own designs, which burst out of their frames and imbue the illuminations with a sense of animation. Light and dark blue, red, white, black, green and gold tones are used throughout the manuscript to fill this intricate patterning.

Highlighted here is the large Inhabited Initial C (fol. 259v), which dominates the page and introduces the hymn Conditor alme siderum (Nourishing Creator of the Stars). This hymn would have been recited at vespers on the first Sunday of Advent. “Conditor” is written vertically, while “alme siderum” appears horizontally underneath the large initial. The Initial C fuses natural and geometric forms to suggest both chaos and sacred cosmic order. On the left, gold paint breaks out of the delineated letterform. It appears to fill a sacred space between two mirrored dogs and a heart shape, blurring the boundaries between form and background. Although the letter is infused with symmetry and mirroring throughout its decoration, this heart shape suggests a horizontal hinge at its center. Despite the slight variations suggested by color choice and alterations of form, there is an overall sense of balance and movement conveyed in the initial.

How is the initial’s circular symmetry related to the hymn Conditor alme
siderum? How might its infinite interlocking and spiraling tendrils suggest the infinite power of God as creator? Are its forms meant to remind a viewer of the cosmos, or zodiac and star charts? How does the illumination reflect the intellectual and theological discussions happening at Montecassino? What relationship might there be between the designs of the initials and sacred geometry?

– Alexandra Kaczenski

Abstraction / cosmology / diagrams


Matfre Ermengaud de Beziers, Breviari d’amour, French, mid-14th century British Library, Harley MS 4940, fols.44v and fol. 28r

Matfre Ermengaud de Beziers, Breviari d’amour, French, mid-14th century British Library, Harley MS 4940, fols.44v and fol. 28r











This fourteenth-century manuscript is a copy of the Breviari d’amour, originally composed by Matfre Ermengaud de Beziers between 1288 and 1292 (British Library, Harley MS 4940, fols. 44v and fol. 28r). The text is written in Old Occitan, and seeks to demonstrate that the entire world is an emanation of love. The miniature on f. 44v is a diagrammatic representation of the cosmic spheres. Medieval cosmology followed a Ptolemaic model, with earth as the motionless center of the universe, surrounded by various rotating spheres, represented here as a series of concentric circles. Because this particular manuscript was left unfinished, the spheres in this miniature are missing the labels that would presumably have been written in the blank v-shaped section at top. The sublunary spheres, made up of the planet earth and the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) were understood to be materially corruptible and changeful, while the spheres of the celestial region above were incorruptible, immutable, and perfect. The celestial region contained the seven planetary spheres, the sphere of fixed stars, the crystalline ninth heaven, and the tenth heaven, also called the primum mobile. This tenth heaven was the sphere that initiated the motion of all the spheres below it, hence its label as the primum mobile or First Mover. Beyond the primum mobile was an unmoving sphere called the empyrean heaven, which was understood to be the dwelling place of God and the angels. The relationship between the empyrean heaven and the primum mobile is represented in a miniature on fol. 28r, wherein angels hover outside the abstract geometric rendering of the cosmos and turn hand cranks in order to set the spheres below them into motion. In both miniatures, the abstract geometry of the cosmological diagrams is set off by the figural representations around them (the angels, the vine scrolls) . This contrast between figurative representation and abstract diagramming reinforces the unknowableness and unrepresentability of the cosmos.

After all, how could artists represent something that they could never see for themselves? What other kinds images juxtapose the representational and the abstract, and to what effect? How do medieval diagrams make use of abstraction to communicate complex ideas?

– Aimee Caya

Abstraction / blood / harmony

Anonymous, En la maison Dedalus, ca. 1377, Paris, France; Parchment, 210 x 158 mm (entire page); Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library, University of California, Berkeley (US- BEm 744, fol. 34v)

En la maison Dedalus is the sole musical composition in the Berkeley Theory Manuscript, a collection of music theory treatises copied in Paris in 1375 (Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library, US-BEm 744, fol. 34v). Its score is distinctive: two concentric five-line staves form a labyrinth. A red dot consumes the center, immediately catching the eye. This colorful point of abstraction may suggest that the composition holds sacred significance.

In the text, a lover laments his inability to reach his beloved who is trapped “in the house of Dedalus.” According to legend, the craftsman Dedalus ensnared a terrible Minotaur in an impenetrable labyrinth. Only Theseus, son of Aegeus, was able to navigate the sinuous path and slay the monstrous creature. Fourteenth-century literary texts, such as the Ovide moralisé and Petrus Berchorius’s Ovidus moralizatus, allegorize this legend in Christological terms: Christ traversed the labyrinth of sin, descended into hell, vanquished the devil, and emerged as Redeemer of the world. At this time, architects also installed magnificent labyrinths in French cathedrals, upon which clerics would reenact Christ’s Harrowing in Hell. The red center in En la maison Dedalus can be read within this theological tradition: the red dot may serve as an index both of the burning fires of hell and of the blood of Christ, which removed the stain of the Original Sin and restored order to the universe, here signified by the perfect circle.

En la maison Dedalus is first and foremost a secular chanson. In what way does the element of abstraction contribute to a sacred reading for this musical composition? Would those who interacted with the score have been aware of the possibility of such a theologically inflected reading? How does the composition, as both a visual and musical work, enter into dialogue with the surrounding treatises?

– Rachel McNellis

Abstraction / reticulation / allegory

“Comme genyus absoult nature,” Roman de la Rose, ÖNB Cod. 2568, f.143r. France or Flanders, c. 1430.

This miniature is from a Roman de la Rose manuscript, illuminated c. 1430 in Northern France or Flanders (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliotek Cod. 2568, f.143r). The scene, rubricated as “Comme genyus absoult nature,” depicts Nature, personified as a woman, in an ermine-trimmed red gown, and Genius, personified as a confessor, in white and blue robes. It represents an allegorical event from the section of the Roman de la Rose written in the 1270s by its second author, Jean de Meun, in which Nature makes her “confession” in the form of a long, philosophical discussion on God, the existence of free will, curiosities of the natural world, and the fallibilities of mankind. In this miniature, Nature kneels in profile at the feet of the seated Genius, whose face has sustained severe damage and is no longer visible. They are the only figures in an otherwise empty landscape. The ground is the same grassy green color that is depicted in all of the miniatures set in the Garden of Love. The color of the ground darkens as it recedes into the distance and meets the horizon line. Instead of the blue sky that is depicted in every other miniature of the image cycle, the background consists of reticulated squares and lines arranged into a pattern of alternating blue and gold diamonds set in a red field.

Why was an abstract pattern included in this particular scene that features these two particular allegorical characters? Is it perhaps related to the existential, philosophical content of Nature’s confession? Or does it represent a change in the narrative structure of this episode? Finally, can we regard the defaced figure of Genius a a form abstraction?

– Dominique DeLuca

Non-Figurative Medieval Art: Preliminary Thoughts

Image result for cleveland fibula

S-Shaped Fibula, Frankish, 6th c., silver with garnets, 2.2 x 2.8 x 0.8 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Joe Hatzenbuehler 2007.225

Despite the scholarly tendency to define medieval art through a stable set of easily recognizable images, the long Middle Ages witnessed variegated creative expression that pushes against the confines of such recognizability. One such push comes in complication — and sometimes outright rejection — of the figurative and the embrace of the abstract. How can one develop a framework for the consideration of such powerful — and yet rarely noticed — assault on figuration?  

There are scores of medieval images — manuscript paintings, illuminated script, music notation, decorated jewelry — that do not fit in the clear cut-boundary of figuration, but instead lie in the realms beyond. Some are non-figurative, some non-representational, some abstract and others abstracted. These categories, of course, are not clearly defined. Abstraction can be found in ornamentation and geometric design, diagrams and patterns, script and swaths of color. 

Such images often beg the consideration of layout, composition, scale, and viewpoint. When figurative and non-figurative forms merge, do they continue to hold figurative weight? Do some forms become “dis-abstracted”? What is the difference in considering abstraction in elements of an image as opposed to the overall composition? How do we reconcile a figurative foreground and non-figurative background? Does color signify on its own? Or does its significance emerge through its relation to a figurative image? 

As a way of entering the fascinating world of medieval abstractions, we will propose, in the following posts, an overview of some of these and other questions through series of brief image analyses completed by students involved in the FACE project.

En dépit de la tendance historiographique qui établit l’art médiéval sur un lot stable d’images, facilement identifiables dans leur forme et dans leur contenu, on constate sur le long Moyen Âge une immense variété des formes d’expression qui mettent au défi la reconnaissance immédiate des motifs. La figuration se trouve altérée, parfois rejetée, au profit de manifestations que l’on qualifierait rapidement d’abstraites. Comment aujourd’hui concevoir un cadre d’analyse pour mesurer l’étendue de cette déstabilisation, parfois violente, de la figuration ?

Les images médiévales (enluminures, peintures, notation musicale, orfèvrerie) sont pourtant nombreuses à s’émanciper de la catégorie trop bien bornée de « figuration », à la dépasser en réalité pour s’installer au-delà de toute catégorie. Certaines ne figurent rien ; d’autres ne représentent pas ; d’autres encore sont soustraites au domaine de l’image ; d’autres enfin paraissent abstraites. On le sent, voilà des catégories bien flottantes… L’abstraction recoupe ainsi l’ornementation et les compositions géométriques, les diagrammes et les motifs, la graphie et les plages de couleur.

Ces images interrogent souvent les phénomènes de disposition, de composition, d’échelle et de point de vue. Quand les formes figuratives et non-figuratives se rejoignent, possèdent-elles encore une possibilité dans la figuration ? Est-ce que certaines formes « abstraites » peuvent redevenir figuratives ? L’abstraction affecte-t-elle l’image dans son ensemble ou bien peut-elle se limiter certaines de ces parties ? Comment réconcilier un premier plan figuratif et un arrière-plan non-figuratif ? La couleur signifie-t-elle seule ou sa signification vient-elle de sa relation à une image figurative ?

Comme voie d’entrée dans le monde fascinant des « abstractions médiévales », nous proposerons dans les billets suivants un panorama de ces questions à travers une brève série d’images analysées par les étudiants du projet FACE.

Symposium in Princeton – May 18, 2019

Announcing the first outcome of our joint project: a one-day symposium, “Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art,” which will be held at the Index of Medieval Art at Princeton University on May 18, 2019 and feature European and American scholars. We will convene a graduate student workshop in advance of the symposium, on Monday, May 13, at the Baker-Nord Humanities Center, Case Western Reserve University. For more information, please see below!

On May 18, 2019, the Index will host “Abstraction Before the Age of Abstract Art,” a symposium co-sponsored with the Kress Foundation, the French American Cultural Foundation, Case Western Reserve University, and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. Focusing on the long and rich tradition of nonfigurative art, which remains virtually unacknowledged by our field, the symposium will explore the inception and transformation of abstraction(s) at various historical pivot points between the advent of Christianity and the interrogation of epistemological queries in the later Middle Ages.

Rooted in the questioning of primacy of figuration, the symposium aims to introduce the concept of abstraction to the field of pre-modern art and redefine it as a visual structure that predicates the very nature of image-making. With “Abstraction Before the Age of Abstract Art,” we seek to interrogate non-figurative forms in medieval material culture; to contextualize these forms within the contemporaneous cultural, philosophical, and epistemological discourses; to identify the common features that favor the emergence of abstraction specifically in the long Middle Ages; and to determine how abstraction has been used to make visible what is beyond any kind of representation.

Click on the poster below to be connected to the symposium page:


Elina Gertsman (Case Western Reserve University)
Vincent Debiais (École des hautes études en sciences sociales)


Jean-Claude Bonne (École des hautes études en sciences sociales), “Decorative Abstraction: Matisse and Medieval Art”

Licia Buttà (Universitat Rovira i Virgili), “Geometry, Inscriptions, Abstraction in Medieval Painted Ceilings.”

Vincent Debiais (ÉHESS), “Color as Subject”

Thomas Golsenne (Université de Lille), “The Non-Organic Vitality of the Ornamental or Tranformations of the Mandorla”

Herbert Kessler (Johns Hopkins University), “Blur”

Robert Mills (University College London), “Back-to-Front: Abstraction and Figuration in Bosch’s Visions of the Hereafter”

Cécile Voyer (Université de Poitiers), “Imaginare: Incipit Letters and the Elevation in the Gospels Book (9th-11th cc.)”

With the participation of Charles Barber (Princeton University) and Beatrice Kitzinger (Princeton University)

Registration opens in early April at