Category Archives: Research Content

An Abstract Glimpse of Japanese Art

The project Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art focuses mainly on Christian art produced in western Europe during the Middle Ages. In this context, the concept of “abstraction” is put in perspective with Christian theology and with the elaboration of a theory of images. Comparisons are always risky when dealing with complex notions like abstraction, deeply rooted in specific cultural contexts, but they can also be very fruitful when highlighting the broad questions at stake in the survey about Pre-Modern abstraction. Vrinda Agrawal, Bailey Sullivan, and Julia LaPlaca (University of Michigan) offer here a glimpse of these questions for three Japanese works of art from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

“Both Boy and Ox Forgotten” from Ten Verses on Oxherding. 1278; Kamakura period (1185–1333). Handscroll; ink and color on paper. Dimensions: Image: 12 1/4 in. × 20 ft. 6 in. (31.1 × 624.8 cm) . New York, MET, 2015.300.10, Mary Griggs Burke Collection.

The Buddha’s enlightenment is represented as a miraculous event throughout Asia. In paintings and architectural reliefs, fantastical creatures appear around Śākyamunī and the heavens shower flowers upon the newly Enlightened One. In Japan’s Zen Buddhism, however, enlightenment or awakening was often rooted in the familiar, observable world. Satori 悟, a Japanese for “liberating insight”, can be achieved through a practiced awareness that develops over time, but it was also imagined as a sudden realization triggered by a mundane occurrence.

In the Kamakura period (1185–1333) artists of the Zen tradition favored representations that were grounded in the real and ordinary, instead of idealized other-worldly realms. The parable of ox herding is a well-known example of this. In it, the elusive ox is the zoomorphic expression of satori while the herder boy is the seeker. Over ten steps, described in poems and depicted in accompanying illustrations, he searches, captures, and finally brings the ox home. After the boy’s struggle and the ox’s resistance, they harmoniously come together in absolute unity, which we see in this illustration, the eighth of ten. The empty circle, depicting here the “true void” (shinkū), is particularly surprising when viewed alongside the other nine meticulously drawn and colored images. Its placement within an otherwise “representational” visual program not only heightens the level of abstraction but also demonstrates an astute artistic understanding of the power of placing an absence within the pronounced presence of figural imagery. It also forces the viewer to pause and contemplate the serenity that comes from first forgetting the ox (in illustration 7), and then forgetting oneself.

The deliberate emptiness of the circle embodies the underlying concept of mu – the nothingness or “not-being” of pure awareness achieved by the herder boy. Furthermore, the circular format was preferred because it is without opposing angles and does not have a discernible beginning or end. In fact, Zen monks would often paint stand-alone ensō circles as a performance of the enlightened self. The next circle, the ninth stage, contains symbols of natural beauty and perfection, but neither boy nor ox appears here. The seeker has detached himself from such ephemeral stimulations and sensory desires. Having realized his true self, he does not need escape to another world. The many illustrated versions of this parable, in many media, suggest that it was a widely viewed and understood set of images. Was the void, then, considered an abstraction or did it become a recognizable symbol, “read” in the same way as the other representations? Or does the empty circle ask the viewer to engage with it more, go deeper, than the other nine illustrated circles?

– Vrinda Agrawal (University of Michigan)

Sesshu Toyo 雪舟等楊. Haboku, Splashed Ink Landscape. 1400s–early 1500s (Muromachi period, 1392–1573). Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 28 5/16 x 10 ½ in (71.9 x 26.7 cm) (painting only). Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of the Norweb Foundation. Inv. no. 1955.43

Haboku, Splashed Ink Landscape (Haboku sansui-zu 破墨山水図), attributed to Zen Buddhist monk Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟等楊, 1420–1506?) and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, presents a waterside vista that emerges before the viewer’s eyes. Painted on a vertical hanging scroll, this late-fifteenth-century landscape oscillates between the non-representational and the representational. On the right side of the scroll, a pyramidal form suggesting a rooftop peaks out from behind two amorphous ink washes, while to its right a cliff recedes into the landscape. On the lower left side of the scroll is the signature of the artist.The landscape itself occupies only the bottom third of the painting, and the artist leaves the upper portions of the scroll empty. The viewer, then, must intuitively fill in the details of the riverside scene and imagine the vast space the sparse marks imply. In this way, the representational mode of this landscape is not necessarily abstract, but abstracted—withdrawn from the perspectival particularities of embodied physical sight.

Sesshūlikely first encountered “splashed ink” (破墨, Japanese: haboku, Chinese: pomo, lit. “broken ink”) painting on a trip through China. Probably one of the first Japanese Zen monks to paint using the haboku technique, Sesshū was also acclaimed for his work in “modal painting,” a practice of art-making in Japan that adopts, digests, and transforms the styles of Chinese art into a novel Japanese visual tradition. Some art historians have interpreted the seemingly spontaneous stylistic properties of this painting as representing the artist’s engagements with Zen Buddhism and its core values of enlightened spontaneity. However, it is equally likely that Sesshū’s practice in Chinese painting techniques gestures towards his self-created artistic identity, one that borrows from and builds on well-established image-making practices on the continent.  This work raises many questions about abstraction in medieval Japan. Can landscapes be “abstract” representations of space? If so, in what way? How does empty space play into the idea of abstraction in this painting? How would this image change if the upper half were filled with text?

– Bailey Sullivan (University of Michigan)

Hotei, mid-1500s. Yamada Dōan (Japanese, d. 1571), inscribed by Tōkei Jakurin (Japanese, dates unknown). Hanging scroll; ink on paper; overall: 85.7 x 35.3 cm (33 3/4 x 13 7/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1978.48

At first glance, there is nothing particularly abstract about this art work. The portly Hotei (or “Bùdài,” in Chinese, d. c. 916), a semi-mythologized Chinese Buddhist monk, extends his arm upward, pointing with an outstretched index finger. His figure is rendered in faint ink, but a close look reveals his beaming grin and twinkling eyes. Hotei cranes his neck toward his finger, encouraging the viewer to follow his gesture and gaze. But what do we see? A five-line inscription fills the top of the scroll. Perhaps he wants the viewer to ponder the inscription. However, the inscription itself negates this possibility:

Big stomach, gaping garment,

Treasures gathered deep in the bottom of his bag,

Passing through the sky is another road,

Do not seek that to which his fingertip points. (CMA website)

The big stomach and garments belong to Hotei. The “treasures” lie in his signature round sack that rests on his left side. But then the inscription becomes more mysterious. Where is the road in the sky? Why shouldn’t we seek what may be on this road? Whether we begin with text or image, we find ourselves in the empty space at the tip of Hotei’s finger.

This work illustrates a central tenet of Zen Buddhism—enlightenment is not something that can be achieved but is rather something inherent that is realized. Each of us already has a “buddha nature.” This is different from previous Buddhist practices that encouraged demanding spiritual practices in order to reach enlightenment. By pointing to the empty space, Hotei indicates that the road to enlightenment cannot be gained through conscious efforts that are perhaps represented by the written words. Instead, Hotei focused on present, physical phenomena, instead of trying to detach from the world.

Hotei is most well-known for his “treasures,” that are sometimes interpreted as the “treasure of consciousness” or the important realization of his enlightenment. This is why Hotei smiles contentedly, and why he appears to be disappearing before our eyes. This image may be an “apparition painting” (moryōga) in which foundational Zen figures seem shadowy and ethereal, as a way to signify their spiritual state between the mundane world and the transcendent reality of enlightenment. Can we interpret the empty space above Hotei’s figure as abstract? How might the pale figure, bold inscription, and space between work together to help viewers realize their own enlightened state, as described in Japanese Zen?

– Julia LaPlaca (University of Michigan)

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

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.