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

Saint-Avit-Sénieur: Objects and Patterns

Our first post shows some beautiful patterns painted during the 13th century in the abbey church of Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne, France).

Saint-Avit-Sénieur, abbey church. Pilgrims’ cloaks (13th c.)

At first glance, when we look from the central nave of the church, this entire part of the south wall seems to display a large ornamental area made of geometric patterns. A closer look reveals that the painting actually represents luxurious pieces of cloth hanging on a wooden rod. The effects of volume, the folds, and textures suggest the weight of the clothes and their undulating movement. In the medallions and diamonds, some figures of animals (lions and eagles) evoke the motives embroidered on contemporary fabric.

This example allows us to measure some of the difficulties in defining as “abstraction” for the Middle Ages, situated as it is between objecthood, materiality, and ornamentation.

Before Abstraction

The research blog Before Abstraction aims to record the activities and present the results of the project Abstraction Before the Age of Abstract Art, a research program in Art History between Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland (USA) and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris (France), sponsored by the FACE Foundation (2018-2020).

This project is predicated on the extensive collaboration between the two project leaders, Elina Gertsman (Case Western Reserve University) and Vincent Debiais (EHESS) as well as on the active involvement of their graduate students. All activities are conceived as part of a research and training initiative for scholars at different stages of their career, involved in the creation of an original and groundbreaking joint program spearheaded by French and American scholars.