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 art.org 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 https://ima.princeton.edu/conferences/

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.