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Word & Image






Taylor and Francis

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It has been persuasively argued that before the fifteenth century the category of art as a theorized entity did not exist; this was a period for which we can write a history of the image, but not a history of art. Notably, Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).View all notesCareful scrutiny of both intellectual and popular discourse on images, east and west, has resulted in the more cautious view that medieval people, while experiencing what we now call ‘art’ largely through processual rituals and the paradigm of spiritual vision, were also aware, on a variety of levels, of the art object qua art object. At various times and places, they recognized the object as an artificial (i.e. manufactured) representation, capable of being evaluated in aesthetic as well as theological terms. This point is raised (in relation to post-Iconoclastic art theory in Byzantium) by Charles Barber, ‘From Image into Art: Art after Byzantine Iconoclasm,’ Gesta, 34/1 (1995), 5–10.View all notesIn this essay, I am concerned with several texts that give evidence of such recognition of ‘objecthood’ in a category of objects that certainly functioned in a religious and ritual mode, but which at the same time (between about 1150 and 1250) came increasingly to be viewed in aesthetic terms. The friction between these two ways of seeing these objects — specifically, representations of the Virgin and her son — comes into view not in high-minded theological tracts, but in the literature directed toward the instruction of those whom the theologians suspected of being most dependent on and simultaneously given to mistaken understanding of visual representation. Specifically, the laity, women, and other classes of people presumed ignorant and/or illiterate were associated in medieval thinking with the use of material images in devotion.