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Looking For Abstraction in Medieval Art

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What’s abstract about medieval art? Almost everything, explains art researcher and Humanities Center fellow Vincent Debiais. (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

Humanities Center fellow Vincent Debiais, an art historian at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, argues that abstraction—as an intellectual process and as a means of visually representing the world—pre-dates “Abstract Art.” 
 

This upends conventional narratives about the uniqueness of modern art; it also, Debiais suggests, throws open radical new ways of interpreting centuries of medieval works.


The popular thinking goes that “abstraction” in art is a modern, say post-1900, phenomenon. You’re saying this isn’t the case at all.

I would say that “abstract art” is really modern, but abstraction in art is not. While we might consider abstract art, as a philosophical and artistic movement, to have been born in the context of the early 20th century, abstraction was not born with it. It was actually already very present in medieval philosophy and Christian theology, and the makers of medieval artworks frequently used abstract, non-mimetic devices for visually capturing the world. By “mimetic” I mean where there is an iconic relationship, a visual resemblance, between the created image and what it is supposed to represent.

When I look at medieval philosophers, they inherited a notion of abstraction from antiquity, from Greek and Roman philosophy. They were interested in moving from the sensory observation of something in the world to the idea of it, from specifics to more general and universal understandings.

This process itself is abstraction, and the visual images that were created can’t really be understood in their richness and meaning if we assume that “abstraction” was incompatible with medieval ways of thinking. 

 

Can you give some examples of the kinds of images you are looking at? 

Let’s have a look at this rather strange visual object painted in a 12th century manuscript, probably in the monastery of Silos in Spain. It features a rectangular frame painted plain yellow, with some thin black lines expanding from the edges. And it appears in the manuscript just after a verse from Revelation 8:1, where the seventh seal of God has been broken and “there was silence throughout Heaven.” 

Now, people interested in medieval art tend to spend a lot of time talking about color, and they usually to do so in specific and, I would say, limited ways: discussing color’s symbolic properties—gold stands for the divine, purple for the blood of Christ, blue for Heaven, etc. This is useful, but I think that for the creators of medieval artworks, color is doing more than just symbolically representing something. I think color is itself doing something—color in and for itself, the ability for color to be, by itself, full of meaning. 


London, British Library, Add. ms. 11695, f. 125v. Here an image of heavenly silence is a piece of material, a shape of color. 


In the Silos manuscript, the block of yellow is, I argue, an image of the moment of heavenly silence itself. It’s not that yellow as a color “stands for” silence according to medieval symbolic logic; it’s that the colored area on the page opens a visual moment, a space of silence within the manuscript itself. 

Here, then, is medieval abstraction at work: a block of color that operates as a visual object standing for and acting for something that escapes the possibility of representation—in this case, silence. 

 

Is there something particularly “medieval” about how abstraction is at work in these pieces? Is it very different from what abstraction looks like in modern art?

Yes and no. For medieval thinkers, the process of figuration—what counts as an “image” or a “figure”—sometimes works in different ways from what we typically consider today.

They saw abstraction as an operation of the mind, aimed at forming images or figures that didn’t necessarily have to look like the thing they were representing. There were entire treatises devoted to the issue of what “representation” means, especially in a theological context. Abstraction was understood as an intellectual process toward knowledge—of which the ultimate end was God. 

So in many ways, both the arguments they were having and the visual methods they were using dealt with very medieval-specific themes and concerns. But the processes they were engaged in, the concepts of how to organize and represent knowledge in visual ways—these are unquestionably abstract processes. This is why I believe it’s not at all anachronistic to look at medieval images in terms of abstraction. 

 

Why does acknowledging abstraction in medieval art matter?

I think it’s important to challenge the common idea of an almost evolutionary procession, where modernist abstract art is somehow the climax, a new and perfectly original approach to the visual world, absolutely different from all that preceded it. So there’s a question of how we "periodize" art history, and whether we see the modern moment as wholly “new”—or not.

But there’s something more, too. Because our actual understanding of medieval artworks gets immeasurably richer when we start looking in this new way. We see images that have been overlooked or understudied, simply because they don’t look like what we think of as “images.” 

Bamberg, Staatliche Bibliothek, Msc. Bibl. 94, fol. 1r. Elsewhere in a manuscript, Debiais analyzes this image as a representation of time.


Let’s go back to colors for a minute: the use of one single color—no frame, no writing, just plain color. If you start to see—as a medieval artist might have—that color can be a figure in and of itself, then you can look at a painted white wall not just as an absence of something figurative but as an image itself. 

It’s very rare before the 13th century to have a figure with background images. When you have someone represented in a room, for example, you usually have a background of just plain color. We could see that plainness as the lack of an image. Or we could—and I would say, should—see that as an image. The background is not just empty. It is color, plain color, which is totally different. And then we can ask, what does that plain color represent? What is it doing? 

 

How do you think the “inner world” or meaning behind these images would have been understood by ordinary medieval people?

I have a statement that stands over all my work: I really think that most medieval images were made in order to mean something to the person who made them. Reception is an entirely different—and almost unanswerable—question. 

First of all, we have very few ways to know how a given image would have been perceived and interpreted. Descriptions of aesthetic experiences for medieval images are extremely rare. 

Secondly, I really think that the means used to produce an image were used by the artist as a means of making that image exist—not for it to be received, viewed by someone for example, but simply in order for that image to be. To exist in the world. 

This explains why it is that we have countless images on stained glass windows in gothic cathedrals that are literally impossible to see because they are so high. Being seen does not matter: the image was created in a manner that was accurate and appropriate to its creator, and it stands for itself whether it is viewed by other people or not.


We, today, often have a rather utilitarian way of looking at images—they need to be useful, they need to produce something, have impact, move you. It was quite different in the medieval period. There, the images had to be, to exist in the right and meaningful way. That was enough.

 

How would you sum up the main ambitions of your project?

With this project, I would like to stress that radicalness does not belong exclusively to modern art. I would also like to draw attention to medieval images that have been understudied for centuries because they are difficult to interpret in iconographic terms, because they do not “represent” something we art historians can easily label and classify. I trace the connections between philosophical and artistic processes of abstraction because that’s what medieval artists were themselves doing.

I want to show just how rich and complex their ideas about images and representation were. Understanding abstraction gives us insight into medieval philosophy, but it also finally allows us to get closer to understanding medieval art in its radical complexity and its beauty. 

—Bob Cable and Kelda Jamison