Monumental Narratives in Medieval Art, 1000-1500

Undergraduate Seminar

This seminar introduces students to the range of visual strategies used to communicate with large, socially diverse audiences during the high and late Middle Ages. Following an overview of medieval narrative theories that have emerged from literary criticism, we will proceed to a series of case studies of monumental narratives in various pictorial media. These will include: the bronze doors of Bishop Bernward at Hildesheim (ca. 1015), with their typological scenes from the book of Genesis and the Gospels; the Bayeux “Tapestry” (ca. 1080), with its account of the Battle of Hastings; the porch reliefs at St. Pierre, Moissac (ca. 1130), with their complex juxtapositions of parables, Gospel stories, and allegorical figures; the Creation mosaics in the dome at San Marco in Venice (early 13th century); stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral (ca. 1220), with their diagrammatic reformulations of biblical stories and worldly history; the choir screen reliefs at Naumburg Cathedral (ca. 1250), which recast the Passion as a secular drama; the carved pulpits by Nicolà and Giovanni Pisano in Pisa and Pistoia (second half of the 13th century), whose densely packed narratives unfold only through the viewer’s movement; the wall paintings at San Francesco, Assisi (ca. 1300), which portray the story of the church’s titular saint throughout the entire interior; and selected altarpieces by Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss (ca. 1475-1500), with their intricate, highly compressed depictions of saints’ lives set at the liturgical heart of the church. In each case, students will read the primary-source text or texts to which the given work refers, along with recent art historical studies that will serve as models of interpretation.

The aim of the course is twofold: first, to introduce students to the range of media, styles, and iconography medieval artists drew upon in communicating with large publics; and second, to sharpen students’ skills in analyzing text-image relations – to help them understand visual art not as a passive reflection of pre-existing textual content but as an active agent in the transmission of content, re-shaping recipients’ understanding in ways that transcended words. Readings will include works by Howard Bloch, Richard Brilliant, Ilene Forsyth, Creighton Gilbert, Penny Jolly, Jacqueline Jung, Wolfgang Kemp, Jules Lubbock, Stephen Nichols, Otto Pächt, Meyer Schapiro, Corine Schleif, Harvey Stahl, and James Stubblebine.

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