An interview with art historian Michele Luigi Vescovi from the University of Lincoln (UK), who was visiting the CRC 933 in the month of May, 2017.
Michele, you are here as a guest researcher for three weeks. How did you get in contact with the CRC 933?
I met Wilfried Keil, member of subproject A05 “Script and Characters on and in Medieval Artwork”, at a conference in Bamberg in 2013. Afterwards, I invited him as a speaker in a workshop on the interactions between holy bodies, spaces and images I have organised at the University of York. Since then, we meet every year and work together on our related projects. The work of Wilfried and his colleagues Kristina Krüger, Tobias Frese, and Matthias Untermann (all members of subproject A05) has been seminal for my own work.
Which are the connections between their research and your present projects?
Currently, I mainly work on two roughly interlinked projects. One deals with “The Contested Body”. I explore how the presence of holy bodies in churches in Western Europe, from 9th to 12th century, has been made evident through images, inscriptions and architecture. In a second project, I work on the connections between liturgy and monumental sculpture in the twelfth century.
Both of these projects are akin to those of CRC 933 subproject A05 in that they are about the interrelations of space, inscriptions, architecture, liturgy, and intellectual ideas.
What have you been doing during your time at Heidelberg?
Ohhh (laughing), I had a wonderful time working in the library! Also, I went on short trips with Wilfried. We visited churches and their many inscriptions in Trier, Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg and Speyer. But aside from that I had a very inspiring time here because of the workshop on Relics, Inscriptions, and ecclesiastical space in the Middle Ages. I had the opportunity to talk to the CRC’s Medieval Latinists Kirsten Wallenwein and Tino Licht, both working on relics and their labels.
As one of the first results of my time here, very much inspired by the results of Materiale Textkulturen, I started to think about not only how the presence of holy bodies is evoked by images and their inscriptions, but also how images become present as images through inscriptions.
You held a presentation about the physical presence of the holy bodies in medieval churches. What is the nature of these inscriptions and how could they invoke presence?
Recently, I was very much concerned with the church of St Emmeram in Regensburg, which claimed, around 1050, to possess the body of St Dionysius (the same is of course claimed by the famous abbey of St Denis in the North of Paris). I am not interested in finding out whether the body actually was there, but in the way in which its presence was constructed. My thesis is that this was done by the interplay of architecture, images and inscriptions. The deep meaning of the inscriptions, in particular, could be unravelled through the analysis of the manuscripts held in the library of St Emmeram.
Could you give an example?
Yes, of course. In the portal of St Emmeram we find three carvings of St Dionysius, St Emmeram and Christ. The inscriptions state things about the person depicted in hexameters. The name of Christ and the Saints appears somewhere on the image’s head level. Thus, the wording is pretty much predefined by material, layout and metric. On the semantic layer the St Dionysius inscription tells us that the image makes the presence of the saint visible. I find it very interesting that the inscription itself discusses the image and its effect.
Do all three inscriptions refer to the image in this way?
No. Namely, even more exciting is the inscription of the image of Christ. Christ is referred to as rock and it is emphasized that the image is made of rock (saxo). Now, this is quite unusual. You would expect the metaphor of Christ as stone (lapis); ‘rock’ sounds raw. Moreover, in this case the metaphor of rock is metonymically enhanced by the material of the image. As many scholars before me, I was puzzled by this.
But then, I turned to the manuscripts of St Emmeram’s library. And there I found the corresponding passage. Most likely, the inscription refers to Deuteronomy 32:13 – God made honey and oil flowing from rocks – and to the exegetical commentaries on this passage. I think that the reference to rock in the inscription was supposed to give more substance to the body of Christ in the image. In any case, we can trace connections between the materiality of images and contemporary intellectual concepts.
How did the architecture of the church support the presence of the holy body?
The three images are located on the upper side of the double portal on the flank of the church. The images of St Emmeram and St Dionysius, whose bodies the church claims to hold, are on the right and left sides of the doors, while the image of Christ is situated between the doors. We don’t really know why there are two entrances. It is very unusual, too. However, the position of the carvings of the two saints corresponds to the location of their tombs at both ends of the inner space of the church.
You and your colleagues from subproject A05 assume a fairly sophisticated and intriguing concept of ecclesiastical space in your research. Do you think people in the Middle Ages recognized sacred spaces like a church as this entanglement of intellectual concepts, inscriptions, architecture and practices?
We will never know the extent to which they did this consciously. In addition, we have to keep in mind that all we have now is very much a fraction of what originally existed. We don’t have all the images, inscriptions, manuscripts, and so forth. However, we have good reasons to suggest that, in the Middle Ages, there were specific connections between communities and sacral spaces, which were implemented in liturgical practices. In my project on Romanesque portals I explore the relationship between portals and liturgical performance. Kristina Krüger from the CRC 933 has proven this sort of connection between liturgy and architecture in relation to the Cluny abbey in France. She discussed the processions described in monastic customaries, focusing on the station held in front of the church, whose meaning she was able to connect with certain architectural features of Cluniac abbeys. Inspired by her research, and focusing on the portal of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, I explored how liturgical texts might explain the selection of particular scenes carved on the portal, but also how the portal itself was activated by the monastic community through the liturgy performed in front of it. My article on this topic appeared very recently on Gesta.
Thank you for your time! I am very pleased to hear that there is such a fruitful cooperation between you and our art historical subproject A05.
Dr. Michele Luigi Vescovi is senior lecturer in the School of History & Heritage at the University of Lincoln. His research focusses on the transmission of cultures, visual translations and the creation of identities in processes of exchange between North and South, East and West in the Middle Ages with an emphasis on 11th and 12th century. He is especially concerned with 11th century architecture and its connections to contemporary intellectual concepts and their presence in sacral spaces.
Dr. Nele Schneidereit is research coordinator of the CRC 933.