From Minor to Major: The Minor Arts in Medieval Art History

This review originally appeared in the Vol. 21 No. 2 / Fall-Winter 2014 issue of West 86th.

From Minor to Major: The Minor Arts in Medieval Art History
Edited by Colum Hourihane
University Park: Penn State University Press, 2012.
336 pp.; 257 color and 42 b/w ills.
Paper $35.00
ISBN 9780983753711

Challenging the value-laden distinction between major arts and minor arts is the motivation behind the sixteen essays gathered in this engaging volume, the product of a conference hosted by the Index of Christian Art in March 2011. As with other publications in the Occasional Papers series, the book offers a high scholarly standard across the array of expertise, methodologies, and disciplinary backgrounds of the contributors.1 The majority of the authors concentrate on a particular medium, while several proceed thematically. Together their efforts yield a stimulating book that is significant for its collective richness alone. By contrast, the overt value of the disciplinary intervention that drives the book at first seems less compelling. Predictably, the authors aim to free the artworks they discuss from the shackles of “minor art.” They analyze why the works have been marginalized by scholarly tradition and highlight the promise the objects hold for research—whence the aspirational, quasi-redemptive thrust of the book’s musical title, From Minor to Major. Elevating the minor to major, however, appears an aspiration already achieved for most of the contributors. This misalignment between the book’s ostensible purpose and the authors’ positions is nevertheless productive, because it exposes fascinating underlying problems regarding the shape of the field as well as what conceptual frameworks and forms of questioning are necessary and, for that matter, possible.

Three of the contributors focus on themes that intersect with the categorical distinctions of minor and major. In the opening essay Paul Binski probes the hierarchies of medieval art by investigating the exercise of artistic invention in the Westminster Retable and the work of the “Northern Master” in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi. Harald Wolter-von dem Knesebeck examines the notion of “secular art,” a category that partly overlaps with minor art. And through studying a range of Byzantine art, including metalwork, ivory, and textiles, Alicia Walker interrogates the concept of “decorative arts,” a euphemism for minor arts. The other thirteen authors devote their respective essays to a particular medium: Thomas Dale discusses Romanesque wall painting; Sharon Gerstel writes on ceramic pavements and revetments; Kim Woods studies alabaster tombs, altarpieces, and revetments; Laura Weigert focuses on tapestry; Brigitte Bedos-Rezak considers seals; Cynthia Hahn scrutinizes enamels; Jos Koldeweij concentrates on badges and pilgrim souvenirs; Alan Stahl surveys medieval coinage; David Areford analyzes prints; Michael Cothren addresses stained glass; and Welleda Muller and Frédéric Billiet explore misericords. This rich eclecticism of the essays is tempered by their more conventional temporal and geographic scope, which is largely confined to the Romanesque and Gothic in western Europe.2 Yet the range of media covered displays a dazzling varietas—a quality treasured by medieval viewers—which introduces readers to potentially unfamiliar media and promises to open avenues of research across domains of knowledge and specialization.

The agglomeration of artworks in From Minor to Major raises an initial question: what has relegated the works to minor status in scholarly tradition? On this question, the book offers a brief introduction and the historiographies of particular media, which should be supplemented by Brigitte Buettner’s excellent recent overview, “Toward a Historiography of the Sumptuous Arts.”3 Both Buettner and various contributors to the volume trace the categories of major and minor to a Renaissance hierarchy of media, most famously expounded by Vasari, that privileged painting, sculpture, and architecture. “Minor”—as Wolter-von dem Knesebeck notes—is the comparative of parvus (little), and small size often accounts in large part for the perception of a work as minor (66). The majority of objects in From Minor to Major would fit comfortably in the hand. But there are numerous exceptions: tapestries, mural paintings, stained glass windows, alabaster tombs, and ceramic tiles, if one considers the expansive surfaces they covered. The essays reveal other factors, such as less esteemed materials, mixtures of media, and production processes involving collaboration, serialization, and standardization. Limited accessibility has also led to scholarly neglect, whether it concerns stained glass high in a clerestory or lead badges hidden in storage-room drawers. To be minor, then, depends not on scale alone, but on a confluence of factors that differ by medium. Whatever the exact constellation of factors, their cumulative weight tips the balance of perception toward minor art. “Minor” in this regard connotes not small size, a relatively neutral criterion, but the status of inferiority. While a work of minor art may be small, all such objects are freighted by this pejorative judgment.

The authors successfully discredit perceptions of inferiority and remedy the historiographic marginalization of the media discussed in the book. In general, evocative examples and well-chosen case studies are employed to support conclusions about a medium or theme and its historiography, as well as to demonstrate effective methodologies. In his thought-provoking essay on pilgrim souvenirs and badges, for instance, Klodeweij first surveys the subject through a series of intriguing examples. Starting with ornate badges used to signal distinction among the highest echelons of society, he then descends to cheaper items that include blush-worthy badges emblematic of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Klodeweij concludes by turning to historiography and supplying a trove of scholarship in a series of daunting footnotes.

Koldeweij’s essay is but one example of the wealth of insight, information, and ideas that reward readers of From Minor to Major. Cothren challenges traditional iconographic and connoisseurial interpretations of stained glass, as well as the reduction of the meaning of windows to generic light symbolism. Turning to windows in the cathedrals of Laon and Beauvais, he illuminates recent avenues of research demonstrating how the glass augmented ritual and engaged medieval viewers as glowing sermons. These newer perceptions of the medium, he asserts, need to be integrated into undergraduate teaching and texts, where they would transform the understanding of stained glass at the foundation. Elsewhere in the book, Stahl surveys the history of Western medieval coinage with a magisterial combination of brevity and incisive analysis. He also deftly accentuates the tensions between aesthetics and functionality that have shaped the study of coins, and encourages a reorientation in art-historical perspective on the medium. Woods, for a final example, compellingly discusses the finely honed appreciation of the material properties of alabaster among audiences of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries—an appreciation often formed in dialogue with marble. No mere “folk” medium, alabaster sculpture, she also explains, was produced for audiences ranging from the elite to the popular. This handful of examples reveals the productive possibilities, the opportunities for comparison, and the invitations to further thought and questioning characteristic of the essays.

Despite the book’s campaigning aim, the liberation of the minor arts appears largely a fait accompli. “Who says tapestry is a minor art?” Weigert demands in the opening salvo of her essay (103). Hahn, in her essay on enamels, says, “Let us quickly dispose of the ‘minor art’ stigmas that continue to circle in our literature but are irrelevant in the medieval and also contemporary spheres” (165). Most of the other authors dispatch the concept with similar swiftness, since it has already been discredited for decades. In an early challenge in 1954, Hanns Swarzenski argued for the importance of the minor arts and elected to designate them “church treasures” instead for the title of a book.4 In 1970, William Wixom threw down the gauntlet with his essay “The Greatness of the So-Called Minor Arts,” which was published in conjunction with The Year 1200 exhibition.5 Two years later, Peter Lasko displayed discomfort with the term “minor,” using the title Ars Sacrafor his influential survey, and qualifying his mention of “minor” in the preface with another “so-called.”6 In scholarship from the 1980s on, the concept of minor art usually bears these kinds of qualifications like a scarlet letter that marks the widespread opprobrium of the concept’s anachronistic bias.7 Understandably, the use of minor art as an analytic category has languished. When encountered, the concept essentially plays a straw man invoked only to be rejected in spirited defenses of either particular media or even fields of study like Islamic art.8 Alternatively, minor/major are dissected historiographically as extinct specimens from an earlier scholarly era. Questioning these categories per se thus now appears a relatively minor concern in medieval art history.

The most pressing problem faced by the authors is not giving minor arts their due as major, but the demanding labor of deracinating the dichotomy from the field entirely. Although the categories may be rejected explicitly, the problematic binary of minor/major remains deeply embedded in traditional structures of medieval art history, where it can still influence topics of research, guiding questions and strategies of argumentation. Witness the division of media among the essays in the recent A Companion to Medieval Art, which contains six essays on architecture and four on sculpture of the thirty total essays.9 Two other essays are devoted to manuscript illumination, which has generally assumed the status of painting for medieval art.10 Compared with these twelve essays only two address other media: Buettner’s aforementioned essay and another on stained glass. Even such a forward-thinking anthology therefore operates within the constraints of minor/major. Museum curators, moreover, may find this categorical distinction sadly relevant, since the organization of collections and institutional structures often reify the distinction. While many exhibitions and installations of medieval art disregard major and minor by mixing media within a display, the distinction remains problematically entrenched in other areas, notably the separation of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian panel painting from medieval art in the organization of many museum collections.11

Such stubborn persistence of minor/major in the epistemological structure of medieval art history reveals a more fundamental challenge that might be better described not as From Minor to Major, but as From Minor and Major. Dale asserts as much with the opening clause of his essay’s title, “Transcending the Major/Minor Divide.”12 In her discussion of seals, Bedos-Rezak formulates the root problem precisely: “Medieval seals cannot be said to have metamorphosed a minor into a major art. However, to be other than minor is not to be the opposite of minor. Otherness is actually the crucial issue here” (138).13 The challenge is inscribed in the framework of the book itself. The very inclusion of objects and media in the volume amounts to an a priori assertion that they are minor. Rejecting this label pits the authors against a founding presumption of the book, and renders escape from the categories enormously difficult.

What approaches do the authors employ to step beyond minor/major? Some navigate it by striking a middle course between the categories. Binski argues that the Westminster Retable and the work of the “Northern Master” reside in an intermediate zone between miniature and monumental, where media and formal vocabularies commingle in ways that indicate artistic invention thrived most at the intersections of hierarchies. Areford follows a similar tack in his provocative analysis of the hybridity of late medieval prints, and establishes them as “a medium in between” that eludes ready classification. These approaches attempt to discern the “otherness” of the artworks in the interstices and intersections of categories. Yet, these arguments remain within the orbit of the binaries they seek to question, since the categories set the terms of analysis.

Dale exemplifies a different approach, in which he replaces the minor/major dichotomy with color as a frame for contextual analysis. His strategy belongs to the wider shift in interpretive practice toward the use of well-defined instrumental concepts such as visuality, narrative, gift-giving, space, reception, and others, often gathered under the rubric “critical terms.”14 Unlike minor/major, these concepts avoid the dialectical trap of a binary. Moreover, they serve as analytical tools rather than as categories that are used initially to define the field of inquiry. As a result, employing such critical concepts allows scholars to escape the limits imposed by categories, and to develop analyses across object types and even boundaries of disciplinary paradigms.

Underpinning the spectrum of methodologies employed by the contributors is the aim to understand objects in their historical contexts. Against a problematic postmedieval category such as minor art, turning to context to recuperate how objects and media were created, used, and perceived under originary circumstances is an effective, if unsurprising, strategy. As an analytic frame, context counteracts the perceived autonomy of artworks and allied modes of interpretation that form a detached terrain from which critics and connoisseurs could securely pronounce judgments—such as declaring a medium to be a minor art. The almost perfunctory nature of using context to discredit already discredited categories, however, highlights the dearth of critical assessment devoted to the notion of context itself. “Context,” for instance, does not appear in the recent compendia of critical concepts published in medieval art history.15 From Minor to Major thus gestures toward the need for more rigorous assessment of the analytic role of context in art-historical research. What counts as context? How does one delineate context from the focus of interpretation? Is context necessarily singular, even in a particular historical circumstance? How stable are contexts?

Surveying the volume without the conceptual framework of minor and major also underscores important organizing and legitimizing functions of the binary. Without the notion of minor, how could the authors consider together the welter of objects discussed between the covers—let alone draw synthetic hypotheses from them? Inasmuch as the authors imagine the absence of the categories, the framework of minor and major exposes how they tame the unruly diversity of medieval objects by arranging them within a formerly normative hierarchy of art. Thus conceptually reordered, medieval art—and, by extension, the discipline that studies it—more closely conforms to the Renaissance ideals underlying the founding paradigms of art history.

Neither context nor critical concepts seem fully sufficient substitutes for “minor” in terms of these structuring and legitimizing capacities. The contingencies of historical analysis are far more recognized and integrated in scholarship today than they were decades ago, and so the need for the structural definition given by minor/major is consequently less compelling. The importance of assessing developments and trends in research nevertheless persists, as do pragmatic needs to define disciplines and allocate objects between different fields of study. Contextual interpretation, as the book amply shows, splinters the false conceptual unity imposed by the minor/major binary and replaces it with a kaleidoscopic view made of many brilliant pieces that resist synthesis. Critical concepts present other difficulties to a discipline with a strong materialist bent that has traditionally defined itself principally through the objects it studies. Such concepts designate sets of analytical approaches rather than actual things; as a result, objects threaten to vanish under the lenses of theory. As organizing principles, critical concepts would fundamentally challenge the traditional ordering of the discipline around objects, and replace the perceived certainty of things with the flux of immaterial ideas.

Within the horizons of the book, however, another focal point of disciplinary coherence emerges around the attentiveness to materiality threaded throughout the essays. Hahn, for example, presents evidence of medieval writers differentiating between encountering objects from afar, a predominantly ocular experience, and near, where touch, even taste and smell, augment visual experience and transform the apprehension of an object (166–68). Weigert uncovers a similar mode of perception in her analysis of how the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries shuttle between dematerialized illusionism and the assertion of surface pattern, tactility, and weave of the textile (110–14).16 The rejection of minor/major here suggests that the emphasis on materiality may be partly driven by the crumbling of older forms of disciplinary organization. After all, the notion of materiality, which has gained enormous momentum in academic discourses over the past decade, potentially combines the flexibility and openness of a critical concept and the sensitivity of historical contextualization with an anchoring in objects.

What do the types of objects once dubbed minor offer ongoing discussions of the material turn? Currently, it is under the notion of materiality that one most often finds analyses of the kinds of objects once deemed minor.17 Rereading the book from this perspective suggests that these objects favor the apprehension of tactile modes of experience keyed closely to the materiality of things. Recall that many of these objects seem best adapted to the hand, or at least strongly invoke the sense of touch. Researchers may thus discover unity in the propensity of such objects to foreground tactile modes for modern viewers, who are more accustomed to art as an essentially ocular experience.18 From Minor to Major, in sum, signals important shifts in the study of these often marginalized objects away from exhausted debates about past disciplinary categories and toward the prospect of new research paradigms that hold transformative potential for art history and sister disciplines.

Kerry Boeye is assistant professor of art history at Loyola University, Maryland.

  1. 1. The volume possesses the same high production values customary for the series. Especially praiseworthy is the large number of color illustrations. Small editorial errors are peppered throughout the book, but detract little overall. Two, however, bear mention. The introduction to the volume wrongly gives the date of the first publication of Vasari’s Lives as 1568, not 1550 (xvii). Yet the text seems actually to refer to the second edition of 1568, in which Vasari more clearly gives primacy to painting, sculpture, and architecture: see Brigitte Buettner, “Toward a Historiography of the Sumptuous Arts,” in A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe, ed. Conrad Rudolph (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 466. There is also confusion about references to figures at one point in Sharon Gerstel’s article, “Facing Architecture.” Figure 11 is mentioned at the bottom of page 57 as evidence of the polychromy on tiles. Figure 11, on page 59, illustrates a frescoed wall in a Cappodocian church, which inclines one to wonder whether the text should actually refer to the tile illustrated as figure 9 on page 57. Perhaps the mural paintings are adduced as examples of the coloristic brilliance lost by the tiles, but this would be confusing. On page 58, a reference to figure 12, the dome of the maqsura of the Great Mosque in Córdoba, should undoubtedly refer to figure 11 instead, as the text refers to a “contemporary church in Cappadocia.” Hopefully these errors can be rectified in subsequent printings.
  2. 2. Two exceptions are Walker’s contribution on Byzantine art, and Gerstel’s essay, which ranges from England to Byzantine Anatolia to the Ottoman Empire. Walker, Stahl, and Hahn venture into earlier material.
  3. 3. Buettner, “Toward a Historiography of the Sumptuous Arts,” 466–87. In addition to the essay, Buettner organized the session “The Coming of Age of Medieval ‘Minor’ Arts,” sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art, at the 2007 College Art Association Conference: see Abstracts 2007, College Art Association, 2007.
  4. 4. Hanns Swarzenski, Monuments of Romanesque Art: The Art of Church Treasures in Northwestern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).
  5. 5. William D. Wixon, “The Greatness of the So-Called Minor Arts,” in The Year 1200, vol. 2, A Background Survey, ed. Florens Deuchler (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970), 93–99.
  6. 6. Peter Lasko, Ars Sacra, 800–1200, 2nd ed. (New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1994), xi. Lasko continues by noting that no basis for the minor/major division exists in the early Middle Ages and then mounts a short defense of the importance of “minor” art. Alicia Walker, in her contribution to From Minor to Major, “‘The Art That Does Not Think’: Byzantine ‘Decorative Arts’—History and Limits of a Concept,” discusses the importance of Wixom’s essay as an example of broader efforts to elevate the perception of minor art (178). Lasko’s book title and the term “sumptuous arts” used by Buettner in the title of her aforementioned essay are indicative of these efforts.
  7. 7. See, for example, Robert S. Nelson, “‘And So, With the Help of God’: The Byzantine Art of War in the Tenth Century,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 65/66 (2011–12): 173: “Thus although the Barberini ivory is a work on a small scale—what art history classifies as a minor art—its themes are those of monumental public art, and its high material cost and elite messages bespeak an imperial commission.”
  8. 8. Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field,” Art Bulletin 85 (2003): 153 and 167–70.
  9. 9. Laura Kendrick’s essay, “Making Sense of Marginalized Images in Manuscripts and Religious Architecture,” in the same volume also focuses on “major” media, but is not included in the tally here since the essay is thematically oriented rather than medium-based.
  10. 10. Dale (23) and Cothren (255) assert that the medium commands the status of a major art. Binski evinces a similar view when he challenges the assumption that Parisian manuscript painting led stylistic developments in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (19–20). Manuscript illumination did not always command this status: see Sandra Hindman, Michael Camille, Nina Rowe, and Rowan Watson, Manuscript Illumination in the Modern Age (Evanston, I.L.: Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, 2001), and Adam S. Cohen, “The Historiography of Romanesque Manuscript Illumination,” in A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe, ed. Conrad Rudolph (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 357–81. The uncertain position of manuscript illustration as major or minor is demonstrated by the historiography on fifteenth-century northern European art, which assigned major status to the burgeoning medium of panel painting while demoting book painting: see Sandra Hindman, “The Illustrated Book: An Addendum to the State of Research in Northern European Art,” Art Bulletin 68 (1986): 536–42.
  11. 11. John Cherry, Keeper Emeritus of Medieval and Modern Europe at the British Museum, and Alan Stahl, curator of numismatics at Princeton University, are the only curators among the contributors. An essay by an art museum curator would have added an important perspective to the book. Buettner, “Toward a Historiography of the Sumptuous Arts,” 466, 478–81, discusses the importance of systematic catalogues and museum exhibitions in the study of objects classed as minor.
  12. 12. Wolter-von dem Knesebeck reaches a similar conclusion when, in discussing the Ebstorf World Map, he writes, “Categorizing the map as either profane or sacred is, at any rate, just as useless as its pejorative or enhancing categorization as it being one of the minor or major arts” (67–69).
  13. 13. Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “Mutually Contextual: Materials, Bodies, and Objects,” in Cultural Histories of the Material World, ed. Peter N. Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 54–55.
  14. 14. Rudolph, A Companion to Medieval Art; Nina Rowe, ed., “Medieval Art History Today—Critical Terms,” Studies in Iconography 33 (special issue, 2012).
  15. 15. Neither Rudolph, A Companion to Medieval Art, nor Rowe, “Medieval Art History Today—Critical Terms,” contains an essay devoted to context. See, however, Paul Mattick, Jr., “Context,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 70–86. Mattick’s analysis focuses on modernist discourses and does not directly address the methodological questions raised here.
  16. 16. This echoes the tension between illusionistic visual representations of textiles and the material surface of textiles in painting of the same period as studied by Amy Knight Powell, “Late Gothic Abstractions,” in “Res et significatio”: The Material Sense of Things in the Middle Ages, ed. Aden Kumler and Christopher Lakey, Gesta 51 (special issue, 2012): 71–88.
  17. 17. To list just a few important recent examples addressing medieval art, which also include further bibliography: Herbert Kessler, Seeing Medieval Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 19–43; Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Zone Books, 2011); Aden Kumler and Christopher Lakey, eds., “Res et significatio”: The Material Sense of Things in the Middle AgesGesta 51 (special issue, 2012); Ittai Weinryb, “Beyond Representation: Things—Human and Nonhuman,” in Cultural Histories of the Material World, ed. Peter N. Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 172–86; and Weinryb, “Living Matter: Materiality, Maker, and Ornament in the Middle Ages,” Gesta 52 (2013): 113–31.
  18. 18. See Peter N. Miller, “Introduction: The Culture of the Hand,” in Cultural Histories of the Material World, ed. Peter N. Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 1–29.

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