Think Piece

Progressive Past, Conservative Present: Surpassing Art Historical Genres in a Late Medieval Book of Hours

by guest contributor Matthias Pfaller

The Tower of Babel, one of the images made for Henry VI. BL Add MS 18850, f. 17v (photo courtesy British Library)
The Tower of Babel, one of the images made for Henry VI. BL Add MS 18850, f. 17v (photo courtesy British Library)

The Bedford Book of Hours, illustrated by the most capable artists of Paris of the fifteenth century, is one of the most splendid of late-medieval illuminated manuscripts, and one of the most famous pieces in the British Library’s present collection. Commissioned some time between 1410 and 1415, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, it was intended for the French dauphin; this, at least, is what scholars guess from its lavish production. However, in 1423, the book switched sides: it was bought by the Duke of Bedford, the brother of English King Henry V, who married that same year. The newlyweds customized the almost-finished book, and had their portraits and emblems added on several folios.

In 1430, the book again received a new owner, the Bedfords’ nephew King Henry VI of England, who had just become old enough to be crowned king of France under the provisions of the Treaty of Troyes. Accordingly, the book of hours was adapted to the needs of the boy king and got new miniatures, emblems, and, curiously, two lines of descriptive text underneath the border decoration on almost every folio.

These captions have been passed over in almost every article and monograph on the Bedford Book of Hours. Scholars made attempts to date them and roughly reflected on their purpose, but left it at that. The real problem for me, however, is not the scarce material, but the description and proper classification of this feature. They do not belong to any established text genre like prayers, bible excerpts, or standardized exegesis. Nor are captions generally an inherent part of genres such as books of hours, apocalypses, moralized bibles, and psalters. There is a standardized categorization known as “extra-textual content,” where we find all kinds of text too idiosyncratic to be subsumed under general terms, like speech in banderoles, occasional subtitles, and scribbles. But as the basis of a detailed analysis of the captions, this seems not at all satisfying in accuracy and meaningfulness.

Since these captions—an elaborate program on almost 300 folios in a royal commission—can hardly be a side-product of some other decoration, the idea was to look for predecessors. Indeed, a descriptive one to three lines beside miniatures is actually quite a common feature in a range of books from the twelfth to the fifteenth century across Europe. Yet no classification in manuscript studies considers this element, which makes every description specific to the object in question, without the possibility of grouping the findings under common traits.

St. Luke. BL Add MS 18850, f. 20v (photo courtesy British Library)
St. Luke. BL Add MS 18850, f. 20v (photo courtesy British Library)

The usual detour in such instances is to connect the objects in question through a demonstrable influence, still keeping the texts separate. In this case, a corpus of English manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth century with captions suggests an English tradition of descriptive subtitles. A group of apocalypses (Bodleian Oxford MS Auct. D. 4.17, Pierpont Morgan MS 524, Trinity Cambridge MS R. 16.2) dating from around 1255, as well as the Holkham Bible Picture Book from 1330 (BL Add MS 47682), and the Psalters of Peterborough (KBR MS 9961-62) and of Queen Mary (BL Royal 2 B VII) from around 1315, all feature captions in the same manner as in the Bedford Hours. The Psalters were made for the English royal family or came into their possession, which is why it is reasonable to assume later kings have known them. It is therefore possible that the Duke of Bedford may have chosen to have captions added in the French manuscript to remind the young king of his English roots (aside from the obvious descriptive factors of such text).

This theory ties together a small number of subtitled manuscripts, but does not solve the categorization problem of treating captions as random extra-textual content. Upon closer examination, the English manuscripts mentioned above — besides inhabiting traditional genres such as the apocalypse, bibles and psalters — all show links to the French genre of the moralized bible, which is itself a strict corpus of a few manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards, created for the French royal family. When the first of these bibles came to the English court in 1250, it massively influenced local book production, so that the standard text of English apocalypses actually derives from the French moralized bible. In the Peterborough and Queen Mary psalters, too, the narrative of typological cycles was inspired by the French type. Most important, the pictorial program of the Bedford Book of Hours follows the same scheme. From there it is only a small step to suggest that the captions, added at least a decade after the painting of the miniatures, were intend to complete the moralized bible that the images had begun.

Seeing a moralized bible within a book of hours stretches the boundaries of classic genres in manuscript studies. Indeed, the format of the moralized bible in the Bedford Hours does not at all correspond to what a moralized bible usually looks like. However, the structure, content and purpose of both pictorial and caption program allow this association and, what is more, finally offer a possibility to describe captions of this particular sort as part of a genre which turns out to be more flexible than initially conceived. This allows features like captions to be integrated into our understanding of medieval book production, instead of being treated “extra-categorically.”

Matthias Pfaller received an MSc in Art History from Edinburgh University. From September, he will be a graduate intern at the Getty Museum.

Think Piece

Prague ’68 and the End of Time

by John Raimo

Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square fell silent on August 22nd and 23rd, 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invaded what was then Czechoslovakia the day prior in order to repress what had come to known as the Prague Spring. Under Alexander Dubček’s leadership, the country’s communist party had earlier initiated reforms aiming towards ‘socialism with a human face.’ The crisis this provoked and its violent repression only gradually subsided into ‘normalization’ and an uneasy status quo held until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Increasing tension saw curfews and peaceful confrontations lead to outright military force exercised upon Czechoslovakian citizens and blanket censorship of news. Images lived on, however.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague.
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

Many western thinkers took the Prague Spring for the end of time. That is, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was understood to mark the end of communism as a viable historical possibility. In the pages of Le Figaro, Raymond Aron systematically reduced the Prague Spring to an “impossible conversion” rendering the future itself moot. Hannah Arendt anticipated a simple, grim waiting game. “The head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the Czechoslovak people is a textbook case of a confrontation between violence and power,” she wrote in 1970. “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” From the left, Costa-Gavras’s L’Aveu (co-written by the former Czech deputy minister of foreign affairs Artur London and Jorge Semprún; 1970) ended with a “new era” dawning on communist Czechoslovakia. A montage of still photography and movie footage of the invasion concluded the film, much of it was taken on the scene by Chris Marker. He revisited the episode in On vous parle de Prague : Le deuxième procès d’Artur London (1971) and Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) in structuring a larger argument that social revolution had passed from Soviet-sponsored communism to radical, Third World socialist movements.

The military invasion and occupation of Prague yielded many iconic pictures, not least the recurrent image of civilians facing tanks in a recognizably European cityscape. Nevertheless, the most celebrated representation of the Prague Spring may be the one above taken by Josef Koudelka, a young photographer who took over five thousand photos of Prague in the week beginning on August 21st. Something ambiguous occurred here. As the Večerni Praha (Prague Evening News) reported, “Yesterday’s appeal to clear Wenceslas Square, where a huge demonstration against the occupiers was supposed to take place and could have become a welcome pretext to declare marshal law, was an example of the outstanding qualities of the people of Prague in these eventful days.” After the square’s clearance, “[a]lmost no civilians remained there. Absolute silence spread over the square, which only a few minutes earlier had been full of noise” and the daily bustle. Heavy shooting nearby had been reported on the 21st. Yet the photo’s stark formal composition and resonant symbolism makes a non-event of sorts into an event. Time appeared to literally stop at roughly half-past noon on August 23, 1968.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in front of the Radio headquarters."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in front of the Radio headquarters.” © Magnum Photos

The Western notion of what occurred in Prague came at a greater distance, with Marker proving a notable exception. First-hand accounts and photography in particular only slowly breached the Iron Curtain. This opened up in turn a curious story of chronology and reception. For many, Koudelka’s photography of crowds, tanks, graffiti, and buildings pockmarked by bullets determined what had happened. Not many other images traveled outside of the country; indeed, only ten of Koudelka’s photos were smuggled out to the Magnum Photo agency and seen before the exhibit Invasion 68: Prague some forty years later. Excepting a handful of photos taken by fellow Magnum photographer Ian Berry, Koudelka’s award-winning photography became the first visual record of the Prague Spring’s repression. They immediately proved without a doubt the lie of “fraternal help” distributed by Soviet propagandists. Moreover, Koudelka’s work also became the canonical historical record in the west’s imagination. The images wrote a certain history.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

Koudelka’s photos lent themselves to greater historiographical and intellectual divides. Westerners were not wrong to read a universal, Cold War history into those same ten images. As the photographer later conceded, their juxtaposition of violence and a historical record carried a “universal value” and “significance beyond Czechoslovakia.” An inherent abstraction emerged. “In [the photos] it is not so important who is Russian and who is Czech,” Koudelka claimed in 2008. “It is more important that one man has a gun and one man has not.” The initial ten photographs accord with the Prague Spring’s evident historical finality: peaceful, middle-class protestors encounter only armed soldiers, and revolutionary gestures recycled from romantic thought and Communist iconography go on to meet gunfire.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. Near the Radio headquarters."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. Near the Radio headquarters.” © Magnum Photos

At the same time, the full range of Koudelka’s photography documented a much more open historical narrative. Five thousand photographs capture a range of personal experiences. Families, bored onlookers, young soldiers, and daily life held their weight beside the tanks. An elderly worker with a suitcase heaves a brick at the occupiers before continuing on to work. The photographs captured a fast-moving “complexity” immediately effaced by both the Soviets and, paradoxically, Westerners in the Prague Spring’s aftermath. As Koudelka later made clear, the Prague Spring had been experienced serially and individually by Czechs and Slovaks: experience itself and the imperative to remember undercut any larger eastern or western narrative.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968.” © Magnum Photos

All the same, the sheer aesthetic power and immediacy of Koudelka’s photography cannot be denied on its own terms. Historians encounter here a subtle tangle of methodological issues. There is a question of orientation: recovered contexts might limit formal or aesthetic interpretation, and vice-versa. Josef Koudelka’s photography obviously calls for both movements. It’s not quite the difference between history and art history because the chosen starting point and means of crossing over will change the reading. What we find nevertheless is that firsthand experience and later receptions (moments or decades later) do not easily share the same focus. That gap or disjunction may then prove the final subject for historians of all stripes—intellectual or otherwise—looking to Koudelka’s great record of one end to several times in 1968.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. 21 August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. 21 August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

The pleasures and challenges of studying twentieth century history include working with living memory. It would be wonderful to hear from readers who experienced the Prague Spring at first-hand or from a distance; I’m particularly keen to hear what images first made their way to the west and later made their way back to then-Czechoslovakia. The author also thanks S.G. and R.J. for key references.

Think Piece

Medardo Rosso’s Casts, Copies and Prints: Illuminating the Artist’s Process

By guest contributor Jeremy Bleeke

Rosso in his studio in Milan, 1883. From Margaret Scolari Barr, Medardo Rosso, Museum of Modern Art, (1963), 18.
Rosso in his studio in Milan, 1883. From Margaret Scolari Barr, Medardo Rosso, Museum of Modern Art, (1963), 18.

The life and work of Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) has traditionally been divided by scholars into two phases: an initial period of creative fecundity, and a late period characterized by processes of reproduction, repetition, and copying, generally seen as a failure of imagination and vitality. From the final two decades of the nineteenth century until 1906, the sculptor created around 50 subjects in various media (characters such as the Procuress, the Sacristan, the Laughing Woman, and the Jewish Boy); Rosso then ceased to make “new” sculpture, and until his death he was mostly involved in recasting and promoting existing work. Recently, however, art historians have begun to challenge this schema, demonstrating ways in which serial production spanned Rosso’s oeuvre and challenging the dichotomy between phases of authentic originals and derivative copies.

In 2003, an exhibition titled Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions focused exclusively on Rosso’s work after the so-called end of his creative period in 1906. The show assembled series cast in different materials and uncovered the methods by which Rosso produced them. The curators found, for example, that Rosso cast with wax in the same way that he cast in bronze: working from a plaster mold that had been created from a clay model. Rosso’s fascination with “the range of possibilities inherent in the nature of the casting process” became clear.

Several years later, Francesca Bacci published a portion of her exhaustive study of Rosso’s photography (the subject of her doctoral dissertation), illuminating a facet of his production that had been largely ignored or misunderstood (Bacci, “Sculpting the immaterial, modelling the light: presenting Medardo Rosso’s photographic oeuvre”). Bacci argues that in the two decades before his death, Rosso was in fact highly productive, using photography to explore certain cherished methodologies and techniques that he had developed in his sculptural practice. For example, Rosso was famous for insisting that his sculptures must be viewed from one angle, as if they were paintings. As Bacci notes: “This viewing modality is the visual equivalent of observing a flat object. Because a photograph is an exact two-dimensional representation of an image perceived from a unique point of view, the best visual translation of Rosso’s aesthetic theory lies in the photographs of his own sculpture” (Bacci, 223). Bacci argues that the photographs are not means to an end (studio aids or documentary evidence) but stand-alone works of art.

As this new wave of scholarship suggests, Rosso (like his contemporary Rodin) was fundamentally concerned with a discourse that would become one of the main strands of twentieth-century art history and theory: the relationship between an original and its copies. So far in advance of the later conceptual games of Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, or Sherrie Levine, Rosso’s play with casts, copies and photographs has a freshness and innocence (born partially out of the relative youth of photography in his day) that is at once surprising and challenging. Far from seeing serial production as a repetitive exercise of duplication, Rosso opened a dialogue in his final decades between the sculptural and the photographic, using each medium to enrich one’s experience of the other.

20141022_NY_CIMA_Rosso_634_CP (1)

Now, at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York, an elegant exhibition of Rosso’s work explores the long-overlooked photographic dimension of the sculptor’s research and its relationship to his sculpture (a sister show, also drawn from the holdings of the Rosso museum in Barzio, Italy, is being staged concurrently in Milan). The CIMA show brings together 11 sculptures, dozens of drawings, and over 50 original photographs taken by the artist. While we wait for CIMA to publish its research on the photographs and sculptures, a visit to the exhibition immerses the visitor in the physical evidence of the sculptor’s highly singular creative process.

Rosso's photographs on display at CIMA.
Rosso’s photographs on display at CIMA.

CIMA, which opened in SoHo in 2013, occupies an airy, uncluttered suite of rooms; filled with light and beautifully renovated, it is a rare, uplifting space for viewing art. Stepping off the elevator, visitors are met with Rosso’s photograph Impression of an Omnibus (1884-89) taken of a plaster sculpture, now destroyed, depicting five people arrayed side by side. In a vitrine below this image are series of photographs made from it: individual fragments in which one of the characters is subjected to an array of different treatments. In one series Rosso focuses on the young woman second from the left, photographing and re-photographing existing prints of the sculpture. The result is a subtle process of abstraction, in which the figure is pared down to its essential form. From one image to the next, the woman transitions from solidly present – part of the plaster mass that is visible around her – to suggestively dematerialized. Rosso crops her more closely, and the act of re-photographing washes out the picture, so that the shadows around her face and head are all that distinguish her from the white background. In her focused, straight-forward gaze, we are reminded of the description of Clarissa’s daughter in Mrs. Dalloway, whose ride on the roof of a London omnibus might read as an ekphrasis of this image: “the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.”

Moving into the main exhibition space, we see serial production take familiar form in Rosso’s sculpture, most notably in three iterations of the Madame Noblet, executed between 1897 and 1914 in plaster, bronze, and wax over plaster. Playing with imitations of materiality, Rosso gives the lightweight substances of plaster and wax heft and solidity, as if they are rock from which Madame Noblet has been hewn. Two versions of the Sick Child, in wax and plaster, provide a foil to the roughly handled heads. Here, the amber wax that covers the child’s face seems as delicate as skin itself. The nearby series of photographs open a provocative dialogue with these sculptures. Just as the photographic images were formed through a temporal process of exposure onto a negative, so the sculpture seems to act as a kind of receptacle of the light, becoming sharper or more diffuse depending on the ambient conditions. In the rooms of CIMA, flooded with natural light, Rosso’s play of materials can be appreciated to best effect. As the cold light of morning transitions to the golden light of early evening, these sculptures, which seem to absorb and radiate the light, must transform in fascinating ways.

"Sick Child" in wax and plaster.
“Sick Child” in wax and plaster.


"Sick Child" in wax and plaster.
“Sick Child” in wax and plaster.

For visitors relatively unfamiliar with Rosso the exhibition is filled with revelations, from near-abstract graphic works to an early experiment in photomontage. There is the shock of Conversation (1903), a plaster that just barely suggests human forms, while achieving an almost Rococo effect in its play of whispers and glances. Its baroque modeling, in which the figures rise out of a writhing bed of plaster, anticipates Lucio Fontana’s plasters and ceramics by decades. In the kitchen, a new series of prints from old negatives show Rosso exhibiting at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and the 1904 Salon d’Automne in the company of such modern masters as Cezanne. Richly detailed images of his Paris atelier round out the collection.

It is rare to see a show whose content and presentation – so thrilling yet so humble – complement each other as well as they do here. A broad passageway, in which many of the photographs are displayed, links the main exhibition space with two smaller galleries. The photographs invigorate our experience of the sculptures and drawings and unite the space by showing us the work through Rosso’s eyes. The rooms are not subdivided by genre, medium or date, and thus display a body of work that feels holistic while never becoming predictable. Without bombastic wall text and overblown claims, CIMA allows the work to speak for itself. Its insights unfold quietly, deliberately, as gradual as sunlight that slowly shades from afternoon to evening.



Medardo Rosso, at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York City, can be viewed by appointment on Fridays and Saturdays. It runs through June 27.

Jeremy Bleeke studies twentieth-century art with a particular focus on European modernism and post-modernism. He received his MPhil in History of Art from the University of Cambridge in 2014. 


Think Piece

Imaginary Iconoclasms in Early Modern Haarlem

by Madeline McMahon

Interior of the Bavo Kerk, Haarlem (Fitzwilliam Musem). Photo by author.
Isaak van Nickelen, Interior of the Bavo Kerk, Haarlem (Fitzwilliam Musem). Photo by author.

Isaak van Nickelen (or van Nickele) (c.1633 – 1703) painted multiple church interiors of the St. Bavo Kerk in Haarlem. Yet the Bavokerk in this painting—Fitzwilliam Museum 82— does not appear as it did in 1668, when Nickelen painted it. It is filled with altars—elaborate Baroque edifices at regular intervals, with paintings and candles that are otherwise clash with the whitewashed interior we expect in a painting of this Reformed church. On the left, a priest and a monk gesture emphatically. At the top of one of the columns there is a statue of St. Peter with his keys to the kingdom of heaven—the saint most associated with the papacy. Nickelen imagined the Bavokerk as a Catholic cathedral.

It had been nearly one hundred years since the Bavokerk had been stripped of Catholic decoration in a riot on the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi in 1578, the so-called “Haarlem Noon.” Nickelen was not merely painting the Reformed church as it stood in his day, filled with Catholic images, although given our preconceptions of what a Reformed church would look like may lead us to believe that. Crucially, the Bavokerk had its walls whitewashed with lime up to 140 years before sixteenth-century iconoclasm, possibly for hygienic purposes. Furthermore, the Protestants had added paintings of biblical texts or tapestries bordered in text onto the white pillars in the sixteenth century to this supposedly image-free space (Mia Mochizuki, The Netherlandish Image after Iconoclasm, 106, 1, 7, 73-4). These Protestant paintings disappear in Nickelen’s work—he performed his own act of iconoclasm before he filled the church with Catholic icons.

Nickelen’s unusual choice must be put in context to be understood fully. He lived in one of the great centers for paintings of church interiors, and closely followed the methods of his older and more prolific contemporary, Pieter Saenredam (1597 – 1665), who also painted the Bavokerk multiple times (Perspectives: Saenredam and the architectural painters of the 17th Century, 267).

Saenredam also painted Catholicized interiors of the Bavokerk. One such work depicted a fictive bishop’s tomb in it, and was commissioned by the bishop’s chapter of St. Bavo’s (Rob Ruurs in Perspectives, 44-5). The community had been able to continue its existence despite the reformation and the lack of episcopal hierarchy in the Netherlands (Xander van Eck, Clandestine Splendor: Paintings for the Catholic Church in the Dutch Republic, 13). Saenredam’s painting was part of the chapter’s campaign for papal acknowledgment.

Typically owning such a painting would have been a visual statement of the owner’s confessional identity (Ruurs, 101). Yet the work did not always reflect the artist’s beliefs. Saenredam is believed to have been Protestant, but confessional lines did not dictate his painting. He had Catholic acquaintances among the Haarlem Catholic community and took on Catholic commissions (Perspectives, 101).

In fact, seventeenth-century Catholics in Haarlem often commissioned works of art that were more a restoration or reimagining than a practice in strict realism. In 1630, the painter Pieter de Grebber painted a posthumous portrait—sketched at the exhumation!—of the Haarlem priest Cornelis Arentsz. This portrait, like Saenredam’s, was part of the Catholic chapter’s ongoing battle for historical legitimacy in the eyes of Catholics and Protestants alike (van Eck, 83, 84). It combined realism with an urgency to demonstrate continuous tradition. Similarly, a painting like Nickelen’s created an imagined Catholic space in a real building.

Detail, Nickelen's "Interior of the Bavo Kerk." (Fitzwilliam Museum). Photo by author.
Detail of monk and priest in Nickelen’s “Interior of the Bavo Kerk.” (Fitzwilliam Museum). Photo by author.

Seventeenth-century Catholics living in Haarlem were also concerned with promoting the cult of St. Bavo, the most prominent saint in their diocese and namesake of the cathedral (van Eck, 97). Priests in the 1630s worked closely with Ghent, which was also associated with the saint, to reform the sung service of St. Bavo. Printed images of the seventh-century saint made up part of their correspondence (van Eck, 98), again picturing the past to create a narrative of continuity into the present.

Haarlem was among the towns in the Dutch Republic with the highest percentage of Catholics—there were at least twenty Catholic priests in the city in 1620, in contrast to six in the state-backed Reformed church. Catholic services were suppressed in public, although private practice was not forbidden and sometimes the authorities overlooked even public events (Steven Nadler, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter, 41-3).

A space like the Bavokerk, although officially Reformed, would have nonetheless provided shelter and a public space to the entire Haarlem community, from Catholics to Jews—“a broad public of diverse age, class, gender, and confession bound by a common interest in local society and religious traditions that shared a biblical basis” (Mochizuki, 6). To some extent, this is reflected in Nickelen’s painting, where the beggar and his dog occupy the same space as a well-dressed couple.

Nickelen’s confession is unknown but this painting of a Protestant church re-Catholicized speaks to the fluidity of religious identity, especially in religious spaces, in this time.

My thanks to Tom Goodwin and Nailya Shamgunova for their help during the research process on Nickelen’s painting in the Early Modern History MPhil Research Challenge at the University of Cambridge.