Iconography revisited

Iconography revisited

Session chair:

Lena Liepe, fil. dr., professor

Department of Philosophy, Classics, and History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo

[email protected]


Representations of clouds as signs of liminality: Staging pictorial conventions

Jan von Bonsdorff, Dr. Phil. , prof.

Department of Art history, Uppsala University

[email protected]

I take an interest in the level of interpretation that Erwin Panofsky labelled the “pre-iconographic” level. This field seems like a kind of art-historical waste basket. Many widely differing pictorial conventions share this level, from formal solutions like colour, tone, and composition, to highly sophisticated renderings of physical and psychological properties of our world, like space, movement, and time, linearity or plasticity, as well as mechanics of mimesis and abstraction. I propose that the non-literary pre-iconographic level, firstly, precedes narration, secondly, that the conventions found here translate less well between media than the other panofskian levels, and thirdly, that the conventions live longer, seem less dated, and thus, carry a higher degree of generality than on other levels. If this is true, then it would follow that the entities at the pre-iconographical level function as fundamental and irreplacable props for a stage, and the entities at the higher levels as actors and story-lines. Under certain circumstances the pre-iconographical conventions seem to be able to migrate to other interpretative levels. Even Panofsky describes “perspective” ultimately as a “symbolic form”.

I have been working with different cloud motifs in premodern times, especially the one represented by a stylized ribbon form. This ornament appears at the earliest in the 13th century in Western manuscript illumination. It can be traced back to Chinese silk prints (the tchi ribbon). This ribbon occurs frequently parallell with celestial gates and other heavenly apparitions on Chinese and Persian mats, household goods and ceramics. A special kind of cloud collar was used on ceremonial garbs in China in the 1st century A. D. Eventually, this developed into a general cosmic symbol of a heavenly gate.

In Western European representations of the cloud ribbon it is often used in junction with transitional situations, i. e., where heaven and earth are depicted together. A well-known example is the Apocalyptic Madonna, standing on the moon, surrounded by a mandorla of cloud ribbons. Anyway, the pictorial conventions of clouds and other transient phenomena interest me. Through the ages, they receive different treatments; abstraction, ornamention, mimetical enrichment, and, in art, metamorphosis through media convergence. I ask myself how these treatments result in new meaning and which meanings are attained. The liminal cloud turns out not only as a border between heaven and earth, but also between present or past, present or future, reality and dreams or visions. The liminality turns out to be more complex than expected. In this way, the simple border line metamorphoses into more differentiated levels of interpretation, and cannot be kept neglected, domesticated and undefined at a proposed lower level.


The employment of intervisuality in the study of medieval art – towards a definition

Ragnhild Marthine Bø, cand.philol., ph.d.-candidate

Department of Philosophy, Classics, and History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo

[email protected]

Intervisuality is in vougue as a method for the study of medieval art. Meaning the interaction of a variety of modes of visuality, it is applied for different operations within the analysing of images: as a redeployment of earlier iconographical formulae in new contexts, such as the use of  coats of arms in images found in historical books being imported to adorn images in devotional books; as pictorial references across different artistic media, such as motifs found in the sculptural programme of a cathedral being adopted to tapestries or painted panels; or as visual correspondences across visual genres, such as references from a dramatic performance to a painted picture, or vice versa.

Reading selected articles written by art historians Madeline Caviness, Michael Camille, Cynthia Hahn, Mitchell Merback and Elisabeth C. Parker, I aim to single out the various practices and employments of the term found in their research – and if possible, to pin down a definition. The chosen articles cover various time periods, various geographical loci and various artistic media. I have chosen the articles “Images of Divine Order and the Third Mode of Seeing” (Caviness 1983), “Gothic Sign and the Surplus. The Kiss on the Cathedral” (Camille 1991), “Visio Dei: Changes in Medieval Visuality” (Hahn 2000), Mitchell Merback: “Fount of Mercy, City of Blood: Cultic Anti-Judaism and the Pulkau Passion Altarpiece” (Merback 2005) and “Modes of Seeing Margaret of Antioch at Fornovo di Taro” (Parker 2009), and and I am interrested in knowing how the authors eventually define the method of intervisuality themselves, if they see it as a method or a process, and to which extent the questions they address direct their findings, and also if their findings are media specific.


Thors hammer and Bragis harp. How to write a ‘new’ iconography

Sarah Lütje, M.A.

Institut für Skandinavistik, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

[email protected]

Aside from Christian and Classical mythology, Norse mythology served as a source of pictures as well. During the Middle Ages and especially since the end of the 18th century, many art works depicting Norse gods and heroes emerged. However, until today the iconography of Norse mythology is almost completely unexplored. I am currently preparing a research project that fills this gap and would like to discuss the methodological problems and consequences of exploring a new iconographic field today.In iconographic research today, it seems to be essential to go beyond the traditional iconographic method. Nevertheless, this approach is of course the starting point when examining the iconography of Norse mythology, as all basic research is still outstanding. In my research, I can make use of a large corpus of images that has been assembled by a research project on Edda Reception, which is located at the University of Frankfurt (www.eddarezeption.de). This corpus contains many almost unknown works in all genres – sculpture, painting, graphic and drawing – most of them post-medieval by for instance Scandinavian, German, British, American and French artists. The questions addressed to these works are first of all traditional: Which subjects are actually depicted and in what way? Which image traditions developed? What are the attributes that make Norse gods and heroes recognisable? What are the sources of the subjects and of the ways they are represented?

Even if there are only some few Icelandic medieval texts transmitting Norse mythology (most important the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda), the question about the sources seems to be complicated – and crucial as it tells a lot about the relation of images and texts, and about the transmission of ideas through history. Of course, only very few artists were obtaining their knowledge of Norse mythology from the medieval manuscripts directly. Some might have used editions or translations; more may have read renarrations or other, not necessarily textual, adaptations of the subjects. In the second half of the 19th century, Richard Wagners opera adaptation The Ring of the Niblungs (1876) had great influence on the fine arts. This example shows very well that not only textual sources but also other media as, in this case, music and above all stage design and costumes had large impact on how Norse myths are represented. Moreover, the iconography of Norse mythology in general is inspired by Classical and Christian iconography, which leads to a high degree of interpictorial references to be considered. The Norse god Bragi, for instance, is always depicted with a harp, which is not mentioned in the texts. Obviously, he is lending it from Apollo. Thus, iconographic research seems to involve the revealing of intermedial connections between pictures, texts and other media to a large extent.

To examine the influences on the iconography of Norse mythology, reception theory would be an appropriate approach. The images of Norse gods and heroes could be regarded as the result of a reception process. The iconographic researcher has to reconstruct the knowledge of and the attitudes to Norse mythology through time from different sources in order to explain how iconographic traditions emerged, were established or changed. Reception theory opens also up for the context and the function of the image, which are crucial for full understanding of iconographic variances.

Furthermore, it seems not to be appropriate to reduce iconographic analysis on the content depicted only. Composition, colour, technique amongst others have to be considered, too. For example, the perspective and composition of Henry Fuselis well-known painting Thor battering the Midgard Serpent (1790) has influenced the iconography of the god Thor as a whole.

In my paper, I would like to discuss these aspects on the basis of the corpus of images depicting Norse myths. I will concentrate on the post-medieval iconography but also consider the medieval images.


Configurations of desire

Mia Åkestam, fil. dr.

Department of Art history, Stockholm University

[email protected]

What shall we do with a concept like Desire when it comes to interpretation of images?  It is not a specific motif of the kind that iconography has been engaged in. Nevertheless it is an exemple of the kind of concepts that researchers in cultural studies are concerned with. As Desire is a cathegory that can not be subsumed into mainstream boundaries questions of methodology seems to be crucial.

In this paper I will focus on “The Art of Mastering Desire”. There were bodily desires that should be mastered and there was a religious desire for God.  The paper focus on expressions of this ambivalent relationship. The aims is to highlight the often complex relationships between text and image, and some of the problems that contemporary research face when the subject is medieval imagery.

The special thing about pictures is that once painted, displayed publicly, they are open to unintended interpretations. How can we tell if a picture was meant to be attractive or repulsive? Hence the beholders’ perspective and the historical context are crucial to statements about significance. In the last decades scholars have elaborated image analyses with the use of image rhetorics and semiotics, and the importance of reception perspectives and historical context has been emphasised. It is common to assume an iconographical 1:1 relationship between text and image, but this is seldom sufficient. Medieval texts are crucial for our understanding of imagery during this period in a broader sense.  In this paper a point of departure is Saint Birgitta’s Revelations. There are several reasons for this: She was a writing woman. Her revelations are rich in images, they work in a tradition from the Fathers and are influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux, and they can be compared to fourteenth century writers. In the paper I will address some questions about the verbal images in the Revelations and try to connect them to medieval imagery.

The spiritual desire was expressed in terms of bodily desires, and the imagery of the courtly culture interacted with religious images (Kristeva 1987, Camille 1991, 1989).

Saint Birgitta had reason to reflect on these issues not only from her own private perspective, but also because her Revelations formed the basis of an international monastic order.  Her writings and images were thus directed towards a large audience, and the project was supported by both ecclesiastical and secular power, in Sweden as well as elsewhere in Europe. Therefore, these texts are generical and can provide information on how both the undesirable and the desirable was seen and displayed by a secular and ecclesiastical elite.

It was the eye that aroused desire in humans. The art, skill, was attributed to the brain and intellect. In the Apologia that Bernard of Clairveaux wrote to William, Abbot of Saint-Thierry in 1125, he attacked the numerous pictures inside the monasteries and churches: they affect the mind of brothers who should know better and care for their inner contemplation and spiritual training. Others argued instead that the beautiful pictures were needed as tools for meditation.

The conviction that it was the sight that stimulated the amorous desire was so strong that it was sometimes argued that the blind could not feel the desire. Vision and the gaze are to an extent about pictures, and from the fact that images of the beloved could enchant the lover, follows the assumption that the images could also aroused strong disgust. The Aristotelian theory of vision linked the eye directly to the feeling and in turn set in the heart.

Birgitta Birgersdotter knew what she was talking about. She was born and lived in a tenant environment with courtly ideals and had extensive international contacts. She was a loving wife and mother of eight children, and appeared at the court of Queen Blanche. As a widow, she chose the spiritual life, but not by retreat  to a monastery but by leaving the country and settle in Rome with the aim of founding a monastic order. During her life she also went on several long trips to major pilgrimage and thus came into contact with an international culture. One advantage is that the texts are prescriptive. The Revelations is not about what reality looked like, but about how it should be according to Birgitta and an aristocratic, ecclesiastical elite.

My paper emanates from the cross-disciplinary project and network “Premodern configuration of desires” of wich I am one of eight scholars from different areas of the humanities, i.e. Classical, French and Italian Litterature, Musicology, History of Ideas and Art.