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April 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1417

Medieval art history thirty-three years on

By Alexandra Gajewski

'Will the Age of Chivalry be remembered as the last gasp of medieval art history in this country?’, asked Caroline Elam in her Editorial in The Burlington Magazine of February 1988. The issue, which coincided with the Age of Chivalry exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London,(1) celebrated English Gothic Art and was the last time this Magazine has published a special issue on the Middle Ages. Looking back from the vantage point of 2021, Elam’s pessimism seems partly unwarranted. The impressive roster of authors who contributed to the issue includes many, such as Paul Binski, Michael Camille, Paul Crossley, Michael M. Michael, Nigel Morgan, David Park and Paul Williamson, who were at the onset of distinguished careers. Elam herself quoted Willibald Sauerländer, writing in the same issue, who described medieval art history as being in an exciting state of transition. As Crossley later commented, the RA exhibition (and its substantial catalogue) ‘opened itself to the new world of scholarly discourse and intellectual controversy that was transforming contemporary art history’, addressing subjects such as the language of images and women and art.(2) The main impulses for such radical new approaches to the Middle Ages came from Germany and the United States. As Robert Suckale’s notion of a ‘hierarchies of style’ replaced the ‘period style’, and David Friedman and Hans Belting demonstrated that images could be active agents, medievalists were shaking the foundations of an art history based on Vasari. The effects of this scholarship continue to reverberate globally, as Paul Binski’s recent book Gothic Sculpture (2019) demonstrates.(3)

Following the Age of Chivalry, the United Kingdom saw a string of successful and varied exhibitions on the Middle Ages, which seduced the public with the beauty of the objects and a broad range of topics, including illuminated manuscripts, opus anglicanum and Anglo-Saxon art. Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, which was to open at the British Museum, London, this month has had to be postponed due to the national closure of museums. Initially planned for 2020, the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder, the exhibition has been five years in the making. The curators, Naomi Speakman and Lloyd de Beer, hope to entice a broad public with a display of around one hundred objects, including reliquaries, manuscripts, seals and an entire thirteenth-century stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral depicting the miracles that followed the Archbishop’s death. By tracing Becket’s fortunes and his cult after his death into the Tudor period, they want to highlight enduring and perhaps newly-relevant themes in Becket’s story, such as power struggles and the emotional appeal of the healing miracles. Generally speaking, public interest in the Middle Ages is not in doubt. The Tower of London may achieve high visitor numbers because the display includes the crown jewels, themselves evolved from medieval regalia, but visitors are fascinated by the White Tower and awed by the monumentality of St John’s Romanesque chapel. And such interest is not just reserved for national monuments. The heated debates that ensued after the disastrous destruction of the roof of Notre-Dame, Paris, in the fire of April 2019, revealed the strong international concern for the building.(4)

Yet the Cassandra cry of The Burlington Magazine’s Editorial also proved remarkably perspicacious, especially in relation to the concern Elam voiced about the ‘crisis in British universities’. Although changes and cuts have also hit medieval art history in other countries, none of them have gone as far in devalorising the subject. In the United Kingdom, as early as the 1990s, some medieval art-history professors were not replaced after retirement. The marginalisation of the subject has been precipitated by drastic changes to universities since 1988, in particular the introduction of tuition fees in 1998. Casting students as consumers, the regime prompts undergraduates to consider carefully how to choose their courses in view of the expensive loans they must take out. As a result, medieval art history is perceived as not being sufficiently marketable, above all by a number of government ministers. Recently, the University of Leicester proposed cuts that would include the elimination of medieval English literature courses. An email sent from the head of college to staff on 18th January 2021 argued that ceasing to teach medieval literature was part of a strategy to offer a ‘decolonised curriculum’, a statement that was later withdrawn.(5)

A similar attitude to the past is revealed by the proposed restructuring of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, a key repository of medieval art (see Editorial, p.311). The proposals would see the Middle Ages subsumed into a vast new department, the responsibilities of which would extend to 1800. Like looking through an inverted telescope, the pre-modern period would thus be compressed into an indistinct and alien past. Yet if it is argued that the Middle Ages mark the beginning of a ‘colonial’ mindset, critical engagement with the period is essential. In this issue, a book review by Mariam Rosser-Owen (pp.372–73) discusses the diffusion of chess pieces from the Islamic world to Europe, revealing a global and deeply connected Middle Ages, based on diplomatic exchanges and travel as much as conflict. Other contributions in this issue show how much remains to be discovered. Marian Campbell and Michaela Zöschg are the first to discuss a late medieval reliquary, possibly English, which includes relics of Thomas Becket (pp.314–23). The misleading nature of period divisions is exposed by a copy of the Meditationes Vitae Christi brought to light by Lia Costiner, who shows how the text from around 1300 was adapted to the needs of fifteenth-century patrons (pp.324–31). And all the authors demonstrate that the central importance of a detailed first-hand study of objects and their sources has in no way been diminished by the new approaches of the 1980s. It is to be hoped that in another twentythree years the editors of this Magazine may look back and find that, even in an increasingly hostile climate, a new generation of scholars has succeeded in forging ahead with the study of medieval art.

I am grateful to Lloyd de Beer, Jana Gajdosova, Jeffrey Hamburger, Zoë Opaćič and Jane Spooner for sharing their thoughts and insights.

1. Reviewed by Willibald Sauerländer in the same issue, 130 (1988), pp.149–51.

2. P. Crossley: ‘Between spectacle and history: art history and the medieval exhibitions’, in R. Marks, ed.: Late Gothic England: Art and Display, Donington 2007, pp.138–53. For the catalogue, see J.J.G. Alexander and P. Binski, eds: exh. cat. The Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England, 1200–1400, London (Royal Academy of Arts) 1987–88.

3. Reviewed by Pierre-Yves Le Pogam in this Magazine, 161 (2019), pp.969–70.

4. See A. Gajewski and M. Hall: ‘The fate of Notre-Dame, Paris’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 161 (2019), pp.648–52.

5. See the open letter by E. Treharne and G. Walker to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, available at, accessed 17th March 2021.