Bridal Chests and Altarpieces – Two Upcoming Conference Presentations

On the list of things that are keeping me busy at the moment there are two conference papers due before the end of the month. So while I currently lack the time to come up with a ‘proper’ blog post, I thought it might be a good idea to share my abstracts for those papers here, partly to keep you updated on what I’m working on, partly to invite you to actually come and hear them if you happen to be in the area and have an interest in late medieval/early modern painting.

In case of the first paper, ‘the area’ is London where I will be presenting at a conference called Sister Act: Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550 held at the Courtauld Institute of Art on March 13-14, that is at the end of this week. (For more details and booking information see the Courtauld’s Events page.) Judging by the programme, this will be a really awesome conference, so if you have a chance to attend, make sure you don’t miss it. I’ll be on first thing Saturday morning, and my paper is titled Enclosed on the Altar: Two Clarissan Altarpieces from Fifteenth-Century Franconia. Here’s the abstract:

This paper will explore two mid-15th-century winged altarpieces made for the main altars in the Clarissan churches of Nuremberg and Bamberg respectively. As key monuments in the publicly accessible convent church, these altarpieces played a crucial part in representing the convent to the outside world, and accordingly they both depict the life of the Clarissan order’s foundress, St. Clare.

One of the subjects of my paper: The Church of St. Clare in Nuremberg (with its 15th century altarpieces still in place), engraving by J. A. Delsenbach, c. 1725 (image in public domain)

In spite of their common subject-matter, and in spite of close ties between the convents in question, the two altarpieces present radically different versions of the saint’s story. Both, however, employ the specific conditions of the medium (i.e. the possibility of opening and closing the wings of the altarpiece) to add structure to their narrative. In Bamberg, the outside of the wings is dedicated entirely to the early, worldly life of St. Clare, while the inside of the wings – hidden from view for most of the year and only opened on high feast days – shows her as a professed nun. Thus, the structure of the altarpiece itself, with its different levels of visibility, offers a highly original artistic reflection on monastic enclosure. In Nuremberg, on the other hand, the inside of the wings focuses on Clare as a mystic and visionary, while the outside shows her “public achievements”, i.e. the Approbation of the Rule and Miracles at her Tomb.

These diverging narrative strategies may be tentatively explained by considering questions of agency and audience. One could argue that particularly the scenes chosen for the outside of the wings were intended to attract potential donors (Nuremberg), but also prospective nuns (Bamberg). It is tempting to relate these different approaches to the agency behind the commissioning of the altarpieces: In Nuremberg, there was a strong involvement by lay donors, while in Bamberg responsibility seems to have lain more exclusively with the convent itself.

A couple of weeks later, I’ll be in Berlin at the Sixty-First Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America (RSA), taking place on March 26-28. This is, of course, a major event many of you will have heard of and will probably attend anyway. I will be part of a session on Artistic Exchange in Unexpected Quarters: Art, Travel, and Geography in the Renaissance I on Friday, March 27, 8:30-10:00 am (yes, I know, another early morning slot). My paper is titled From Mantua to Millstatt: Paola Gonzaga’s Bridal Chests and Their Impact on “Northern” Artists, and here’s what it will be about:

When Paola Gonzaga married count Leonhard von Görz in 1478, her dowry included four wedding chests (cassoni) decorated with reliefs after designs by Mantuan court artist Andrea Mantegna. At Leonhard’s court in the Alpine town of Lienz, however, these outstanding examples of Italian art and craftsmanship failed to make any impression, and when Paola died in 1495/96 her husband was quick to donate them to nearby Millstatt Abbey. My paper focuses on the hitherto overlooked fact that a belated reception of Paola’s cassoni by Northern artists took place around 1515/20 in the ambit of Emperor Maximilian I, who had not only a pronounced interest in Italianate Renaissance art but also close ties to the otherwise isolated Millstatt Abbey. Thus, this case study illuminates the conditions under which artistic exchange became possible, demonstrating that it took more than the mere presence of ‘foreign’ objects to set cultural transfer processes in motion.

As usual with this big conferences, I’m sure there will be plenty of other exciting sessions going on at the same time as ours, but if you have an interest in both Northern and Italian Renaissance art, in artistic exchange and in the Alpine region, ours should be the one to go to :-)


One thought on “Bridal Chests and Altarpieces – Two Upcoming Conference Presentations

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