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 :-)

Live at Leeds (and elsewhere)

Those who know me (or even those who have already been following me for a while) won’t be surprised to hear that I have never subscribed to the publish-or-perish-paradigm and that I firmly believe in quality over quantity. When it comes to conference presentations, for instance, I have always been convinced that squeezing too many of them into your schedule will inevitably compromise their quality. My rule-of-thumb is that two presentations per year is pretty much the perfect number: It’s just about sufficient for both your face and your research to get noticed by your peers, but it stills leaves you with enough time to take care of all the other stuff on your to-do-list (you know: research, publications, teaching, grading, administration etc.).

However, like the Pirate Code, this is more of a guideline than an actual rule, so this year I wound up with no fewer than five conference presentations on my plate (and I’m actually considering applying for another one). The first of them already took place in January in Switzerland, and I will return to that same country for the final one in autumn (more on that in due time). Right now, though, I have three upcoming appearances at conferences in fair England, so I thought I’d give my UK readers a heads-up in case you’re interested to hear one (or more) of my talks. So, here are the dates for my, er, upcoming UK tour (should I make t-shirts?):

  • Next week, I will be speaking at the Third Postgraduate Monasticism Conference: Monastic Myths – Origins, Identities, Legacies at the University of Leeds, 16-17 May 2014. I’m on Saturday afternoon, right after lunch, and will present hopefully interesting thoughts on Word and Image in Cistercian Foundation Narratives from Fourteenth-Century Austria. (For the complete conference programme see here.)
  • Then, on July 5-6, you’ll find me in London at a conference dedicated to Gothic Ivories: Content and Context, which is jointly organised by The Courtauld Institute of Art and the British Museum. The title of my paper is Buying, Gifting, Storing: Ivory Madonnas in Documentary Sources from Late Medieval Central Europe, and according to the provisional programme it is scheduled for Saturday morning (please note the word ‘provisional’, though – the final programme will be made available in the near future on the website of the Gothic Ivories Project).
  • Right after that, it’s back to Leeds again for the International Medieval Congress, taking place July 7-10, where I’m speaking about Works of Art in Monastic Chronicles from Early Fourteenth-Century Austria. I’m in session 1718 which, I’m afraid, is on Thursday afternoon, a time slot at which many congress delegates are usually already on their way home and attendance rates are accordingly low. Last year, for example, I was in a session with no more than seven people in the room, and that’s including the speakers, the moderator and myself. So let’s see how that goes… (For more details on the session see the conference programme).

One of the sources that will appear in at least two, perhaps even in all three of the above conference papers: the Liber Fundatorum Zwetlensis, c. 1310, Zwettl Abbey – the image shows a detail from fol. 64v, Leutold and Agnes of Kuenring as Donors of Zwettl Abbey (Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

From the titles of my papers you may already have gathered that they all deal with roughly the same time period and area (Central Europe, especially but not exclusively Austria, from c. 1250-1400) and that they even have something like a recurrent theme, i.e. a preoccupation with written sources. So, if you’re interested in these kinds of things and happen to be in London or Leeds on one of the dates indicated above, it’d be great to see you there! And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a conference paper to write…