The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Lecture 1. General Introduction:


The Cloisters. Studies in Honor of the 50th Anniversary, NY, 1992

Davis-Weyer,. Treasures from the Cloisters, NY/LA, 1969

Metropolitan Mus C., Early Medieval Art, 300-1150, Englewood Cliffs, 1986

Metropolitan Museum. of Art . The Middle Ageseum of Art. Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. T. Husband and C. Little, NY, 1987

Southern, R., The Making of the Middle Ages, London, 1987

Stokstad, M., Medieval Art, NY, 1986


The Instructor: Stephen Murray, 854-4505;
Office Hours: 10.00-12.00 Tuesdays, 826 Schermerhorn

A. The logistics of the course including:
1. The architecture of the web site
2. Readings. The Reserve list is defined on the Site; the books are behind the circulation desk in Avery. In addition, a study shelf, 358, for specific xeroxed readings. For those wanting a book, I have ordered Marilyn Stokstad's Medieval Art
3. Examinations. Formal in-class examinations at mid-term and in the final
exam week. In each exam you will be asked to recognize and discuss some of the objects you have studied and write a short essay.
4. Other assignments. a) Organize an exhibition of objects (by theme or by medium) and write an descriptive and interpretative essay. b) select a single object and undertake a research paper on that object
5. Discussion sections. Caroline Goodson and Lindsay Koval. You must sign up for a section.
6. Museum visits. To be scheduled
7. Incompletes. No incompletes without medical reason and doctor's note.
8. Cheating. Cheaters will be excommunicated.
9. Protocol. The obvious things--please do not arrive late; leave early or talk in class. Be patient when we face technical difficulties.

J. P. Morgan
B. Medieval Millennium Objects of Desire: The Concept.

First note that the terms "Middle Ages" ("Medieval") is a pejorative epithet devised in the Renaissance by those who held the previous period in contempt. Thinkers of the fifteenth century saw our thousand-year period from the fourth century to 1400 as a gap separating the glorious time of Antiquity from the rebirth that was the Renaissance. I want you to join me in looking for a more clearly defined set of characteristics for this one-thousand year period. Tuchmanism (A Distant Mirror). Romanticism. Millennialism. Attitudes to time; past and future.

Second: we must refrain from accepting a pre-existing easy packet of understanding of the kind that we find in Art History surveys--such surveys suggest the existence of a canonic succession of distant "monuments" What have such monuments, illustrated in black and white photographs in a boring and expensive book, actually have to do with us? We clearly need to start with some feeling that the objects we are looking at our, in a sense, ours. We can possess them for a while, we can fix them and carry them in our minds and play with them--we might even get to like them.

To animate the past, I suggest that we begin with the recognition that there exists in our own community an incomparable treasure trove of objects that belong to our period of interest. I am talking about the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. What relation do these objects have with the period they "represent" or "stand for"? A sign? A metonomy ( "crown" for "king")? A synechdoche (a part stands for the whole)?? The organic metaphor--a fossil. From these objects we can, I believe, derive conclusions about how people lived and how they died; what they ate and how they looked. We can learn about their architecture, their cities and the way they worked the land. We can learn about the fall of Empires; the formation of states and the elusive concepts both of national identity and of "Europe." We can learn about peoples' beliefs and prejudices and their understanding of time.

The objects we are talking about were not, after all, dropped on our city by God--before coming to the Met many of them they were gathered by wealthy American collectors--mostly at a very specific time in our country's formation. These are the Objects of Desire--coveted by powerful individuals like the legendary J. Pierpont Morgan not just for their own sake as intrinsically valuable and aesthetically pleasing objects--but more than this, as a part of an attempt to seek roots; to construct identity--personal, as well as the identity of a new nation. This concept will lead us on Thursday to examine the phenomenon that might be called "American Medievalism"--the powerful belief that the period known as the "Middle Ages" might have something to contribute in what was then seen as the dynamic projection of a young nation. T. J. Jackson Lears.

Such thoughts of a common identity or the great melting may now seem quaintly romantic or even offensive to our concepts of diversity. We are left, then, with the Objects of Desire that express for us both the period of their own manufacture and a vital episode in the formation of our own country. Unlike people of the generation of J. Pierpont Morgan we will approach the objects with a wide range of different approaches. The objects, I believe, are best understood as membra disiecta--bits and pieces--now separated from the situations that formed them and that gave them meaning. They may be understood as having once formed part of a living body--it is up to us to find or to create the connective tissue that links them and to breath life into the body. Will we then be shocked at our creation?

I want you to take possession of these desirable objects through their existence in an ambitious web site that will, I hope, form the basis of the teaching and learning process of this course. More than something "added on to" an existing course, this pedagogical equipment is intended to project a specific kind of approach. The approach is simultaneously a constructive and a skeptical one. You must not simply accept the idea the "the Middle Ages" actually existed--you must construct your own approach to the past. The three hundred objects in the web site form a critical mass; the data base will allow you to conduct a kind of triage--a sifting through material according to period, materials or subject matter.. We have provided folders for you to gather your own favorite objects and play with them.

In the outline of the weeks of the term, you will discern a two-part sequence. First, we will move briskly through the material arranged in chronological clumps (an approach that is through time or diachronic). I will try to look at the systematically objects for its own sake--this is the approach that concentrates upon the materiality of the object and the significance of its forms. But then we can use each object as a springboard to project us forward to some of the other works of art; to some of the issues or themes that characterize the associated period.

Second, we will raise the question as to whether there are any underlying themes that lend some unity to this one-thousand year period. The list of thematic titles that you see in the second part of the syllabus (technology; aesthetic response; monasticism; pilgrimage; the body of Christ; the cult of the Virgin Mary) is very far from exhausting the range of possible topics. You should begin to think about further underlying agendas which might provide you with the subject of a research paper.

I want to finish with the concept of "desire". Modern and post-modern theorizing (René Girard) has re-discovered what medieval people already knew. When it comes to desire, we must question the direct one-to-one relationship between subject and object. What at first may appear as the object of desire may actually be a mediator to a third desired entity. Thus, the abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, reflected on the power of light-reflective glistening objects to allow him to make a leap from things that are material to the transcendent: "then, I see myself dwelling, as it were, in a realm that neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth or in the purity of heaven." The material object in front of his eyes was thus a vehicle leading him to where he wanted to go.

Medieval art, for the medieval user, did not exist in a separate aesthetic realm. Medieval artists did not employ illusionistic perspective that created a fictive window through which the viewer looks at a make-believe world. Medieval objects and images exist in our space. Medieval art is interactive. It often harnessed urges and needs that were direct and material and turned them into allegorical, tropological and soteriological ends.