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The viewing image

Research project The research project analyzes certain medieval murals in Sweden, aiming to widen the range of interpretation possibilities, in an integrated approach with the pictorial and liturgical space of medieval church.

The analysis is based upon a sample of empirical data, consisting of a number of murals in Swedish medieval rural parish churches, attributed by the prevailing art historical classification to the local masters of both Tierp and the late Tierp School (1470–1500). This school is mainly characterized as eclectic, due to its variating painterly qualities which display features of different styles. The eclectic character of the Tierp Schools, although considered to reveal a lack of a homogenuous style, also includes murals and vault paintings on exceptionally high artistic level. The eclectic qualities with their variety are in this research project not viewed in terms of inadequance, but rather seen as an advantage which makes particularly this group interesting for closer examination.

Project overview

Project period:

2007-04-17 2008-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Culture and Media Studies

Project description

The research project analyzes certain medieval murals in Sweden, aiming to widen the range of interpretation possibilities, in an integrated approach with the pictorial and liturgical space of medieval church.

The analysis is based upon a sample of empirical data, consisting of a number of murals in Swedish medieval rural parish churches, attributed by the prevailing art historical classification to the local masters of both Tierp and the late Tierp School (1470–1500). This school is mainly characterized as eclectic, due to its variating painterly qualities which display features of different styles. The eclectic character of the Tierp Schools, although considered to reveal a lack of a homogenuous style, also includes murals and vault paintings on exceptionally high artistic level. The eclectic qualities with their variety are in this research project not viewed in terms of inadequance, but rather seen as an advantage which makes particularly this group interesting for closer examination.

The title of the project refers to both the painted figures depicted seeing each other in the murals and looking at the viewer. In the analysis, the viewing subject reverses from the viewer to the painting, from being the viewer to being the one viewed at by the painting. Looking at medieval murals is an interactive experience, as a perceptual, charged space emerges between the painting and the viewer.

The project seeks answer to the questions:
- how is seeing depicted in the murals of Tierp and the late Tierp Schools?
- which painterly means are involved in creating the perceptual space within the murals and between the mural and the viewer?
- how is this perceptual space connected with the medieval liturgical and devotional practice?

The project discusses these questions at issue in terms of medieval theories of vision and their interpretation by later theories of perception, focusing upon the essential qualities of the murals which are maintained for a present-day viewer by the perceptual space.
In Swedish art history, viewing has been described as an essential feature of the medieval church space. Anna Nilsén, describing the converging of architectural and liturgical space in her book Focal Point of the Sacred Space (2003), emphasizes the open interior of the Swedish rural parish church, offering a good view of the main altar and especially of the elevation in the Mass. Also the cycles of murals on the church walls indicate that in Sweden the chancel and the nave were in the Middle Ages not separated by chancel screens as obstacles for viewing.

Lena Liepe's book Den medeltida kroppen (2003) with its new perspective on medieval murals and its focusing upon the body has provided a source of inspiration for the analysis, as have the two recent thesis, Bilden, texten och kyrkorummet (2006) by Cecilia Hildeman Sjölin and Fåfängans förgänglighet (2006) by Pia Melin.

Henrik Cornell discussed the murals of Tierp School already in 1918; in 1936, Sigurd Curman and Johnny Roosval pointed out a signature element in the form of doves painted after a templet as a visible mark of this particular school in Sveriges kyrkor. Bengt G. Söderberg in his Svenska kyrkomålningar från medeltiden (1951) characterized some examples of the Tierp School as creations of an independent style on the basis of folk art. Erik Lundberg in Albertus Pictor (1961) saw several parallels between the works by the Tierp School and the Master of Flémalle, Stephan Lochner and Hans Multscher. In 1965, Henrik Cornell and Sigurd Wallin provided a thorough catalogue about the Tierp School in Tierpsskolans målare. Two years later, a signature ("Eghil") attributed to a painter from the Tierp School was by Einar Bager proved to be a part of an alphabet, causing a considerable confusion in the classification. Anna Nilsén in her dissertation Program and function in late Medieval painting (1986) used wider classifying methods than the usual ornament-based classifying one, which had led to artificial chronologies especially within Tierp School and the late Tierp School.

This extensive material has thus been compiled and systematized, but the murals of the Tierp Schools have not yet been subject to a separate research in Swedish art history.
Recent international art historical research has considerably widened the range of interpretation possibilities concerning medieval art. The project’s theoretical background may be grouped into three main categories: viewing, painterly means and liturgical-devotional practice.

Ancient and medieval accounts present seeing as a reciprocal, intertwining activity, transforming and revaluating the role of the viewing subject.

Vision was understood as either the result of something leaving the eye and travelling to the thing seen and back to the eye – the theory of extramission, or a process by which the visual rays pass from the object seen to the eyes, known as intromission, which placed emphasis upon the image and not upon the viewer.

The intertwining of viewer and viewed leads to question the prevailing notion that vision is inherently distancing. In the present project, the perceptual distance is understood as a mediating unit and not as empty space. Looking in the Middle Ages thus entailed a physical encounter between bodies, which nowadays is discussed in terms of psychology. The ideas of extramission and intromission, seeing as a physical encounter with psychological dimensions provide the theoretical background to the project's discussion of the perceptual space in the medieval murals.

Since both originally bright colours and the use of pattern belong to the characteristic features of the Tierp School, the project aims to analyse the painterly means used to achieve perceptional stimulation and to create the perceptual space between the painting and the viewer, integrated in the vaulted space of the Gothic church.

Also the ornament patterns of the church vaults and walls thus obtain a more complicated role than a mere decoration. Medieval dialectics combined the geometrical motifs of optical illusions and the vegetational ornament as symbols of God and His universe, visualizing the presence of God within the church space. Viewed as means for perceptional stimulation, the contrast between these ornament patterns and painted vegetation is relevant for the analysis.

Some significant details of the Tierp School paintings are discussed in the analysis as an example of perceptual stimulation. The details seem to have grown out of the painting process itself, apart from the in advance prepared iconographic manuals. These details disconcert the viewer's eye, leading it to a new level of seeing. As an example, the depiction of the Holy Trinity in Tolfta Church may be mentioned, which was the subject of my paper at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, 2003. As a figuration of the depicted mystery, these details indicate the artist's devotion in the process of painting.

Art has been seen as a crucial component of the change concerning perception in medieval liturgical practice. Visual experience of the sacred had an increasingly central role in private devotion as an "intersubjective relation" and in medieval liturgy. The sacramental gazing in medieval liturgy is discussed in Corpus Christi. The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, by Miri Rubin (1992), and has since the 1990s become a significant component in international art historical research on late medieval art. In Sweden, Bengt I. Kilström already in 1966 connected the depictions of Pietà, the Man of Sorrows and the Throne of Grace with the sacramental gazing, viewing them as depictions of Corpus Christi. The medieval liturgical-devotional practice confirms the corporeal, tactile dimension of perception.

The gaze within the mural pointed toward the spectator belongs to the painted figure, a suggestive component of the church's pictorial space. Discussing the effects of painted figures to the viewer, art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has used terms of psychology. Inevitably anachronistic, as Didi-Huberman admits, applying the terms of psychology to the medieval material marks an approach which contributes to the widening of the range of their traditional interpretations.

The application of psychology's terms to the discussion about the medieval pictorial space and perception in the research project also contributes to finding an adequate form of language for writing the analysis. As Michel de Certeau notes, discussing the medieval mystic configuration and psychoanalysis in his Transitional Forms: Mystics and Psychoanalysis, the present-day Freudian and Lacanian tradition authorizes a critical analysis by establishing a space and by an elaboration of theoretical instruments within the language. This establishing of a space for the analysis within the interactive gaze between the viewer and the image, as also the elaboration of theoretical instruments within the language are essential for the research project, since it is not based upon the stylistic or iconographic theories with their traditional terminology.

Medieval murals from Tierp and the late Tierp School have been a theme in my research for some years, during which I have compiled part of the photo material necessary for the project. In 1998, my article Angel Wings and Human Hands was published as Studier i konstvetenskap No 14 (Dep of History and Theory of Art, Umeå University). The article discussed the depiction of angel wings and human hands as stylistic features, discernible in the production of an unknown master of these schools. In the article, the material was viewed primarily from stylistic and iconographic aspects.

Useful experience concerning research about medieval art was gained from my initiating and arranging an international medieval symposium in Umeå (as a cooperation between Umeå University, Folkuniversitetet, Svenska Institutet and Kungliga Skytteanska Samfundet), Medeltid i nutid, held on May 28, 1999, with Georges Didi-Huberman (Paris), Mereth Lindgren, Ronny Ambjörnsson, Dick Harrison and Catharina Broomé, O. P. among the lecturers.

I continued the research about the Tierp Schools by delivering a paper, also titled Angel Wings and Human Hands, at the International Medieval Congress in 1999, held at Leeds University. My paper was included in the Session No 718, Late Gothic Architecture: Toward an Integrated Approach. The paper discussed the integration of the murals in the architecture of late Gothic church. The session commented on the particularly high artistic level of the murals on the shown examples.

The material of both the previous article Angel Wings and Human Hands and the delivered paper was compiled into an essay with the same title, published in the essay series of Dep of History and Theory of Art, Umeå University in 2003.
My paper Throne and Sacrifice was delivered at the International Medieval Congress (Leeds University), Session No 319, Liturgy, Authority and Holiness, in 2003. The special thematic strand of the congress was Power and Authority. The paper discusses the depiction of the Holy Trinity in Tolfta Church, attributed to the late Tierp School, connecting it with the late medieval liturgical-devotional practice.

The visionary aspect of the devotional practice and its expressions in medieval murals was the subject of my paper Gesture of Revelation, delivered in 2006 at the International Medieval Congress (Leeds University), Session No 1116, Christian Emotions. The thematic strand of the congress was Emotion and Gesture. Since emotion is naturally integrated in the psychological dimensions of the viewing process, it will form a part of the project’s proceeding research.