Session 5

Elina Gertsman / Professor, Department of Art History, Case Western Reserve University
Elina Räsänen / Senior Lecturer in Art History, University of Helsinki


Medieval Nordic Art and the Un-nameable


Medieval art is readily associated with the nameable and categorizable. Easily defined iconographic themes, repeated endlessly across wall paintings and wooden reliefs; basic architectural elements, characteristic of structural and decorative schemes of religious buildings; sculptures that lend themselves to clear periodization — all are seen as inescapable tropes that define the visual culture of the Middle Ages. But such ostensible clarity, of image and of nomenclature, is nothing but a myth: art historians give titles to medieval objects, but these titles can rarely, if ever, get to the essence of what scholars purport to name. Sculpted images of the Virgin Mary burst open in an indecorous display of their interiors, defying the very theology of the Virgin’s inviolability; marginalia invades sacred texts in manuscripts, subverting and compromising their meaning; the Godhead is transformed into a tricephalic monster and a courtly couple into a pair of decomposing corpses; the so-called “primitive” or “construction worker” murals in various churches often depict unrecognizable characters. This session engages with the renewed scholarly interest in form, and reaches to the very core of the art historical practice: how do we (dis)entangle form, meaning, and denotation?

Medieval art thrives on the undefined and the fluid, the hybrid and the unstable, playing with and creating themes and objects that cannot be easily defined or taxonomized. This session invites contributions that address the un-nameable in medieval Nordic art. Papers should consider striking and inventive iconographies; things and concepts that fail figuration, evade description, and reject semantics; surfaces that figure blankness and absence; and representations that engage with abstraction, deformity and formlessness. We also welcome contributions that explore the concepts of the fragment, the background, and the ornament. Papers can address a particular case study, explore a broad theme, or interrogate an art historical methodology.