Middle Ages

Politics, the Capitoline Museum, and the She-Wolf

This quarter I am working with just a few of the senior art history majors on a special “Directed Study” course. We are exploring museum history and curatorial theory, using two new books: The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Europe (2012) and New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (2011). I really like that The First Modern Museums of Art is written in a very approachable, yet scholarly, way. Each chapter serves a case study for a different museum that was established; the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, based on founding dates for the institutions.

This week, my students and I read about the Capitoline Museum (established 1733). Carole Paul writes about how the objects within the museum serve as strong signifiers of political and cultural heritage. The museum, which contains a lot of Roman art, emphasizes Roman authority and jurisdiction. The artistic “progression” and superiority of Roman culture (and those Westerners who are heirs to the Roman tradition) are implied in many ways, including the display of art. For example, the visitor encounters Egyptian figures before the Greco-Roman antiquities, which suggests both artistic and political succession.

Capitoline She Wolf, 5th century BC or medieval

The political associations and signifiers of power also extend into the collection. I think it’s particularly interesting that the bronze sculpture of the she-wolf forms part of the collection, given the history of the piece. Before Sixtus IV donated this sculpture to the Compidoglio (Capitoline Hill), the she-wolf was displayed in the Lateran Palace, the pope’s official residence.1 This she-wolf was seen as a symbol of the city, since the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. As part of the papal collection, this statue then served as a symbol of papal jurisdiction and the papal succession of authority after pagan rule.

Given these associations with Roman history, I can see why the Capitoline Museum seemed a bit hesitant to acknowledge the recent analyses which determined that the “She-Wolf” statue was cast during the medieval period! This was big change in the traditional attribution, which placed this statue in the fifth century BC (as an example of Etruscan art). When I covered this story in 2010, over two years after the new study results were made available, I was surprised that the Capitoline Museum did not have the updated medieval date on its website! Now that I understand the political and authoritative statements behind the formation of this museum, though, I can see why the museum seems to have been hesitant to acknowledge this new information. The museum would want to endorse this as a work of art as an authentic piece from the Etruscan/pre-Roman period, in order to emphasize the institutional message of Roman authority. If the “She-Wolf” is a medieval work of art, there isn’t as direct of a connection to Roman history.

However, today I went back and checked the Capitoline Museum website again. Now the site has been updated to acknowledge the alternate date and also mentions the Carbon 14 analysis (albeit that the information is slightly hidden under a “Reveal text” button).

What have been your experiences at the Capitoline Museum? Did you feel like the message of Roman authority and power came through during your visit?

1 Carole Paul notes that this wolf (lupa) was in fact returned to its rightful home through Sixtus IV’s donation. Paul writes that the wolf “had originally stood on the Campidoglio and in 65 BC had been struck by a bolt of lightning that apparently broke her feet and destroyed the suckling twins, who were replaced only in the fifteenth century.” See Carole Paul, “Capitoline Museum, Rome: Civic Identity and Personal Cultivation” in The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of An Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Rome, Carole Paul, ed., (Los Angeles: Getty, 2012), 22. Given that the she-wolf is now thought to have been produced in the medieval period, I personally think that Paul might be referring to a different depiction of a wolf (perhaps lost) or that this story might have been a myth. Paul cites a 1980 publication by Richard Krautheimer in relation to this story about the lightening bolt. Therefore, she does not seem take into account the more recent Carbon 14 analysis and medieval date.


Gothic Cathedral as Body and Mountain

Lincoln Cathedral interior, construction mostly 12th-14th centuries

This past week I read a really interesting article by Peter Fingesten: “Topographical and Anatomical Aspects of the Gothic Cathedral.”1 Fingesten feels like the form and design of Gothic cathedrals have allegorical and symbolic meaning. He compares the interior of cathedrals to the anatomy of the human body (in essence, as symbols of Christ and/or the Virgin Mary). He also compares the exterior of cathedrals to mountains, finding a link between Gothic cathedrals, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the “sacred mountain imagery” that existed in ancient cultures. This imagery, according to Fingesten, is largely inspired by the John the Revelator’s visions of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation). I thought I’d briefly mention a few of the main points here.

Pietro Cataneo, "Vitruvian Man" (1554)

Before reading this article, I already was familiar with how the floor plan of a basilica can mimic the form of the cross, or even the body of Christ. The allegorist William Durandus (also sometimes written Guillaume Durandi or William Durand) said as much in the 13th century. Fingesten asserts this point, and even references Vitruvius and the Renaissance artist Pietro Cataneo’s “Vitruvian Figure”(1554, see above), which is depicted within the basilica floor plan. But Fingesten takes things further: he discusses how the ribbed vaults of cathedrals mimic the spinal cord and ribs of a human figure. He believes that the Lincoln Cathedral interior (shown at the beginning of this post) is the best expression of this anatomical imagery. Fingesten also believes that the stained glass windows represent the translucent skin of the human body.

Using biblical references, Fingesten argues that the cathedral interior was originally intended to symbolize the body of Christ (who is recorded in the New Testament to have compared his own body to a temple). With the increase of devotion to the Virgin Mary in the twelfth century and afterward, the cathedral also came to symbolize her body. Mary’s body (and womb) traditionally have been compared to a “temple of God,” so I think that this later reinterpretation of the cathedral (really, a merger of male and female allegories) makes sense. I was especially intrigued by Fingesten’s descriptions about how “the pointed ribbed vault system suggests the rib-cage of a gigantic mother bending over her son” and how “cathedrals increased in size until they bulged like a woman high with child.”2

Salisbury Cathedral, England. Church building 1220-1258; west façade finished 1265; spire c. 1320-1330; cloister and chapter house 1263-1284

Fingesten also analyzes the exterior of cathedrals, finding that they symbolize the Heavenly Jerusalem, which is set upon Mount Zion. Fingesten thinks that this sacred mountain imagery is evoked in several ways. He finds that mountain peaks are referenced in the crossing tower and facade towers, while the spires allude to the summit.3 Nature is evoked in the exterior decoration through details and niches,  recalling the weather-beaten appearance of a mountain.4 Even the flying buttresses are used to extend this symbolism, Fingesten argues, and describes how they “hang precariously like snow bridges and drifts from the cliffs of the nave elevation.”5

It’s a really interesting and unique argument, I think. Fingesten delves into some textual references (beyond the Book of Revelation) to back up his argument. I’m not going to delve into those here, but you are welcome to read the argument on your own. My main concern is that Fingesten doesn’t convincingly have his own argument align well with what Durandus wrote in the 13th century. (For example, Durandus compared stained glass windows to the scriptures, not to translucent skin.) That being said, though, I think Fingesten’s interpretation of the cathedral is very impressionable. I know that I’ll think about rib-cages and mountains the next time I visit a Gothic cathedral.

1 Peter Fingesten, “Topographical and Anatomical Aspects of the Gothic Cathedral,” Journal of Aesthetics and Criticism 20, no. 1 (1963): 3-23.

2 Ibid., 18.

3 Ibid., 8.

4 Ibid., 10.

5 Ibid., 9.


Justinian Mosaic Altered Not Once, but Twice!

Detail of Justinian and His Attendants, wall of the apse of the San Vitale Church (Ravenna), c. 545-546. Church consecrated 547. Some alterations date c. 1100.

The mosaic “Justinian and His Attendants” at San Vitale (c. 544-545 CE) is one of the most famous works of art from the Byzantine period. It also happens to be one of my favorite piece from this era. It is commonly known that there were some alterations made to this mosaic just a few years after it was created, probably between 546 and 548. We know that the head of the archbishop (who is standing to the left of Justinian or the right side from the viewer’s perspective) was altered and the inscription Maximianus was included at this time. This change probably is because Bishop Victor was originally depicted in the mosaic. After Victor died in 545, Maximian came into power and wanted to have himself depicted instead. It is thought that Maximian needed to include his portrait as an assertion of power, since his authority was insecure at the time. In fact, around the time of this alteration the archbishop had recently been banned from entering the city of Ravenna, due to a dispute with its citizens.1

Detail of Justinian mosaic, probably depicting John the Nephew of Vitalian

Another one of the early modifications was the inclusion of a courtier who stands in between Justinian and the bishop (see above). If you look closely at the overall composition, you’ll see that this individual does not have any feet (which can be explained with the understanding that this figure is a late addition). It is thought that this figure represents John the Nephew of Vitalian, who was second in command to the commander-in-chief of Italy (the latter is thought to be depicted on the right side of Justinian, wearing a beard). Maximian may have seen potential in John the Nephew’s power, and therefore decided to include him in the composition.2 Although it does seem like it would be humiliating to be included in the background of the composition, John the Nephew did get a prime location between the emperor and archbishop.

However, in addition to these early alterations there are some other alterations to this mosaic which seem to have taken place several hundred years later, probably around 1100 CE. Isn’t that interesting? In the 1990s, scholars Irina Andreescu-Treadgold and Warren Treadgold published results on some technical analyses of the Justinian mosaic. The publications revealed changes in the scale and materials of the tesserae that were used.3 Based on these studies, I wanted to present some of the medieval restorations that took place.

Detail of deacon with tonsure, Justinian mosaic

One of the interesting additions in the c. 1100 restoration is the tonsure (shaved top of scalp) which was added to one of the deacons on the right side of the mosaic. Although the origins of the tonsure are unclear, I am not familiar with any examples of the tonsure that exist before the 7th and 8th centuries. (If anyone does know of examples, I’d be interested to learn about them!) It’s important to realize that the tonsure might not have existed in the sixth century, when this mosaic was originally made!

Detail of Justinian's crown and fibula (brooch)

Other medieval alterations include the emperor’s crown, which apparently was simplified and diminished in scale (although it is interesting to note that Empress Theodora’s crown, depicted in another mosaic in the San Vitale apse, is an original). A fibula (or brooch) was also added to Justinian’s attire in this later alteration (see above). I think that this inclusion of the fibula is rather interesting – perhaps the mosaicists wanted to visually compensate for the fact that they gave Justinian a smaller crown? Finally, the smaller pieces of tesserae at the beginning and end of the Maximianus inscription indicates that there was an alteration in this place, too.

Isn’t it interesting that we can deduce through formal and technical analysis that this mosaic was altered several hundred years after its creation? The nuanced history of this mosaic makes me love it all the more. What do you like best about this work of art?

1 Irina Andreescu-Treadgold and Warren Treadgold, “Procopius and the Imperial Panels of S. Vitale,” The Art Bulletin 79, no. 4 (1997): 721. Maximian had been barred from Ravenna because he had supported Justininan’s Edict of the Three Chapters. The inclusion of himself with the emperor in this mosaic serves to visually reinforce Maximian’s support of the emperor.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid. See also Treadgold, “The mosaic workshop at San Vitale” in A. M. Ianucci ed., Mosaici a San Vitale e altri restaur. Il restauro in situ di mosaici parietali, Ravenna, 1992, pp. 31-41. The restoration is also briefly discussed in Sarah E. Bassett, “Style and Meaning in the Imperial Panels at San Vitale,” Arbitus et Historiae 29, no. 57 (2008): 56.


Book of Kells Folio 34 Description!

I sometimes have trouble finding satisfying discussions of illuminated manuscripts in general art history textbooks. I have found that many descriptions, while very informative about a specific illumination or artistic style, tend to focus on illuminated manuscript pages as isolated works of art. Although I realize that such isolated descriptions are part and parcel of the general survey textbook (it’s impossible to discuss everything in depth!), I still am a little disappointed. I feel like medieval gospel books were meant to be experienced as cohesive whole, not as merely isolated illuminations.

One such example of an isolated description can be found in a recent edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which discusses the “Chi-rho-iota (XPI)” page, folio 34 recto of the Book of Kells (c. 800, shown right). Although I really like that Gardner’s touches on historical context by explaining that this particular passage would be read on Christmas Day, I feel like a sense of the illustration within the biblical text and Book of Kells itself (as a whole) is relatively lacking.

This being said, I was quite delighted when I read the following passage yesterday afternoon (see below). This is one of the best descriptions of Folio 34 that I have seen in an introductory textbook. Although the passage doesn’t exactly describe the folio in relation to any other pages in the book (and, as I mentioned earlier, I realize such analysis is largely beyond the scope of an introductory textbook), I really like that the author tries to tie the decoration of the page into the actual context of Saint Matthew’s gospel:

“The earliest surviving Hiberno-Saxon religious manuscripts reveal and interest in decorating the letters themselves, a not surprising development when we remember that the words were believed to be proclamations of God. This tendency reaches its peak in the Book of Kells. When the text discussing the life of Christ in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (1:22) reaches the point where the Incarnation of Christ is mentioned, the letters burst out into joyful, exuberant patterns. This whole page is devoted to three words – Christi autem generatio (“the birth of Christ”) – with most of the page devoted to the first three letters of Christi (XPI). The X is the dominant form, and it surges outward in bold and varied curves to embrace Hiberno-Saxon whorl patterns. Interlace fills other areas, and simple colored frames set off the large initials amid the consuming excitement. The human head that forms the end of the P also dots the I. Near the lower left base of the X, a small scene shows cats watching while two mice fight over a round wafter similar to those used in the Mass – a scene surely of symbolic intent, even if its meaning is lost to us today. The pulsating vitality of the word of God is thus visually demonstrated.”1

Have you found any descriptions of illuminated manuscripts that you like? Do you know of other descriptions that help the reader to better understand either the biblical context or the folio’s physical context within the gospel book itself?

UPDATE: The Book of Kells is available online as a digital copy through the Trinity College Library in Dublin (which has the book in its permanent collection). You can see a high-res copy of the Book of Matthew, for example, with Folio 34 HERE. The library also has provided an introductory page to the Book of Kells.

1 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 171.


St. Benedict and Thornbushes

I have a new appreciation for St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) this afternoon, just having spent a few hours pulling wild thornbushes out of my backyard. I think that is the most grueling and painful exercise I have ever had while gardening, even though I was equipped with gloves and protective clothing. But back to St. Benedict: while battling these bushes, I couldn’t help but think of the the saint. According to legend, Benedict cast himself into a thorn bush while naked, to escape the wily temptation of a woman.

When I discuss Benedict in my art classes, I sometimes joke with my students that the thornbush experience was the early equivalent to “taking a cold shower” today. (And it was, at least for some monks!) But since this morning I have a new appreciation for thornbush hoppers. Anyone who willingly throws himself into a thornbush – with the intent of getting pricked – deserves sainthood in my opinion. Definitely.

I thought it would be fun to post some images of Benedict and the thornbush. I was only familiar with a few examples before writing this post, and frankly, I’ve been surprised that I can’t find more works of art dedicated to this legend online. Perhaps monastics wanted to remember that Benedict overcame temptation, but not necessarily focus on exactly how he overcame temptation? Or perhaps there are more images that exist, but they are cloistered away from the public eye? Any medievalists have thoughts on this topic?

“Saint Benedict Overcomes Temptation” (note the devil in the center scene, who is bringing the woman to tempt Benedict) and “Saint Benedict and the Thornbush” (right), Romanesque choir capital, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire Abbey, France, 11th century
Sodoma II, Life of Saint Benedict: Benedict is Tempted, fresco cycle from Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore (1505-08)

Giovanni di Cansalvo, Saint Benedict Throwing Himself into the Thornbush, ca. 1435-39, Chiostro degli Aranci, Badia Fiorentina

Hermann Nigg, Saint Benedict Writing the Rules, c. 1926
Although I don’t think this painting is fantastic, I think it’s interesting that the artist included a thorny bush on the side of the painting. This painting depicts Benedict writing his sacred maxims and precepts; these Rules have come to be part of the foundation for monastic living in Western society.
I found another fresco described online (without an image, unfortunately) at the Subiaco Monastery, just southeast of Rome. In this fresco, Saint Francis is grafting roses onto the thornbushes into which Saint Benedict threw himself. I think that the choice of Saint Francis is especially appropriate, since Saint Francis was also known to throw himself into thornbushes to avoid sexual temptation.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has proposed some interesting symbolism for thorny plants, given this context of Saint Francis and Saint Benedict. It may be that in some situations thorny plants symbolized chastity and virtue, since these plants functioned as an aid for sexual abstinence!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.