Visiting Scholar Program- Heidi Gearhart (Camille Paley)

Visiting Scholar Program

“Is there Virtue in Virtuosity?” Art and Skill in the Medieval Monastery

A Lecture by Heidi Gearhart

Heidi Gearhart is a brilliant Postdoctoral fellow working under the highly acclaimed Getty Research Institute. In her recent paper Theophilus’ On Diverse Arts: Artists and Art-Making in the High Middle Ages, she aims to illuminate the practices of medieval artist and the motives behind their work. Gearhart chose one of the only complete surviving texts from the Middle Ages to study: On Diverse Arts written by Theophilus. Theophilus was a monk from the early twelfth century. He wrote this treatise to describe the techniques of paint, stain glass, and metalwork. The treatise later resurfaced in the late eighteenth century with the help of the scholar Gotthold Lessing. Since this period On Diverse Arts has been regarded as a prized text that documents the merging of craftsmanship and the theory of art. Gearhart goes beyond the obvious narrative of the text, and analyzes how Theophilus links “virtue and skill” in Medieval arts.

Theophilus created three distinct books that are compiled to form On Diverse Arts: one book on painting, the second book on stain glass, and the final book on metalwork. By focusing on elements of the architecture and the exterior of a church, Theophilus unravels various methods necessary to execute these acts of craftsmanship. The first book on painting discusses tactics of pigment and texture, such as an Adam and Eve wall painting. The second book provides a step-by-step process to manufacture glass and implement the pieces into window fixtures. This is exemplified in a stained glass window depicting the Head of Christ. In conclusion, the third book on metalwork imparts procedures to make metal alloys and construct objects. A gauzelin chalice would represent a product of this particular book.

In every chapter Theophilus introduces the steps to make an object by a subjunctive. This reveals that making a piece of art is not a matter of certainty. Theophilus’s treatise can be read as a set of hypothetical scenarios that lead up to the question “how is art made?” The theme that is most apparent in response to this question is the concept of the virtue within diligence. In fact, Gearhart discovered that the word diligence is cited more than thirty five times in the text. When describing actions of diligence, Theophilus thought it vital to work subtly and with restraint. Furthermore, he believed that the physical activity executed in order to construct an object was tied to morality. Therefore, imagery or the end result of an object was secondary to the task of creating a work of art. An example of process being employed as a visual motif is the Altar of Henry Werl. This highly ornate piece of art demonstrates diligence, carefulness, and attentiveness. It also suggests the idea of art making as aiding ascent towards God. The intricate altar utilizes the physical technique put into the piece as a trace of virtuous behavior.

What is so intriguing about Theophilus’s belief of virtue within diligence is that it gives the sense of a person (artist) having potential. Talent exists in potentiality and is executed by implementing, working, and developing character. Therefore, art can be viewed as a metaphor for a ladder to wisdom.

With each succeeding chapter Theophilus hints at a hierarchy of artistic skill. Thus, as techniques develop from two-dimensional to three-dimensional their artistic value increases. This hierarchy does not involve aesthetics as aiding in the success of an artwork, although if an object is made with care and diligence, the desirable aesthetics should follow. Instead, functionality is the above all concern when it comes to making an artwork. The highest praise an object can receive is for it to be useful. This might include aiding in mans progression towards God or being utilized for devotional purposes.

I find the theories behind On Diverse Arts eye opening because the motives of making art are completely different from that of modern and contemporary art. During the time Theophilus wrote this treatise, art was viewed as entirely conceptual and objectively criticized. Now with movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Contemporary Art, art is perceived in a realm that is subjective. Although, Abstract Expressionism did place significance upon process and Theophilus advocated for the importance of process, all of these modern art movements valued the artist because they, as individuals, were responsible for the action. While these examples elevated the artist to the status of a celebrity, medieval artist possessed a lack of self. Theophilus even went as far as to say he was a humble priest, not worthy of the title of monk, although he did state man like God is blessed with creativity.

Overall, I really enjoyed attending Heidi Gearhart’s presentation and learning more about Medieval art. In the past I have not felt that I could readily connect to art from the Middle Ages, but gaining understanding behind the mindset of Theophilus furthered by appreciation for art during this period. I think it is beneficial to have a comprehensive awareness of art and the history behind it in order to conceptualize its progression and how that has affected the tendencies of subsequent artist. Although I do not necessarily agree with Theophilus’s theories, I find them as a valuable tool for comprehending the past.

2 Responses

  1. I really wanted to go to this lecture so it was nice to read your encapsulation. I do feel however, that you could have discussed more about the content and given less of a blow-by-blow of her presentation. I like the history and that history could provide an interesting context for medieval art, but I’m not sure I fully understand Theophilus theory just based on the discussion here.

  2. I as well really wanted to attend this lecture, and appreciate the many details which summarize the lecture. I think you did a good job juggling the content and lecture, especially with such a complex subject.

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