art historian leacure, Susan Walicki on Heidi Gearhard

Susan Walicki, visiting art historian lecture response

Heidi Gearhard
Is there Virtue in Virtuosity? Art and Skill in the Medieval Monastery

            Heidi Gearhard examines the value and virtuosity of art created in monasteries through studying texts from Theopolis. The Theopolis texts are medieval texts with instructions for artistic techniques done in the monastery including painting, stained glass, and metal smithing. These texts examine both the processes by which a monk can create art as well as the method a monk should use to create in terms creating art as a practice of worship.

            Through the use of the Theopolis texts, Gearhard examines the value of art and the process of the artist through a Christian monastic lens. Theopolis describes the Christian theory of art within a medieval state of mind that expresses a lack of self and of men as servants of god. These texts introduce the trope of humility in which man is made by god, through this, by the holy-spirit man can do things and man has a creative capacity. Because man is made by god, man is placed above other creatures and has freewill, and this freewill gives man a creative capacity.

            Theopolis rewards man with wisdom and intelligence, with this man can gain skill and freewill. These qualities of man assumed in Theopolis are comprehensive of the arts. Through the arts man can use skills to gain closeness to god, and the culmination of learning, virtue, and ascent can be achieved through the practice of art. The Theopolis texts include three books, the first with pigment, painting, and wall painting techniques, the second with glass and light as a vehicle of the divine, and the third with instructions for object making. With these texts we understand a hierarchy of virtue of the artist in the things they create. Glasswork is placed above painting, and metalworking above glass. We also define artistic skill through the attention and value in the intent and execution in the practice of creating art. In Theopolis the making of objects is framed as possible but not definite, and it stresses the monk’s willingness to create something as being linked to his virtue. This link urges diligence, care, and attention in artistic practice. The virtue of the monk and his creation relies on his diligence and discipline in creating the object.

            Gearhard describes how good labor coincides with virtue in the making process, and virtue in the appropriate actions and repairs made in creation. In creating a chalice, the pinning and soldering of the handles should be done in a way in which no one can see how it is made. Virtue is to be enacted in the creation of objects, and a well-made exterior leads to a good interior, and the human eye appreciates this workmanship. Good craftsmanship reflects the value of an object, and the value and association with being a relic.  These texts view technique as work and this process in working is virtuous.

            Gearhard discusses this practice of virtue through workmanship in the detail of the Altar of Henry Werl, Roger of Hemarhausen. The evidence of labor in this piece is part of the visual motifs on the altar. The piece shows diligence and carefulness in the crafted visual details, while having excessive detail that emphasizes the importance of work. This behavior on excessive work and care in creating this piece aided the artist in his ascent to god.  The piece is decorated with an excessive amount of decorative pins and designs, we judge the virtuosity and moral value of the piece as a religious object based on the way in which the craftsman worked rather than the symbolic images depicted on the altar.

            I found it interesting the differences in the way in which we consider monastic art versus gallery art. We generally observe a piece and create opinions based on the symbolic meaning in images, the sensation art provokes, and the aesthetic appearance of art. With the monastic art we rate the merit of the piece based in some aspects of its aesthetic appeal, but the process and diligence of the craftsman is emphasized. Many contemporary artist create works that the artist themselves do not physically make, this process of art creation would be obsolete if we judge it through the gaze in which we consider monastic art. This gaze takes much consideration into the good done to the monk’s soul in the practice of craft. I was surprised to hear from Gearhard’s lecture that symbolic imagery was not taken into consideration in creating religious items. It seems to me that the pieces created by monks are more for the benefit to the monk in their practice of making, rather than the use of the item in religious practice. From her lecture I got the impression that the images depicted in art created in monasteries was unimportant, but this seems unlikely to me looking at a practice of religious art, and at the use of items used for worship.

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