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Photo: Morgan Bible, 13th century, via Wikimedia.
In this meme, @artmemescentral captions the art thus: “When I’m drunk and try to take off a turtleneck.”

There’s something entertaining happening on Instagram lately. A goofy look at the art of the Middle Ages.

At Hyperallergic, Alicia Eler writes, “Medieval imagery wasn’t meant to be funny when it was made hundreds of years ago, but all over Instagram it has been remixed, captioned, and somehow reads as peak hilarious — depending on your sense of humor.

“One evening while wasting time on the addictive social media platform, I came across a meme of a medieval battle scene; on the right, a horse was giving the sword-wielding dude some serious side-eye,” she writes.

A perfect caption made her laugh “maniacally, posting it to my Instagram story and sending it to all my close friends. How could this seemingly arcane medieval imagery, previously confined to an art museum or, perhaps, a European crypt, feel so meme-able? …

“ ‘It’s funny for the same reason that Black American Vernacular English is so sticky — because it references a level of servitude that we don’t want to admit,’ said artist Kenya (Robinson), whose work often explores privilege, consumerism, and perceptions of gender, race, and ability. She noted that the text is written in Black American Vernacular English, also known as the language of social media. …

“That’s the text. But what about the image and the side-eye horse? It actually portrays the ‘Captivity of Jeholachin King of Israel, which isn’t particularly funny. Babylonians destroy the Temple of Jerusalem, then lead the Jews into captivity. (As a Jewish person, this makes the meme feel very unfunny, and more like a story my grandma, or bubbe as we say, might have told over a holiday dinner.) … 

“But the fact that the image suddenly appears hilarious in this remixed context struck me. …

“ ‘There’s something about the surprise of the medieval,’ said Sonja Drimmer, a scholar of medieval European art, and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. ‘One of the conceptions about the European Middle Ages has to do with blind piety, prudishness, but when people see imagery that defies that, the disjunction leads to laughter.’ …

“ ‘I think there is something about Western medieval art that seems like a safe target … some of the memes — like the side-eye horse, if it were sub-Saharan Africa — you could imagine meme-ifying it, and then imagine it becoming deeply problematic very quickly,’ said Erik Inglis, professor of Medieval art history at Oberlin College. ‘I think with the very white faces of Western medieval art, it seems innocent. We are pretty willing to condescend to the Middle Ages, [which is] not fraught as it is to condescend to other ages.’

“Most of the medieval art history memes come from broader art meme accounts, such as @artmemescentral or @classical_art_memes_official, though there are some discontinued accounts that focus only on medieval imagery. …

“ ‘Medieval imagery is so phone-friendly,’ explained Cem A., an artist and curator who runs the popular art meme page @freeze_magazine (no association with Frieze magazine), and curatorial assistant at Documenta 15.

” ‘For me, its style is more simplified, representational, and cartoonish than our classical understanding of painting. Figures in these images usually have exaggerated (and therefore easier to grasp) relationships onto which you can build a meme. Its aesthetics works better on the compact screens of smartphones.’

“At the same time, medieval imagery isn’t all just easy fodder for funny memes. It can ‘be racist and quite terrible, and ground zero for white supremacy, said Drimmer. 

“The mob that stormed the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, carried … symbols associated with the Crusades. The far Right’s use of medieval iconography gained steam after the September 11 attacks, with white supremacists picturing themselves as ‘modern Christian warriors fighting to preserve the idea of America as a white, Christian nation,’ according to a report in Teen Vogue

“This is an even more troubling connection for academics and those who study the era, but also speaks to the layers upon layers of racialized remix culture that make up the ever-pervasive American visual pop culture that keeps on spreading. There’s also an impulse to turn almost anything into a meme these days.

“ ‘The funny thing about retroactively searching through history to identify memes is that you start to see memes where they might never have existed before,’ noted Daniel Shinbaum, a Berlin-based cultural critic and memes researcher. ‘Almost anything can start to look like a meme.’ ”

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Early Music America.
Catalina Vicens often performs on an organetto replica built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany.

For something a little different today, let’s look at a forgotten medieval instrument that a few enthusiasts have brought back to the world’s attention: a handheld pipe organ.

Kyle MacMillan reports at Early Music America last week, “Attend a few organ recitals in a church or concert hall and you’ll know that the instruments can vary widely in size — from behemoths with several thousand pipes to moveable, chamber models with just a handful of stops.

“Almost completely forgotten, though, is that an even smaller kind of pipe organ once existed. Called an organetto, it was typically played perpendicularly on a performer’s lap and was one of the most popular instruments in the 13th and the 14th centuries.

“A contemporary reproduction of this tiny organ will be front and center this week when the Chicago-based Newberry Consort presents Music Fit for the Medicis, featuring works that would have been heard at the powerful family’s court. Showcased will be 14th-century songs and dances taken from manuscripts found in the library of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492). …

“Featured as the Newberry’s organetto soloist will be Chilean-born Catalina Vicens, an internationally known historical keyboard performer and teacher who lives in Basel, Switzerland, and Bologna, Italy. She is artistic director of the Museo San Colombano, housed in a former monastery in Bologna, which dates to the Seventh Century. She also serves as curator of the Tagliavini Collection, the museum’s prize holding and one of the largest historical keyboard collections in Europe. …

“The organetto fell out of fashion by the 16th century. ‘They weren’t use in anymore, as far as we know, and they didn’t survive,’ Vicens told me.

What experts know today about the organetto comes from its depiction in hundreds of medieval paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and stained-glass windows, and well as the literature of the period.

“The instrument is mentioned, for example, in the Roman de la Rose, a famous medieval poem written in Old French, and the organetto playing of Francesco Landini, a famed 14th-century Italian composer and organist, is described in a novella by Giovanni da Prato.

“Today’s organettos, which are based on this historical imagery and documentation and technical knowledge drawn from larger extant medieval organs, typically have 28 pipes in two rows spanning just beyond two musical octaves.

” ‘From iconography, we see mostly instruments with fewer pipes,’ Vicens said. But balancing historically informed instrument building with modern performance needs, she points out that, ‘for us, it is very convenient to take those models with more pipes, because we want to be able to play more notes.’

“Air is produced by a bellows operated with the left hand while the right plays the instrument’s keys. … Because no original organetto exists, it is impossible to know exactly how the medieval instruments sounded. The aural qualities of today’s organettos vary depending on the builder and are affected by the pipes, which can be made of such materials as copper, wood, or a tin-lead alloy.

“ ‘It does sound like a small organ,’ Vicens said of the instrument, ‘but to the ears of many, also suggested by how it looks, it sounds more like a bagpipe. Or I’ve even gotten people who think it sounds like an accordion.’

“Vicens often performs on an organetto built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany, with pipes in a high-leaded alloy made by Winold van der Putten in the Netherlands. ‘I have sort of a custom instrument by different builders,’ she said. …

“While a student of harpsichord performance at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Vicens became fascinated with the instrument’s sound and how it was produced. That curiosity led her to study the harpsichord’s origins, including how instruments from several centuries ago were constructed and what early repertoire was written for them. Her interest in turn motivated her to learn about other historical instruments like the organ and fortepianos. Drawing on this background in historical performance and her knowledge of the organ and harpsichord, Vicens taught herself to play the organetto in 2009 and 2010 and soon got regular requests to perform on the instrument across Europe and beyond.

“The organetto poses two main hurdles for performers, starting with playing the keyboard with just one hand, which makes it difficult to convey different musical voices at the same time. The larger challenge is manipulating the instrument’s single bellows. ‘I have to breathe like a singer,’ Vicens said, ‘because with one bellow, you need to fill it every time you run out of air.’ “

More at Early Music America, here. Hat tip: Arts Journal.

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072619-unicorn-tapestry-Cloisters

I’m in New York for a few days to spend some time with my sister and brother-in-law. They indulged me in a trip to the Cloisters, an amazing castle that is part of the Metropolitan Museum. I hadn’t been there since childhood, when my family went to see the Medieval tapestries, especially the unicorn tapestries.

The Cloisters are way up north in the Washington Heights part of Manhattan, and it was a little challenging to get there. We decided not to take public transportation as my sister’s cancer has slowed her down somewhat. The taxi driver said that in his 35 years of driving a cab, he had never been to the Cloisters. But he seemed pleased to learn about it.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say. “The Cloisters museum in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan, New York City, specializes in European medieval architecture, sculpture and decorative arts, with a focus on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Governed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it contains a large collection of medieval artworks shown in the architectural settings of French monasteries and abbeys. Its buildings are centered around four cloisters—the Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont and Trie—which were purchased by American sculptor and art dealer George Grey Barnard, dismantled in Europe between 1934 and 1939, and moved to New York. They were acquired for the museum by financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. …

“The museum’s building was designed by the architect Charles Collens, on a site on a steep hill, with upper and lower levels. It contains medieval gardens and a series of chapels and themed galleries. …

“It holds about 5,000 works of art and architecture, all European and mostly dating from the Byzantine to the early Renaissance periods, mainly during the 12th through 15th centuries. The varied objects include stone and wood sculptures, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts and panel paintings. … Rockefeller purchased the museum site in Washington Heights in 1930, and donated it and the Bayard collection to the Metropolitan in 1931.”

We had a beautiful day and enjoyed walking around indoors and outdoors, listening in on guided tours and taking pictures. More here.

Update: I just added my brother-in-law’s photo of a beautiful Madonna, carved in wood. He was drawn to her because she looked so contemporary and because the weight of the world seemed to be on her shoulders. (The carved Baby Jesus didn’t survive intact through the centuries.)

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On twitter a while ago, Liz Devlin (@FLUXboston) highlighted a Vox video presenting an explanation of why snails appear in the margins of many medieval illuminated texts.

Vox reports that a Germanic people called Lombards, who had invaded Italy, were roundly scorned in the 1200s. Over time they became less warrior-like and more usurious. That is, they were money lenders, which gave them another kind of power. The theory is that the snail represents both the the hated Lombards’ lack of fighting ability and their power.

A group of librarians in the UK also looked into the research. They report as follows: “There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat. As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised that a particular marginal image of a snail was intended to represent the Resurrection, since he discovered it in two manuscripts close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus.

“In her famous survey of the subject, Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’

“This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so frequently seen antagonising a knight in armour, but does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours.

“Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality. It is possible that these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another; it is important to remember, as Michael Camille, who devoted a number of pages to this subject, once wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon.’ “

Read more at the British Library website, here. Lilian M.C. Randall’s study “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare” can be found here, at the University of Chicago Press journals site. Watch the video, too. It’s quite fun.

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