Theses Doctoral

Intermedial Effects, Sanctified Surfaces: Embedded Devotional Objects in Italian Medieval Mural Decoration

Wang, Alexis

This dissertation examines the practice of embedding devotional objects, such as relics and painted panels, into mural images in Italy between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Examples can be found as far south as Amalfi, and as far north as Lombardy, and in a variety of ecclesiastical institutions, ranging from urban cathedrals, remote hermitages, and influential monastic centers. Yet despite its widespread application—found even in the Arena Chapel in Padua—the practice has never been systematically studied. Older studies of the sites taken up in this dissertation generally omit mention of their embedded objects altogether, either because the objects were seen as incidental to the larger image in which they were set, or because their inclusion did not follow certain post-medieval parameters of artistic progress. The works of this study elide traditional divisions within the study of medieval art, traversing the categories of icon and narrative, portable and monumental, and “image” and “art.”

This study contends that medieval image-makers engaged the aesthetic and symbolic potential of mixing diverse media. The introduction gives an analysis of the notions of “medium” and “mixture” in the Middle Ages in order to elaborate the heuristic concepts that drive the ensuing chapters. Chapters 1-3 each examine a specific type of embedded object, and consider the various modes of combination exhibited therein. Chapter 1, “Assimilation,” examines relics that were embedded within mural images, and focuses on the apse mosaic of San Clemente in Rome, ca. 1120. Chapter 2, “Fragmentation,” analyzes the insertion of circular wooden panels in murals, and centers on the apse fresco of Santa Restituta in Naples, ca. 1175. Chapter 3, “Mediation,” considers the rectangular panel of God in the Arena Chapel in Padua, produced by Giotto between 1303 and 1305.

To recuperate the intermedial practice of embedding objects in mural images, I examine the technical and aesthetic features of mixed media murals in relation to coeval understandings of mixture, media, and mediation. It was a practice that involved an understanding of the mural image not just as a flat surface for pictorial elaboration, but as a physical and spatial entity that could be manipulated and thematized within the image itself. By incorporating relic or panel into a mosaic or frescoed mural, medieval image-makers nested objects traditionally viewed as portable and venerable, into one understood as fixed and site-specific. This maneuver gave the mural a stratified quality of assemblage, producing registers of difference and ambiguity between container and contained, image and object, surface and depth. Throughout the dissertation, I explore these dialectics, demonstrating how and to what ends embedded objects establish difference, only to transcend it.

The ambivalent understandings of mixture in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—sometimes a hybrid, at other times, a metamorphosis— inform my analysis of the mixed representational systems of this study. The period may be characterized by a growing intellectual interest in the observation and manipulation of physical substances, the study of which was seen to reveal the connective fabric of God’s cosmic order. The works studied here participate in this broader attention to the processes of the natural world. I therefore consider how medial combinations were seen to signal analogous behavior in the mixtures discussed by theologians, natural philosophers, and artists. Attending to both the constituent parts and the symbolic value of their combination, I show how the act of embedding worked by analogy to figure the theological processes of assimilation, fragmentation, and mediation.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Klein, Holger Alexander
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 26, 2022