Monday, March 25, 2013

Sculpted Signs and Shattered Idols in Illuminated Weltchroniken of the Early Fifteenth Century
Nina Rowe, Fordham University
April 5
CUNY Graduate Center, English Department Lounge
365 Fifth Avenue, Room 4406

It is a challenge for art historians to find visual evidence of discomfort with dominant devotional practices in the late Middle Ages. The Church was a key institution with the wealth to commission sculpted and painted images by leading artists, and ecclesiastical works tended to be the ones protected over the centuries and now installed in museum collections. Scholars celebrate the late medieval period as one in which sculptors in particular experimented with daring new formulations that cast Jesus and Mary as emphatically human figures with which one could empathize. But the compassionate veneration such images were intended to inspire veered toward idolatrous practice officially rejected (but often promoted) by the Church. If inquisitorial records of so-called heretics tell us that there were laypeople who sought to distance themselves from devotional engagement with images, can we find art historical evidence of similar dissent? In this paper I argue that illuminated Weltchroniken of the decades around 1400 exhibit unease over contemporary Christian practices of image veneration. In these German vernacular, versified world chronicles, stories from the biblical past were retold to address contemporary concerns of lay city dwellers. I examine passages presenting the story of Daniel at the court of Nebuchadnezzar in two early fifteenth-century Weltchronik manuscripts (New York: NYPL Spencer 38 and Munich: BSB Cgm 250). Analyzing images and texts of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream sculpture and subsequent idolatry, I argue that these manuscripts disclose an urban population scornful of dominant Christian modes of worship.