Why the medieval past has presence

Lara Eggleton and David Steans in conversation

Lara Eggleton: Neomedievalism is anything but new. The reuse of medieval themes, narratives and motifs is a tradition within the arts that stretches back to the Gothic revival and neo-paganism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An interest in folklore, which goes hand in hand with revivalism, echoes within the visual and aural practices of many if not all cultures. As an art historian I’m interested in exploring the motivations behind the appropriation of the medieval past at various points in history. As an artist who borrows and incorporates medieval elements into your work, I’m wondering what for you is the basis of their symbolic and/or aesthetic appeal?

Army of Darkness promotional poster

Army of Darkness promotional poster

David Steans: I don’t know as much as I’d like to about medieval history, so I understand the medieval as the synthesis of these ongoing visitations of it. The Middle Ages are like an enduringly popular time-travel destination. If I talk of ‘the medieval’ I’m talking largely of my own subjective, aesthetic, perhaps quite mainstream understanding of it – more Army of Darkness [1] than Decameron. So with that disclaimer in mind…

I think the symbolic currency of the medieval – or what a contemporary reuse of a medieval past might symbolize – has something to do with the intellectual and spiritual ardour of medieval people. In them we see a wealth of ingenuity and imagination, and great endeavour. They fervently seek the world around and beyond them. They are beset on all sides by mysterious and often inimical forces, yet they systematise knowledge and pursue the irrational – which we imagine governs them completely – with a dogged methodical rationality. We’re also interested in the quotidian lives of medieval people, and are as fascinated by the medieval toilet as by the medieval church. For me it is this spectrum of the sacred and the profane, so vividly rendered in our medieval imaginary, that is its aesthetic currency. The medieval world is full of shit and piss and venereal diseases, at the same time as it is totally fantastic. When we think of the Black Death, we share the medieval plague-sufferer’s horror, both at God’s mighty wrath and the inadequate sanitation, both the imminent apocalypse and the failure of medicine.

In talking of how I imagine ‘we’ imagine the medieval, I suppose I’m trying to underline what I understand by the neo-medieval. For me the neo-medieval is like a prosthetic, a strange proxy tool for using history.

LE: I can completely relate to your selective engagement with the medieval – I consider myself more of a ‘medievalismist’ than a bonafide scholar of the period. The other problem with studying monuments and artefacts that date from an age vaguely classified as ‘dark’ is that many scholars are focused on unearthing the ‘truth’ or filling in the missing pieces of its history. This can lead to a dangerous practice of speculation that is motivated by precisely what you’re talking about – our contemporary fascination with the experience of people who lived during this time. You’re right to point out the sacred/profane dichotomy as central to its allure, but I’m wondering about this idea of the fantastical and to what extent it is a product of a post-secular fetishisation of things like magic, ritual and superstition. Can we truly relate to the horrors of these societies, or their deeply religious experience of life, from the armchair of Western Modernity, or are we simply rummaging through history looking for things that appear fantastic to our own sensibilities? I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad thing, but what can it tell us about what’s missing in our own lives?

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

DS: Of course, it is a fetishisation. What wouldn’t appear fantastic from your armchair?  I think it’s perhaps the more earthly aspects we relate to, or want to relate to. The quotidian medieval, as if it might accord with our own times, or the sense that modern civilisation somehow begins in the Middle Ages. This makes us feel closer to the fantastical, to the horrors, to the spiritual. The question of whether or not we can truly relate is not what’s at stake. Does ‘post-secular’ give the game away as to what’s missing (i.e., the comfort and allure of credulity, belief, rapture, passions, of feeling at the utter mercy of God, or being ignorant of the minor details of a supreme plan)?

I find the myriad forms of divination rites practised in the Middle Ages fascinating in this regard. They are elaborate, ingenious procedures engineered to elicit chance, random gestures or happenings. The engineer believes that if successfully facilitated, otherworldly forces will use these openings to communicate with him. The more elaborate, violent or obscure the method (scapulomancy, oculomancy, scatomancy or anthropomancy, for example) the more these practices can be put to service as metaphor for the human struggle to reconcile the rational with the irrational. If the metaphor is of any use, or even compels, I think it’s probably because trying to talk to God seems a more acceptable sort of scrabble for ‘immortality power’ than that of trying to acquire an inequitable personal material wealth [2].

LE: I like your reading of divination as metaphor as a way of understanding our fascination with the medieval. This idea of ‘accessing’ the divine or the magical is an interesting way of thinking about these practices, and how they appeal to a modern sensibility. Forms of engineering, or indeed, ‘form’ in general, operate at the interface of the material and the metaphysical – they give tangibility to that which is imperceptible. Early Christian icons, for example, are caught between being human constructions and being actual embodiments of holy figures, hence their venerable status. Art historian Hans Belting has subsequently argued that icons should not be considered art objects but as conduits for divinity, or as portals or windows to the sacred realm [3].

These portals can also lead to dark places, and I think it is the inheritance of paganism from Antiquity that makes Christian medieval symbolism so rich and layered. There is an internal tension between polytheism and monotheism, and between Jewish, Christian (and later Islamic) doctrine, that is inherent to imagery and other art forms of the early medieval period, especially in eighth- and ninth-century Byzantium. Iconoclasm emerges out of a fear of the power of the image, and of the sacrilege of idol worship. Do you think that returning to this age where art had such an affective and at times threatening role is a way of reinvigorating art within a secular context? Are artists today trying to recuperate some of this magic (dark or otherwise) within their own work?

Portable Mosaic Icon with the Virgin Eleousa, early 14th century Byzantine, probably Constantinople. Miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel with gold, multicolored stones, and gilded copper tesserae; some portions restored. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

DS: Artists want to be affective. But there’s also a fear of losing the particularity and reflexivity of contemporary art practice as artists look to entertainment, history, religion, literature, anthropology, and wherever else, for affective models.

As for recuperating magical properties, I think the dynamism of magical process definitely appeals. I think artists would like their work to operate in that way, or operate that well, but with different ends in mind. For the sake of discussion let’s follow Belting, and refuse to consider images that function – as embodiments, conduits, portals, as anything – as art. Artists want to make art, predominately. If you produce an icon, you lose the modern ontological basis for it being art, and for you being an artist. It could be argued that there is no ontological basis for art. But my supposition would still hold. If art has no ontological basis then that becomes the basis for its definition. Therefore, if your art starts to be something else then it’s no longer art, and the artist ceases to be an artist.

LE: I’m glad you brought up the idea of fictions in relation to (contemporary) art making. I think this is relevant to all periods of artistic production, including those that Belting might not accept as part of art history, as least in a Western sense. The fictions and narratives that are produced and perpetuated through icon painting are highly codified, but their variation through individual interpretation arguably puts them in the realm of art, if not a very sophisticated form of craft. The medieval icon painter was expected to anonymously produce icons in a workshop, often with the aid of handbooks or templates, and absolve himself of a sense of personal achievement or authorship. But in this way the painter himself became a conduit for spiritual meaning, creating individually nuanced versions of established tropes.

Belting’s theory breaks down at the point of artifice: for the history of art is ultimately grounded in the construction of fictions (material or otherwise) that help us to make sense of, or reflect upon, the world around us. The problematic nature of man-made devotional imagery is reflected in the emergence of ‘acheiropoieta’, holy images that were purportedly produced through direct contact with holy figures, such as Turin’s Shroud or Veronica’s Veil. But is it possible to separate meaning from the production of an object, at any point in history? I think that what allows art to transcend our immediate sphere of reference is what happens through the process of making, how an object comes into being through the artist’s unique sensibility and world view, an alchemic translation of the (imagined) immaterial through the language of the material. Perhaps there’s some magic in that?

DS: I like to think of art making as akin to magic making. In the past I’ve likened artworks, art exhibitions and creative acts in general to ‘glamouries’ – a glamourie being a Celtic spell in which a lowly or mundane place or thing takes on the appearance of something far grander. I think this is a nice way of thinking about what it is we actually do as artists, or what we have the potential to do. I agree that it is alchemical. I also agree that much of what we’ve been talking about is relevant to all periods of artistic production, within and without art history. So what of the neo-medieval? What do you understand to be the meaning of this term?

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

LE: Yes, I suppose I am interested in how artists appropriate historical periods within their work more generally, but I think what we’ve been discussing here – the use of medieval themes and tropes – is quite specific. The schism between the sacred and profane, and the potential for material objects to have metaphysical properties, for example, seems to strongly resonate with many artists working today. As you’ve pointed out, medieval life continues to attract and hold our attention precisely because it is underpinned by such fecund dichotomies.

A final question: in your view does this reuse of the medieval past – a practice we might loosely define in terms of the post-medieval – simply entail a ‘glamorising’ of the mundane?

DS: I don’t think it’s simply about glamorising the mundane, but certainly there is, as you’ve pointed out, always a fetishistic dimension to artists’ plundering of the past (or of anything else for that matter). However I think there is a socio-political bent to our contemporary interest in the medieval. We can locate things there that enable a certain purchase on our own epoch and its predicaments. It also enables us to understand ourselves as belonging to a continuum. The neo- or post-medieval is perhaps a means of gaining perspective on that.

[1] Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, Dir. Sam Raimi, 1992.

[2] Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1975).

[3] Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).


Dr Lara Eggleton is a Visiting Research Fellow and part-time Lecturer in the School of Fine Art, History of art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Her current research focuses on Victorian encounters with Islamic art of the Medieval Mediterranean. She is also the author of Folly Matters.

David Steans is an artist currently based in Leeds. He is currently working on an anthology of original short horror stories that go on to inspire related artworks. In March 2013 Steans won the VANTAGE Art Prize, and throughout 2013 is participating in The School of the Damned, a free MA project in London. He is also, along with artists Matthew Crawley and Harry Meadley, co-founder of the Leeds Weirdo Club.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s