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Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England
Phoenix Mill, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 2004. 344 pp.; 24 color ills., 176 b/w, 15 maps. [pounds sterling]25.00
Paging through the photographs in Richard Marks's Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England, one can easily understand why scholars of the medieval "art of devotion" have neglected, and even avoided, the English devotional image. (1) The whitewashed walls and empty niches, brackets, and corbels of parish churches like St. Giles's, Totternhoe (Bedfordshire), St. Firmin's, North Crawley (Buckinghamshire), and St. Edmund's, Hauxton (Cambridgeshire) testify to the effectiveness of Tudor reformers' efforts to eradicate the image, whether carved or painted, from English religious life. In comparison to the rich lode of surviving Continental artifacts, the insular evidence is meager indeed. Because of the wide-scale destruction of the material, and because of the dislocation of the surviving images from their architectural contexts--contexts that themselves have frequently been renovated or restored--it would be impossible, Marks asserts, to produce anything approaching a comprehensive history of English devotional art. Although the scope of Marks's study is more narrowly circumscribed than its title suggests, Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England is the first sustained effort to bring the English devotional image into the broader scholarly conversation on the functions and roles of art in late medieval religion. As such, it stands as a significant achievement.
A professor at the University of York and an authority on Gothic art, particularly that most vexed of medieval media, stained glass, Richard Marks also maintains interests in English antiquarian scholarship and the history of collecting. Not unexpectedly, meticulous stylistic analysis and judgments about quality are fundamental components of many of his earlier publications, including The Golden Age of English Manuscript Painting, 1200-1500 (1981), a lively account of English Gothic manuscript illumination coauthored with Nigel Morgan; the magisterial survey Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages (1993); and his contributions to the Corpus vitrearum Medii Aevi and the recent exhibition and catalog Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 2003. (2) For medievalists familiar with this body of work, the volume under review may come as a surprise for its relegation of stylistic analysis to the background, an approach necessitated, as the author informs us, by the nature of the available evidence. Because of the scarcity of English devotional images and their poor state of preservation, "there is no canon predicated on artificial hierarchies of importance imposed by the diktats of connoisseurship," and thus the images can be studied "relatively free from the colouring of antiquarian and art-historical scholarship" (p. 3). Even the terms "Gothic" and "Romanesque" appear infrequently in Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England. When Marks does address the issue of style, it is in the broadest terms, and the style, form, or quality of a work is always discussed in connection with its meaning or with the circumstances of its commission or use. Like Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars and Kathleen Kamerick's Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages, studies with which Marks's book will undoubtedly be compared, Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England has as its goal the recuperation and reconstitution of …