Oud Holland

Review of: 'The agency of art objects in Northern Europe' (2021)

August 2023


Review of: Antoni Ziemba, The agency of art objects in Northern Europe 1380–1520, Peter Land [Berlin], 2021

Interest in late mediaeval objects, beyond panel paintings (which were already well-documented in black-and-white photographs by the middle of the twentieth century), has developed precisely with the explosive increase of internet-based digital images. Among the implications of that increase are a complete reassessment of the canon, because it has suddenly become possible to study, by digital proxy, details of prayer nuts, architectural sculptures and illuminated manuscripts tucked away in obscure collections. This has also meant that the arts formerly known as ‘minor’ can now take centre stage. The second implication of the increase of internet-based imagery is that theoretical frameworks of study have also undergone a shift, as the range of medieval objects now capable of being studied, has also broadened. Whereas questions of oeuvres, iconography and patronage have often dominated the study of panel paintings, the now broader field of objects has invited different questions, centred on use and function rather than on the biographies of artists and patrons.

This follows from the nature of small, enormous and complex objects: they are largely anonymous or made by teams and, therefore, cannot bear the weight of big-name ‘genius’ history: there is no Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) ‘of the prayer nut’, no brooding and psychologically enticing Hugo van der Goes (c.1440-1482/3) ‘of the book clasp’ and no quirky and entrepreneurial Van Lymborch Brothers ‘of the rosary bead’. Moreover, whereas Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) and his twentieth-century generation could study iconography of flat paintings armed with a few hundred photographs and a good command of Latin, twenty-first-century scholars are screen-addicted and embodied; they have tens of thousands of images but often a weak command of Latin. These conditions have not only invited, but demanded, consideration beyond the textual basis for iconography.

Interest in intricate medieval objects began in museums, fostered by curators who have been focussed on objects (rather than on theories). Henk van Os advanced an early version of this object- and function-oriented conversation with the important exhibition ‘The art of devotion in the late middle ages in Europe: 1300-1500’, held at the Rijksmuseum, and Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, in 1994. This exhibition highlighted the devotional functions of the showcased objects. Such concerns bubbled up to academic art historians, who amassed examples and embedded them in studies that asked larger cultural questions. The 2010s produced brilliant articles and books in this vein, such as Kamil Kopania’a catalogue of moveable sculptures of Christ, and Melissa Katz’s often-cited work on ‘Vierge ouvrante’ sculptures, which demand physical interaction with the beholder.1 A large two-volume collection of essays, Push me, pull you: Imaginative and emotional interaction in late medieval and Renaissance art, edited by Sarah Blick and Laura Deborah Gelfand, pooled academic talents. Since then, many other art historians have asked urgent questions about function and use, broadening the scope of the objects under focus along the way.

Cover of: The agency of the art object in Europe, 1380-1520

fig. 1 Prayer bead with the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion, early sixteenth century, boxwood, dimensions when open:11.2 × 8.1 × 2.7 cm.; and when closed: 5.8 × 5.5 × 5.6 cm., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift from J. Pierpont Morgan in 1917, inv. 17.190.475

fig. 2 Folio from a guide to mental pilgrimage, with The Holy Sepulcher, Germany, c. 1450-1500, Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS 212, fol. 2v

fig. 3 Jan van Eyck, Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the Stigmata, oil on parchment on panel, 1430-1432, 12.7 × 14.6 cm., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, cat. 314

Thoughtful studies were published, treating various media including micro-sculpture,2 prints,3 public monuments,4 manuscripts,5 and thought itself.6 Antoni Ziemba, who is the ‘Chief Curator of the Department of Medieval and Early Modern Art’ at the Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, in Warsaw, Poland, has recently attempted to bring function-driven questions up to speed by assembling such objects, beyond panel paintings, which have lately fascinated academic practitioners. Clocking in at 1.032 pages, Ziemba’s book represents a tour de force of thought and ideas about Netherlandish, and to some degree, German objects from 1380-1520. Those that he has selected are the very large and the very small; objects that are animated or require manipulation; and objects that require the beholder to move. In other words, he takes up the kinds of objects that became popular scholarly subjects once the walls between easel painting and the so-called decorative art crumbled, and the canon expanded beyond named masters.

This change has enabled an important adjustment to how the past can be known: whereas one can make perfectly valid claims about iconography by studying reproductions, it is questionable whether one can make a claim about manipulating a complex object without having handled it, or at least a model of it. What is the weight of a boxwood prayer nut in the hand? What are the mechanics of a hand squeezing a bladder of blood in the recess on the back of an animated Crucifixion sculpture? What is revealed by opening a shrine Madonna or a parchment diptych? Which is to say that a claim about the sensorium necessitates an ontology and epistemology that encompasses and validates (re)enactment, and with it, knowing-through-doing, which can scarcely be done from a distance. The situation has created a methodological ‘catch-22’: the sudden increase of digital images has expanded the canon available for study, while simultaneously increasing the physical distance between the objects and their scholars in the present, who interrogate objects’ impact on the senses, especially tactility and proprioception. The last of which are qualities denied by the screen.

Hundreds of multi-sensory objects spill from the pages of Ziemba’s book, which consists of an introduction, five chapters, a brief chapter of ‘final remarks’, a bibliography, list of illustrations and an index of names, unaccompanied, unfortunately, by an index of terms or concepts. The introduction (chapter 1) provides a lucid overview of some of the main lines of enquiry of early Netherlandish painting. Using as an example Hans Memling’s (c. 1430-1494) Maarten van Nieuwenhove diptych (painted in 1487, now in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges), Ziemba describes how Aby Warburg (1886-1929), Max Dvořák (1874-1921), Panofsky, Hans Belting (1935-2023), and Andrea Pearson have each interpreted the work, concretely distilling each of their contributions to the field: from Dvořák’s nominalism (the tenet that there are no universals, only particulars, which has implications for the representation of the precise, object-filled worlds of Early Netherlandish painting) to Pearson’s investigations about the anxiety around male sexuality in the fifteenth century.7 To drive his book, however, Ziemba settles on a version of Bruno Latour’s (1947-2022) post-humanism, which primarily means that Ziemba will consider the ways in which objects exert force on people.8 For Latour (and Ziemba), objects shape human behaviour, hence the title of this book.

Despite the theory-heavy introduction, the subsequent chapters themselves wear their underpinning theory lightly, and the author gets on with the task of discussing crafted objects. He eschews the fraught term art, with its implied notions of painting, and replaces it with object; a term that encompasses the kinds of items that have occupied scholars (and not just collectors) throughout the last 30 years: tapestries, metalwork including jewellery, manuscripts, single-leaf prints and small sculptures made of a variety of materials, including boxwood prayer nuts. Shifting from art to object also implies a sensory shift, from a primarily optical orientation to a multi-sensory one. Users and beholders unlocked, sniffed, carried, opened, flipped, fingered, caressed, pocketed, danced around, veiled, unveiled, censed, peered inside and manipulated these objects. By demanding these engagements, these objects-in-motion exerted a force on their users. Nearly all objects discussed are pictured in the 606 figures, consisting of small black and white reproductions. These serve as references: readers can find most of the items in full colour on the web, or in the articles where he obtained his ideas in the first place.

Chapter two is about the scale of objects, a quality usually negated in reproductions. When projected onto a screen, a cathedral façade can be the same size as a prayer nut. Ziemba opens with a section on the representation of giants, colossal figures, huge altarpieces and enormous sculptures suspended overhead that change as viewers moved and move, around and under them. One of the most intriguing items discussed in this chapter is a sculpture representing the Virgin, now destroyed, that reached the breathtaking height of eight metres. The image formerly adorned the west façade of Malbourch cathedral (in Poland, a few hours’ ride southeast of Gdansk).

The enormous third chapter (of over 400 pages, a book on its own) deals with manipulating and handling objects – including manuscripts, metalwork, devotional beads (fig. 1), micro-altarpieces, playing cards, polyptychs, tapestries, prints, small sculptures, shrine Madonnas, figures of the Christ Child to be clothed, animated images of Christ, both in the form of Crucifixes and on Palm Sunday donkeys and automata. Two codas to this chapter consider scale from the perspective of the producer’s and the recipient’s labour, respectively. The first examines the enormous physical size of workshops, where large sculptures were produced. The second considers the metaphors of tiny objects and their magnification. As Ziemba states in note 348, the ideas for the first coda come from Susie Nash’s Northern Renaissance art, of 2008.9 His figure 458, which is captioned as ‘Figures from the Crucifixion group from Lübeck by Bernt Notke and his assistants, during conservation in 1971’, has been lifted from Nash’s book, where it is figure 110. The purpose of the bird’s-eye photo is to show the enormous size of the studio required to work on the monumental figurative sculptures, which dwarf the human workers.

One can see a problem with Ziemba’s work when one compares his caption with Nash’s: she dates the documentary photo ‘c. 1971’. This is a subtle but important difference. Ziemba translates an approximate date from his source into an exact one. Moreover, the source for his figure number 458, according to the credits listed on page 1.000, is in fact Susie Nash’s book. He also appropriates her drawing reconstructing the Well of Patriarchs at the Chartreuse of Champmol. For this he credits her, but he has apparently not received permission from the author or her publishers. This is a microcosm of a larger trend in the book: Ziemba appropriates other authors’ images and ideas, casting aside nuance, intellectual property claims and polite scholarly conventions.

Chapter four, titled ‘Words and texts in art’, marks the reappearance of the term ‘art’, which the author had previously avoided. The first half of the chapter treats manuscripts, and the second half altarpieces. Of the objects considered in this chapter, books of hours predominate, especially the ‘greatest hits’ of Southern Netherlandish production – such as the Hours of Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482), about which it is difficult to say anything new. In the second half, Ziemba investigates the direction of reading and viewing altarpieces, specifically those with numerous vignettes that have a narrative sequence and duration. Unfortunately, the ideas from the first half do not inform the second half. As with all of the sections in this book, there is little backward, or forward, referencing, and little sense that the ideas are building from previous ideas presented in the earlier chapters.

A brief chapter five (filling only ten per cent as many pages as chapter three), which considers time and narrative in paintings, is the most successful part of the book. Unlike the others, it draws on a variety of media, including calendars, mechanical clocks, philosophical arguments about eternity (which implicate, for example, images of donors praying in perpetuity and images of an eternal hell) and panel paintings. It is refreshingly theme-driven rather than media-driven. Chapter six takes up the theme of travel and pilgrimage, both real and imagined. There one will find arguments and images taken from various recent scholars, including me. A long section about manuscripts for virtual pilgrimage presents my ideas and arguments with surprising fidelity to their original form.10 Ziemba illustrates this section with some of the images that I had originally published to buttress my arguments, but he concentrates on those that have been digitised and made easily accessible online, for example: Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, manuscript number 212 (fig. 2). Although Ziemacites my work, and the work of others, he adds nothing new to it. 

Indeed, throughout this tome it is difficult to identify Ziemba’s original contributions. For example, on pages 87-88, there is a enormous paragraph about giants, beginning with a discussion of Old Testament giants, continuing with alphabetical lists of Netherlandish and northern French towns that hosted processions of sculpted colossal figures that finishes with the sentence, “Though in the majority of these places the tradition of making and displaying mannequins of giants is documented after the first half of the sixteenth century (Douai), and mostly between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, undoubtedly this tradition goes back to medieval times.”11 The subsequent paragraphs neither elucidate the nature or location of these documents, nor provide a reason for the foray into the modern era. The only footnote for the long, information-rich paragraph reads, “Alixe Bovey from the Courtauld Institute, London, is currently writing a book entitled: Giants and the city: Mythic history as material culture in London from the middle ages to the twenty-first century.”12 What does this mean? That all of the information and ideas in this paragraph come from Alixe Bovey’s forthcoming book? If so, does her foray into the twenty-first century explain why Ziemba has also slipped into the modern period, in this paragraph, too? It remains entirely unclear. Readers who want to follow up on Ziemba’s enticing claim that enormous sculptures depicting Moors in turbans, “hit their enemies’” helmets with hammers, so that they covered their eyes and thus prevented them from winning the battle, would come up short.13 There are no clues in the footnotes as to which of the items in the ample bibliography would lead them to primary documents, or even published secondary studies, which would shed light on the banging giants.

Ziemba makes other claims that lack evidence. For example, in his discussion of the Eyckian Stigmatization of St.Francis, in Philadelphia (fig. 3), Ziemba writes: “The image was carried on the body, or kept constantly near, both at home and when travelling; it reminded the wearer of the need for prayer and pious meditation, whilst at the same time guarding them from evil and sin.”14 This is an attractive notion, and it may be true, but no evidence is provided. Are there marks of wear on the object that would suggest that it had been carried around? Ziemba does not tell us.

The bibliography provides insight into Ziemba’s working process: this section fills 145 pages and lists c. 2.175 books and articles, the vast majority of them published between 1990 and 2017. Ziemba can indeed be credited for the sheer scale of his undertaking to survey this quantity of literature. In the behemoth text that rises from the digestion of this literature, he has shown himself to be a remarkable peace-keeper: there are only a few instances of Ziemba calling an author out for an improbable idea,15 or pitting one author’s ideas against another’s, even in the footnotes. He has created an 814-page conflict-free zone. This also means that Ziemba’s project is not really about comparing authors’ arguments or methods. His added value of this recent scholarship is his demonstrated ability to select, summarise and organise it, but not to evaluate and compare it. The distilled results of the 2.175 items are presented instead as uncontested fact.

The summaries that appear in his pages have been unburdened of their nuance and their boring bits so that what remains is object-centred and fast-paced, sounding more authoritative and less tentative than in the essays where the ideas first appeared. According to the mediaeval definitions of authorship, I would categorise Antoni Ziemba not as the author, but rather as a compilator and ordinator. The book contains few if any novel ideas, but rather comprises organised, digested versions of the scholarship around the reception of late mediaeval objects from the last 30 years. If readers think of this book as an act of curation rather than as an act of forging and marshalling an original argument, then the book succeeds rather well.

Neither archival sources nor manuscripts are listed in the bibliography, and accordingly, Ziemba has not delved into the primary sources to feed this hungry tome. Consequently, it is not clear that he has seen, first-hand, the items he discusses but has relied instead on colleagues in the field to find and interpret them. This presents a paradox: his book is all about having objects in one’s hands, in the manipulability of objects that affect the behaviour of the user/beholder, but there is no evidence that Ziemba himself handled all or even most of these items. Rather, his observations are second-hand. Even as I might recommend this book to new members of the art history field, I would perhaps not recommend it to art historians of Northern European art from the period of 1380-1520, for they will have read all of this scholarship, by the scholars who actually wrote it. Those who will find it useful would be those in allied fields of study, who have a need to teach this material. Such as someone who trained in Italian Renaissance painting, who suddenly has to teach a course on the pan-European arts of the same period. Though I would hesitate to assign it to undergraduates, or to taught master's students, for it does not present an adequate model of argumentation.

Kathryn M. Rudy
University of St. Andrews


1 K. Kopania, Animated sculptures of the crucified Christ in the religious culture of the katin middle ages, Warszawa 2010. M.R. Katz, ‘Behind closed doors: Distributed bodies, hidden interiors, and corporeal erasure in ‘vierge ouvrante’ sculpture’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 55/56 (2009): pp. 194-221.

2 F. Scholten, R. Falkenburg, I. Reesing, A. Suda, B. Drake Boehm, P. Dandridge, and L. Ellis, Small wonders: Late-gothic boxwood micro-carvings from the Low Countries, Amsterdam 2016.

3 D. S. Areford, ‘The image in the viewer’s hands: The reception of early prints in Europe’, Studies in Iconography 24 (2003): pp. 5-42. S. Karr Schmidt, Interactive and sculptural printmaking in the Renaissance, Leiden 2018.

4 A. Timmermann, Memory and redemption: Public monuments and the making of late medieval landscape, Turnhout 2017.

5 There are many contenders here, including: F. Hamburger, The visual and the visionary: Art and female spirituality in late medieval Germany, New York City 1998. K. A. Smith, Art, identity and devotion in fourteenth-century England: Three women and their books of hours, London 2003. T. Graham and R. Clemens, Introduction to manuscript studies, Ithaca 2007.

6 M. J. Carruthers, The craft of thought: Meditation, rhetoric, and the making ofiImages, 400-1200, Cambridge 2006. J. F. Hamburger (et al.), The diagram as paradigm:Cross-cultural approaches, Washington D.C. 2022.

7 Nevertheless, Ziemba does not mention the Czech art historian in his footnotes or bibliography. See: M. Dvořák, ‘Idealismus und Naturalismus in der gotischen Skulptur und Malerei’, Historische Zeitschrift, vol. 119 (1918), pp. 1-62, 185-246. M. Dvořák, Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte: Studien zur abendländischen Kunstentwicklung, Munich 1924. A. G Pearson, Envisioning gender in Burgundian devotional art, 1350-1530: Experience, authority, resistance, Aldershot 2005). Although Ziema does cite, Pearson, he does he mention the article in which Pearson first discusses the Maarten van Nieuwenhove diptych: A. G. Pearson, ‘Personal worship, gender, and the devotional portrait diptych’, The sixteenth century journal, vol. 31 (2000), pp. 99-122.

8 B. Latour, Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory, Oxford 2005.

9 S. Nash. Northern Renaissance art, Oxford 2008, p. 159, fig. 110.

10 A. Ziemba, The agency of art objects in Northern Europe 1380–1520, Berlin 2021, pp. 747-763.

11 Ziemba 2021 (note 10), p. 87-88.

12 Ziemba 2021, p. 87n28.

13 Ziemba 2021, p. 87.

14 Ziemba 2021, p. 233.

15 Ziemba 2021, e.g., p. 235m129.


Kathryn Rudy, 'Review of: he agency of art objects in Northern Europe 1380–1520', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2023.