The Supernatural Middle Ages: Images of the Extraordinary - The Courtauld Institute of Art

The Supernatural Middle Ages: Images of the Extraordinary

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Angels cranking the universe on its axis, from Matfres Eymengau de Beziers’ Breviari d’amor (France, 14th century). British Library, Harley MS 4940, fol. 28r. (c) British Library
A family of Panotii, a race of monsters with giant ears, carved in the lintel at the basilica at Vézelay, France, mid-12th century.
The goddess Diana gives herbs to the centaur Chiron. England or France, end of the 12th century. British Library, Sloane MS 1975, fol. 17v (c) British Library
The devil tempts Christ in the wilderness. (Champange- Ardenne, France, c. 1170-80. Victoria and Albert Museum C. 107-1919. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum
St Cuthbert’s horse finds discovers bread and cheese for the saint, as described in Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert. Durham, England, late 12th century. British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, fol. 14. (c) British Library

The Supernatural Middle Ages: Images of the Extraordinary

Dr Alixe Bovey

Supernatural beings, realms, and events feature prominently in medieval visual culture, which ingeniously harnessed the power of images to channel the divine, to picture the invisible, and to realise the imaginary. This new MA explores the ways that medieval images enabled people to see and touch extraordinary phenomena, by definition outside everyday experience. Embracing a broad definition of the supernatural and a chronology stretching from c. 400 to c. 1500, the course will examine the representation of the supernatural in sacred settings as well as secular contexts.

We will endeavour to understand the role played by images in conceptualising the notional boundary between nature and the supernatural. How did medieval artists visualise divine and demonic agency in the operation of the universe? What are the implications of representations of the natural world that place quotidian plants and animals alongside monsters, mythical beasts, and fauna with supernormal properties? Themes receiving sustained attention throughout the course include word-image relations; creative strategies for visualising the unseen and for staging the supernatural; issues of manufacture, patronage and audience; historical and historiographic attempts to distinguish ‘the real’ from spiritual, mythical, and imaginary phenomena; and methods for understanding the character of medieval belief.

Following an introduction to the course’s key concepts and methods, seminars will be devoted to object-based case studies that may include:

  • depictions of the supernatural in the context of canon law, natural philosophy, and systematic theology
  • divine and demonic agency in the world, as represented in diagrams of the cosmos and world maps
  • metaphysical realms (heaven, hell, purgatory) and spirits (ghosts, angels, demons, and other apparitions)
  • the sacraments and material culture
  • images depicting miracles, especially in connection with hagiographic legends
  • miracle-working images, e.g., relics, speaking and weeping statues, talismans
  • depictions of mythical history, e.g., Alexander the Great’s usually deadly encounters with wondrous beasts; magic and monsters in Arthurian romance
  • ordinary and extraordinary animals in Bestiaries and the wider visual culture

Principally but not exclusively focusing on works of art made in Northern Europe, the course will include the examination of works in a range of media, including illuminated manuscripts; large and small scale sculpture in stone, metal, ivory and wood; and painting on panel, walls, and glass. Students will be trained in the interpretation of works of art as physical objects, with many opportunities to examine objects at first hand in London collections and further afield. Particular attention paid to the interpretation of physical evidence (especially in relation to change over time) and the relationship between materials and meaning. A study trip to Paris will take place in December (to be confirmed).

Building on the intensive preparation afforded by seminars, tutorials, and field trips, students will develop a topic for an independent research project, culminating in the MA dissertation.

Courtauld Course Lecturer

About the lecturer

Dr Alixe Bovey

Alixe Bovey is a specialist in the art and culture of the later Middle Ages, with particular interests in illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries.

Alixe’s undergraduate degree in History and Medieval Studies at the University of Victoria (1995) led to an MA (1996) and PhD at The Courtauld Institute of Art (2000). She spent four years as a curator of manuscripts at the British Library (2000-2004) before moving to the School of History and the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent (2004-2014). She joined The Courtauld as Head of Research in 2015.

As The Courtauld’s Head of Research, Alixe is a member of the senior management team, and has special responsibility for The Courtauld’s research strategy, and for the activities of the Research Forum. She is also involved in the activities of the CHASE consortium as a member of its Training and Development Group, and as founder of Material Witness, a training programme for humanities research students who are engaged with the interpretation of physical objects.

Alixe’s current research project, entitled ‘Giants and the City: Mythic History as Material Cultural in London from the Middle Ages to 21st Century’, explores the history of two giants, usually known as Gogmagog and Corineus, from their invention by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the mid-12th century to the present, focusing especially on their material presence in the pageantry, legends, and identity of the City of London. This project is supported by a British Academy mid-career fellowship.

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