27th Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium

‘God is in the Details’ – The Art of Detail in the Middle Ages

i Jan van Eyck, Virgin of Canon van der Paele, 1434-36, Groeningemuseum, Source: Closer to Van Eyck

The Courtauld’s 27th Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium considers the significance of details. For Aby Warburg, God was in the details, while for others they could conceal the devil. From manuscript miniatures to carved altarpieces or richly decorated muqarnas, detail was highly valued in the Middle Ages. The deployment of detail displays, disguises and depends upon the materiality of objects, and our programme reflects the material diversity of detail, from architectural sculpture to multi-media textiles, from manuscript paintings to stained glass. The production of detail was also demanding, often requiring fine materials, masterful skill, hours of time and technical innovation. The intensive requirements of detail enabled them to speak of power and dignity, yet they could also half-conceal subversive subtexts and present subtle suggestions, which only the most perceptive viewers would appreciate.  

Close observation of apparently insignificant details lay at the heart of the connoisseurial, attribution-focused art history of the nineteenth century. More recently scholars have examined the cultural significance of detail, from Necipoğlu’s explication of the ‘scrutinizing gaze’ in Islamic art to Gell’s notion of ‘cognitive stickiness’. Others have closely engaged with detail in relation to craft, such as Margaret Graves’ theory of the ‘intellect of the hand’ and Paul Binski’s explorations of the ‘human “poetics” of materials’. Our varied programme will challenge the marginality of detail, proposing art historical approaches to material which seems fragmentary, incidental, or merely ornamental. As such, this colloquium foregrounds potential meanings which arise from the deployment of details, whether as devices of persuasion, indicators of temporality or pointers to religious dimensions beyond the everyday. Do join us in person, or via Livestream, for this opportunity to delve into detail, in all its complex material, cultural and academic dimensions. 

Organised by Rachel Alban (The Courtauld) and Jamie Haskell (The Courtauld) 

This event has passed.

29 Apr 2022

Friday 29th April 2022, 10am - 6pm BST

Free, booking essential

Vernon Square, Lecture Theatre 2 and Online via Livestream

Please note this event will be live streamed to allow those outside London access to the event. All those who wish to access the event via this online method should book a ‘Livestream’ ticket rather than ‘Lecture Theatre’ ticket.

Booking closes 30 minutes before the event start time.



Provisional Programme

Programme: ‘God is in the Details’ – The Art of Detail in the Middle Ages

10:00 – Registration – Front Hall

10:30 – Welcome – Rachel Alban and Jamie Haskell (The Courtauld)

10:40 – SESSION 1: Marginal, Fragmentary, Isolated: Giving Minutiae Centre Stage

Chair: Irakli Tezelashvili (The Courtauld)

Aidan Valente (University of Cambridge) – Marginalia in Stone: The Evolution of Allegory and Classicism on the Fonte Gaia

Lydia Fisher (University of Exeter) – A Window into Faith: The Value of Studying Stained Glass Fragments

Jessica Gasson (The Courtauld Institute of Art) – Woven Complexities: Untangling the Uses of Silk, Gold and Wool in the V&A Passion Tapestry

Questions and Discussion

12:00 – Comfort Break

12:20 – SESSION 2: Desire for Detail: Motives and Meanings

Chair: Susannah Kingwill (The Courtauld)

Danielle Omesi Moisa (Tel Aviv University) – Romanesque Horror Vacui: Ornamental Density in Architectural Sculpture as an Expression of Fear of the Absence of Creation and Creator

Jordan Booker (University of York) – It’s All in the Details: Tracing Temporality in Early Netherlandish Painted Settings

Rachel Alban (The Courtauld) – Framing in Detail: Small-scale Illumination Design as Cognitive Framing in late Timurid and early Safavid Literary Manuscripts

Questions and Discussion

13:40 – Lunch Break (Lunch provided for speakers only)

14:30 – SESSION 3: Rhetorical Flourishes: The Persuasive Power of Details

Chair: Jane Stewart (The Courtauld)

Sommer Hallquist (University of Cambridge) – Authority is in the Details: Illuminating Apocrypha in the Late Middle Ages

Chloe Kellow (The Courtauld) – From Contemplation to Self-Fashioning: Detail as Narrative Device in Plaques from the Lives of Christ and Saint James, The Altar of Saint James in Pistoia (1316-1371)

Michela Young (University of Cambridge) – Saint John Gualbert and the Cross: details of a conversion story in creating the cult of a saint

Questions and Discussion

15:50 – Afternoon break with Tea and Coffee 

16:30 – SESSION 4: Transcendental and Transformational: ‘God is in the Details’ 

Chair: Julia VanZandvoort (The Courtauld)

Dagmar Thielen (Catholic University of Leuven) – Multum in Parvo: The Intermedial Gothic Detail within the Symbolic Networks of the Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

Adela Foo (Yale University) – Reflections of an Intermediary World: Considering the Mirror as a Threshold into Another World

Juliette Brack (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) – God is in Textile Patterns: Meditation on the Virgin’s Cloth of Honour in Italian Devotional Panels

Questions and Discussion

17:50 – Closing Remarks – Tom Nickson (The Courtauld)

18:00 – Reception