Why should you care about medieval art history?

Adam Cohen wearing white gloves looking at an old book from the Middle Ages.
Dr. Adam Cohen is an expert in medieval art history who studies handwritten manuscripts from the Middle Ages. (Photo credit: Adam Cohen)

These days, conversations around art seem to be dominated by questions about whether AI-generated art will render artists obsolete and who turned their art into a non-fungible token (NFT). In a world that is constantly pushing up against the limits of its ever-changing technologies, looking to our past can help give us clarity and meaning for our present and guidance for our future.

That’s why today we’re talking to Dr. Adam Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto. Dr. Cohen is an expert in medieval art history who received his PhD in art history from Johns Hopkins University. His new book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring a Connected World, was cowritten with Jill Caskey and Linda Safran and published earlier this year.

BZ: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Can you start by telling me how you became interested in medieval art history?

AC: It started during my undergraduate education at university when I took a required course called Art Humanities. It was so interesting and I loved it. My homework was going to the museum, which just seemed a lot of fun. I kept taking more and more courses and finally I took one about the art of the Middle Ages, and I said this is what I want to do and went off to grad school.

One of the things I really liked about art history was that it seemed like a fun way to study history, because to understand a work of art or a building or a monument, you need to know the history. You need to know something about the literature of the time, the religion, the philosophy, the economics and so on. We didn’t ask a lot about these questions when I was an undergraduate but today you would also want to know about the environment at the time or the gender and sexuality of the people involved. For example, we tend to think Rembrandt was a genius and his paintings are great. But why? Where did Rembrandt live? What was he looking at? What was he thinking about? Who was his audience? What was the religious context? What was the social context? There are so many questions we can ask.

BZ: And now you’re a professor who teaches and researches medieval art history. Can you tell us about the specific research questions that you’re interested in?

AC: Medieval art covers 1,000 years of history which, to me, was one of the attractions because there’s a lot that must be undiscovered there. I became interested in illuminated manuscripts [handwritten books with intricate decorations and illustrations]. I like thinking about the experience people had in making and using books, and why they invested so much time and energy in making them look the way they did. I mostly focused on religious works by Christian monks and nuns, but in the last few years my research has turned to Hebrew manuscripts, which speaks to me personally because of my own background.

My work starts with a research question that is framed very simply, “Why does something look the way it does?” We often start by noticing that there’s something strange or unusual about a piece. “For example, in the Middle Ages there were some pretty dominant conventions for representing the Virgin Mary.” But sometimes you’ll see something that’s a little different and it’ll prompt you to say, “That’s strange. Why did they make it that way?” Then you start to deploy the research methods you’ve developed and begin your investigation.

BZ: Whenever I visit a museum or art gallery, it always seems like the galleries with art from the Middle Ages are not as busy as the ones with the Picassos and the more modern pieces. I feel like this whole period is underappreciated. Why do you think that is?

AC: I think your observation is spot on. We basically live in a post-Renaissance world where we’ve inherited this idea, essentially established during the Renaissance, of art as something independent, almost “art for art’s sake” (though that’s of course that’s somewhat over-simplified). We like to go to museums and walk through the galleries and see panel paintings and sculptures. That’s what we’re used to but that didn’t really exist in the Middle Ages. The books I study were made to be used during meditation or on an altar for Christian mass. Sculptures were part of a church cloister or a nobleman’s house. Everything was deeply contextual but when you rip the object out of its context and stick it into a museum case, it just doesn’t operate as a work of art in the way that we expect. The further you go back in the Middle Ages, the further removed you are from our expectations of what art is. And let’s face it, some of it looks funny, because in the Middle Ages they weren’t interested in linear perspective and spatial coherence. But you know, I don’t blame people for not liking medieval art. Nobody made it interesting for them.

BZ: That’s the perfect segue for your new book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring a Connected World, which you wrote withyour colleagues Jill Caskey and Linda Safran to try and make medieval art more interesting for a wider audience. What motivated you and your coauthors to write this book?

AC: Frustration with what was available to assign in classrooms. We’ve been teaching with books that were old-fashioned and that weren’t speaking to contemporary issues. We each had our own specific reasons, but for me personally it was fundamentally about Islamic art and architecture. I felt strongly that it should be part of my teaching but I wasn’t trained in it and I didn’t have any books that incorporated it in a meaningful way. We live in an interconnected world. I’m originally a Jewish kid from New York, and the students we teach now come from China, India, Pakistan—all parts of the world. We wanted to approach our book with no preconceptions that the reader knows who Jesus is or what the Bible is because you can’t assume that anymore. We wanted to show that Islamic and Jewish art and the experiences of those peoples were valuable in and of themselves, not just because of their influence on Christian art, which is how most of our textbooks had covered these topics in the past. It was really about being more equitable and trying to write a book that was less predicated on the assumptions of the past.

BZ: I definitely had preconceived notions that medieval art is very Eurocentric and very focused on Christianity. So it was refreshing to see that your book integrates Islamic and Jewish art and architecture with the more “traditional” Christian art and architecture that people expect and tries to weave together narratives from all three religions. What do you think we’re missing when we aren’t being more inclusive and equitable in our approach to understanding medieval art?

AC: We’re losing a sense of self-awareness. For example, Chartres Cathedral [in France] is a magnificent building, and I don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate that. But I can also say, hmm, you know, Jews in 13th-century France actually suffered tremendously and that’s also part of the story of Chartres Cathedral. There’s never only one lens through which we can look at something. This is so important today with the rise of white nationalism and other kinds of nationalisms, where there’s this staunch belief in “this is who we are.” Well, who you are might not be who you think you are. It’s a lot more complicated than those simplistic narratives. We’re trying to complicate the narratives that we’ve inherited. We know it’ll make some people feel uneasy but it’s important and we hope we won’t be the last ones to do it.

BZ: How does studying medieval art history contribute to our understanding of the world today?

AC: I like to tell my students that long after they’ve forgotten everything they learned about the art of the Middle Ages, I hope what they’ve taken away is an appreciation that the art and architecture of these places from far away and long ago had value then and could be of interest now. It’s very much about giving students the tools to process the visual world that we live in now, where we’re surrounded by not just art, but advertisements, political campaigns, TikTok videos, the list goes on. We’re being bombarded by visual stimuli all the time and I want them to understand how those things work. What are the motivations behind them? What messages, overt and covert, are being communicated? These are the kinds of critical thinking and reasoning skills that I want them to take into the world.

BZ: Absolutely agree. It’s so important that we help young people build this toolbox to look at things critically because we’re being hit with visual messages everywhere. Being able to take a minute to think about the motive and where something came from is so critical. Last question for you, why should we care about medieval art history?

AC: Because it represents a long period of time – almost 1000 years – and a vast geographic area that produced an incredible number of cultural products that tell us a lot about what those people cared about and what was important to them. Studying these pieces and the stories behind them can give us insights into our own world. Also appreciating great works of art and culture can enrich ourselves and our own lives.

BZ: Thank you. I think the next time I go to a museum or an art gallery, I’m going to make more of an effort to take a look at the medieval art.

AC: That’s all I can ask for, right? At the end of the day, just for people to be more aware, more sensitive, and more thoughtful.

To learn more about Dr. Cohen’s work, please visit his website. His book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring a Connected World, has an accompanying interactive website that allows you to explore and learn more about different pieces of medieval art and architecture. Be sure to check it out!


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