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  • Spiegelungen: Zur Kultur der Visualität im Mittelalter
  • Alison Beringer
Spiegelungen: Zur Kultur der Visualität im Mittelalter. By Horst Wenzel. Philologische Studien und Quellen 216. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 2009. Pp. 316; 54 illustrations. EUR 59,80; $75.63.

Horst Wenzel’s recent book is the product of several years of research and includes both new and previously published work. As its subtitle indicates, the book’s topic is the “culture of visuality” in the Middle Ages; fundamental is the interpretation of the process of seeing as both an optical and an intellectual or inner one, the latter making the inconcrete visible to the mind, or perhaps expressed in a more medieval sense, the soul or heart. The book draws on a wide range of sources including up-to-date brain research (e.g., p. 62); Enlightenment and Early Modern theoretical texts on art (e.g., pp. 20- 21); late antique Christian exegesis (e.g., pp. 74–75); and even, briefly, Platonic and Aristotelian theories of seeing (e.g., p. 123). This is not to mention the medieval texts themselves, a selection that includes many of the most familiar texts to medievalists, e.g., Eike von Repgow’s Sachsenspiegel, Thomasin von Zerclaere’s Der Welsche Gast, Gottfried’s Tristan, Wolfram’s Parzival, and Hartmann’s Erec, but also some that are less frequently studied, e.g., Johannes Rothe’s Ritterspiegel (1415) or Ulrich Tengler’s Laienspiegel (1509). Given the sheer wealth of material and sources in this book, both primary and secondary (the combined bibliography extends over thirty-two pages), an index would have been helpful. Wenzel’s broad and deep erudition is displayed throughout his work, yet that very learning challenges a reader less versed in the well-established German discourse on visuality in the Middle Ages, or someone not in Germanistik and with more limited German language abilities.

The book is divided into ten chapters, beginning with a theoretical framework for a discussion of visual poetics, then moving to the idea of the mirror as metaphor [End Page 273] and medium, which logically leads to a discussion of looks or glances (“Blicke”). The sixth chapter focuses on the reader as “eyewitness” and makes comparisons between twelfth- and thirteenth-century vernacular texts and the film medium: in essence, it contrasts and compares kinesthetic with cinematographic perception. This portion of the book will be the most appealing to nonmedievalists, as it explores medieval literary techniques of visualization that in some form recur in the modern film (for example, the “close-up” that Wenzel argues is present in Gottfried’s description of Isolde’s focusing of her heart and eye on her dead uncle’s sword [pp. 177–78]).

Critical to pictorial perception is the active participation of the hearer or reader: while the medieval text makes such perception possible, it requires the audience to participate (p. 186). But, Wenzel argues, we must be aware of at least two types of reading: that which completely draws the reader in and thus abolishes the reader’s awareness of the book’s mediation (“mediale Differenz”), and reading that leaves the reader conscious of her action and its mediated status.

After a chapter that concentrates on the Nibelungenlied and the visual strategies of that work, the final three chapters of the book concentrate on deixis, both in texts and in pictures. Wenzel discusses a broad variety of manuscript illustrations in these chapters, along with such other visual signs as the deictic finger. Throughout, Wenzel incorporates very recent material, in this case the visual page (or screen) of the computer, turning his attention to the digitized pointing hand/arrow familiar to all computer users.

The final chapter, “Gelenkte Wahrnehmung. Piero della Francesca: Die Madonna mit Perle,” returns to the late Middle Ages for its object, but is more modern in its use of Foucault (and by extension Husserl and Leibniz). With reference to the long-standing debate over the identification of the ovoid object depicted in Piero’s painting, Wenzel argues for “performative perception” (p. 276), urging the viewer to physically reposition him- or herself to view the painting from more than just a frontal perspective. This chapter, which by location serves...


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