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  • The Mystic Ark: Hugh of Saint Victor, Art, and Thought in the Twelfth Century by Conrad Rudolph
  • Hugh Feiss O.S.B.
The Mystic Ark: Hugh of Saint Victor, Art, and Thought in the Twelfth Century. By Conrad Rudolph. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xix, 609. $120. hardback. ISBN 978-1-107-03705-2).

The author is a professor of art history at the University of California, Riverside, who has written extensively on twelfth-century art. His subject here is a large painting that Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141) or one of his students described in the small book Libellus in the critical edition of Patrice Sicard, which Rudolph calls by its traditional title, The Mystic Ark. In Rudolph’s estimation, this work,

fundamentally political, the medieval equivalent of a best-seller, conceived by one of the leading scholars of the day, unique in its format and in its means of presentation, is not only the most complex individual work of figural art of the entire Middle Ages, but also certainly one of the most ambitious and astonishing.

(p. 377) [End Page 616]

Rudolph has produced a study worthy of such a subject.

Rudolph emphasizes Hugh’s polemical or political aim for his painting, which was to stake out a middle ground in what Rudolph calls the culture wars of the twelfth century between the conservative representatives of traditional theology, one of whom was St. Bernard, who criticized the use of figural art in monastic settings, and representatives of the “New Theology” such as Peter Abelard, Thierry of Chartres, and William of Conches.

Rudolph argues forcefully several convictions. Hugh painted this large (12 by 15 feet) and complex artistic image on the wall of the cloister at St. Victor. It was a visual summa of theology that served as the basis for a lecture series that Hugh gave at Saint Victor for advanced theology students. Using the written description of the painting in The Mystic Ark and Hugh’s further elaborations of the painting in The Moral Ark, On Vanity, and What Truly Should be Loved, other teachers throughout Europe composed their own paintings and gave lectures on them.

Rudolph’s study has two parts. The first is a meticulous art-historical analysis of Hugh’s description and presentation of the drawing in its literal, allegorical, anagogic, and tropological dimensions (the Ark of Noah, the Ark of the Church, the Ark of Wisdom, and the Ark of Mother Grace). Here Rudolph draws on Hugh’s other writings and on antecedents in the Bible, St. Augustine, and other Christian writings and provides computer-generated reconstructions of the painting, many of them in color.

The second part is a translation of The Mystic Ark. Whereas the 1500 notes in the first part of the book were mostly quite short references to primary and secondary literature, the 437 notes to the translation are detailed justifications and explanations of Rudolph’s translation, which anyone who has struggled with the Latin text will greatly appreciate. There are an excellent bibliography and a subject index.

Rudolph is critical of the work of most previous scholars on this important text and painting. His book should, then, generate a good deal of discussion among art historians and students of Hugh of St. Victor and his milieu. Apart from questions of detail, there are some questions for which Rudolph presents answers that perhaps are not yet settled. What was the nature of the discussion (collatio) from which the painting arose? Was there actually a painting at St. Victor? Is the existence of more than sixty manuscripts of The Mystic Ark evidence enough to conclude that the painting was reproduced or used in teaching elsewhere? How polemical and political were Hugh’s relations with the representatives of the theological currents of his time? If The Mystic Ark is a reportatio, why would Hugh not have corrected it more carefully? [End Page 617]

Hugh Feiss O.S.B.
Monastery of the Ascension Jerome, ID


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