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The Middle Ages spans ten centuries, from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries. It encompasses a myriad of diverse cultural legacies, ranging from the collapse of the Roman Empire, to the rise of Christianity and birth and expansion of the Islamic Empire, to the invasions of the Vikins, Magyars and Saracens. Understandably, its art history is equally diverse, including the periods referred to as Early Christian art, Byzantine art, Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture.
The medieval heritage left us the awe-inspiring basilicas of early Christianity; some of the most spectacular cathedrals in the world during the Gothic period; magical illuminated manuscripts; luminous mosaic and stained glass windows (vitrailles); frescoes and tapestries that recorded the annals of history and celebrated the exploits of war. It is incredible that this vast and culturally rich period is often dismissively described as “the dark ages,” obliterated, as it were, from the annals of history. Often regarded by Enlightenment philosophes as a period of cultural regress–a time of oppressive religion and superstition–this caricature of the Middle Ages continued into the modern period as is still sometimes taught in history and art history courses today.
Adrian Leonard Mociulschi‘s monumental cultural history, Evul Mediu: Arhitectura si Muzica (The Middle Ages: Architecture and Music), published by Editura Curtea Veche in 2011, rehabilitates this period, revealing in exquisite prose and clear writing some of its richest artistic legacies. To depict the cultural richness and diversity of the Middle Ages, it takes a special kind of study: a hybrid and multidisciplinary book.
The author first specifies what his book is not (p. 10). First of all, it is not a metahistory (or “studiu asupra istoriei”). In other words, it is not an updated history. Nor is it a work of art history. Evul Mediu is also not a philosophical essay, despite its philosophical undertones. Finally, it’s not a pamphlet that makes a polemical argument about the medieval period. But in some ways, it’s not any of these things separately because it is all of them together–art history; cogent argument about the richness of medieval art, music and architecture and a nuanced philosophical exploration of the epistemology of art and what it teaches us about the past as well as about ourselves today. The totality of this book is therefore far greater than the sum of its parts. Evul Mediu is not easy to categorize because its project is so ambitious that it spans not only many centuries, but also several fields–art, architecture, religion and music, as the title suggests–as well as several genres of writing and traditions in historiography and art criticism.
As vast and ambitious as Fernand Braudel‘s histoire de longue durée (and reminiscent of the tradition of French historiography of the Annales School) yet written as clearly, for a general audience not just for specialists, as E. H. Gombrich‘s The Story of Art, Adrian Mociulschi’s Evul Mediu is a book that makes an important contribution to all the domains it touches–history, art history, philosophy and criticism–by restoring for its readers the richness, diversity, nuances and–above all–the splendor of the Middle Ages.
Adrian Mociulschi is well-aware that history is not just a recording of the events of the past, but a preservation and recreation of that past–and of its relevance–for each generation of new readers; for the present. Historiography is therefore, as the author explains, a creative and a philosophical exercise: “The past is not only what was, but also the awareness of the passage of time, belonging to memory. Which is to say, it constitues an experience that has to do with the subjectivity of our perception” . (“Trecutul nu este doar ceea ce a fost, ci este constiinta scurgerii vremii, apartinand memoriei. Ceea ce este, constitutie o experienta raportata la subiectivitatea propriei noastre perceptii” (Evul Mediu, pp. 9-10).
To be aware of the cultural legacies of the medieval past implies simultaneously to appreciate that history for what it was–so different from our cultures and experiences today–and to become better aware of the roads that made us who we are today. It is, for Mociulschi, therefore both an epistemological journey (learning about the past and how it shaped our present societies) and an ontological discovery (seeing what constitutes us as human beings, which can’t be studied apart from our histories). To offer just one out of the many examples in this beautiful book, Mociulschi asserts: “Bizantine art, having as its final goal the sacred rather than the esthetic (even if it expresses itself through esthetic forms), is inscribed in the religious dimension and, through it, reveals itself as a door towards the transcendent. Religious icons were viewed as windows to eternity; churches symbolized the (central) place of God in the midst of the Christian community; religious writing constituted veritable philosophical and theological treatises”. (“Arta Bizantina, avand drept cauza finala sacrul si nu esteticul (chiar daca se exprima prin forme estetice), este inscrisa in dimensunea religioasa si, prin aceasta, se descopera ca o poarta catre transcendent. Icoanele erau privite ca ferestre catre eternitate, bisericile simbolizau locul prezentei lui Dumnezeu in mijlocul comunitatii crestine, scrierile patristice constituiau veritabile tratate de filosofie si teologie” (Evul Mediu, 35).
It takes Adrian Mociulschi’s double expertise in music (The Academy of Music in Bucharest, 1998) and theology (The Catholic Theological Institute in Bucharest, 2005) and deep knowledge of the history of art–not to speak of his exquisite, poetic and philosophical writing style–to engage readers in a history of the Middle Ages where the sense of wonder and appreciation of this period’s many cultural splendors shine through on every page.
Review translated into Romanian, on Agentia de Carte:
Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com