Niko Munz shares reflections on his research trip to Northern France, funded by the WRoCAH large award scheme. Niko’s research took him on a tour of the area’s aedicules – commemorative and ornamental structures which ranged from small shrines to gigantic cathedrals.
Department of History of Art
University of York
The first week of January is not the ideal time to visit northern France. A thick mist hangs and it is difficult to see the sun. The purpose of the trip was to visit some of the great artworks and buildings of the late medieval era, produced under the Valois dynasty of French Kings, sometimes called the “age of chivalry”. This took me to Paris, and north to Rouen, then down to Dijon, home of mustard, across to Bourges, up to Anjou and back down to Bourg-en-Bresse, famous for its chickens.
Due to teaching commitments beginning in early January, it was necessary to cram as much as possible into the eight days. This meant horrific early morning wake-ups and near-hallucinatory train journeys through what at the time seemed like an endlessly grey expanse of flat land. It also meant an almost obsessive compulsion to fill my water bottle at every available opportunity (should such an opportunity present itself, it must always be taken, however high the water level) and the beginning of what may turn into a lifelong fondness for the savoury galette – ham and cheese to be precise, folded in such a way as to melt the cheese and warm the ham the perfect amount.
Often, on these early journeys, I would let myself drift, only to come to with the screeching of the wheels around nine o’clock (“nous sommes arrivés à Rouen-Rive-Droite”). And moments later I would be face-to-face with some enormous edifice I had only seen in books, looming like a ghoulish apparition, grey stone against the grey sky.
What was sought, specifically, from the great mass of thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth-century visual material I was encountering was a sense of architectural framing conventions as they manifest themselves across media: painting, sculpture, tapestry, decorative arts, even architecture itself; in short, the aedicule, in all its various guises. When one has a form in one’s mind, and one is on the art historical hunt for that form, one begins to see that form in all manner of places: a frown, an eyebrow, a plate of cheese. And at times, northern France seemed like a sort of aedicule playground: so gripped was I, admittedly, by an aedicule fever.
Aedicules, baldacchins, canopies, niches, shrines, all are connected invariably with funerary custom. Whether housing a sculpture of an Old Testament prophet or a relic of a martyred saint, aedicules commemorate and preserve in the afterlife. Aedicule literally means little house and a fair amount of literature exists that regards entire buildings, like cathedrals and churches, as little more than glorified aedicules or shrines – essentially as gigantic tombs.
One monument was exemplary in this respect: the Royal Monastery of Brou, next to Bourg-en-Bresse. This Taj Mahal of the north was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century at the orders of the Habsburg Margaret of Austria as a touching memorial to her husband Duke Philibert II of Savoy. It is a great shroud of a building: all white, built in the flamboyant Gothic style, so featuring manifold flame-like decorations, and, of course, many aedicules.
There is one other monument that I wish to comment upon, and this is as much for the strangeness of its situation as for its artistic value. It is the finest example of Burgundian late Gothic sculpture (perhaps even the finest example of late Gothic sculpture whether Burgundian or not), Claus Sluter’s Well of Moses, made around 1400 for Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, a great patron of the arts. Six stone prophets in front of six stone aedicules form a circle around a now-lost stone cross, carved with an attention to individuality and emotion hitherto unheard of at the time of its making. Again, it had a funereal purpose: it formed a key component of the Ducal burial site, the Charterhouse of Champmol. Though once a Carthusian monastery, it is now an asylum, and this provided quite the moody backdrop to Sluter’s accomplishment on that cold January morning.
It was a great trip. Thank you WRoCAH!