30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Kristin B. Aavitsland, "Embodying Virtue. Identity and Church Art Patronage in Twelfth-Century Denmark"

A number of remarkably well-preserved metal altar frontals and retables originate from parish churches in Romanesque Denmark (early 12th to early 13th century), most of them produced in local workshops. Their manufacturing coincides with the establishment of an ecclesiastical structure in Denmark, with the introduction of Latin literacy, books, schools, and a professional administration of state and church. With their high quality craftsmanship, their material splendour, sophisticated theological inscriptions and iconographic programs, these Danish altars are highly representative of European Romanesque art at the time, and bear witness to a conscious will to integrate the young Scandinavian church province into the international culture of the Latin West. Thus, the “golden altars” offer relevant material for exploration of the relationship between ‘Scandinavian’ identities and material culture, an issue suggested in the Fordham Conference’s Call for papers. In previous research, this question is barely addressed. Scholars have mostly focussed on questions of dating, artistic styles, and iconography. Little attention has been paid to issues of patronage and the social and liturgical contexts of the golden altars. In spite of the scant sources to patronage of church art in the twelfth century Scandinavia, this paper argues that by careful analysis of the altars themselves, it is possible to draw the contours of the patrons’ cultural identity. Taking the altar from Lisbjerg Church in Eastern Jutland (c. 1135) as a case, the paper suggests an intimate connection between the altar’s complex iconographic programme, its numerous inscriptions, and its material design. Furthermore it argues that all these factors reflect not only the faith, but also the self-understanding of the art commissioning class in twelfth-century Denmark. The personifications of virtues represented in the Lisbjerg altar frontal are central to this interpretation, which aims to integrate traditional art historical methodology into a wider cultural analysis.


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