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Viola Belghaus: Der erzählte Körper. Die Inszenierung der Reliquien Karls des Großen und Elisabeths von Thüringen, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag 2005, 243 S., 15 Farbtafeln, ISBN 978-3-496-01315-0, EUR 49,00
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Rezension von:
Jacqueline Jung
University of California, Berkeley / American Academy, Berlin
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Ulrich Fürst
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Jacqueline Jung: Rezension von: Viola Belghaus: Der erzählte Körper. Die Inszenierung der Reliquien Karls des Großen und Elisabeths von Thüringen, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag 2005, in: sehepunkte 6 (2006), Nr. 3 [15.03.2006], URL:

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Viola Belghaus: Der erzählte Körper

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Gracing the cover of Viola Belghaus's book is an image of startling poignancy. Lying across a golden surface we find a crowned and bearded man, his bare torso and toes poking out from beneath an ornamented blanket. While his left arm rests against his side, his right curls back against his shoulder in a gesture that conveys something of the slack sensuality of a body at rest. Pointing upward, it also draws attention to another hand actively extended above the sleeper's shoulder; this belongs to a haloed Christ, who looms upright over his companion, balancing a long banderole that shoots forth diagonally from near the king's loins. "Charles, rise up and come!" the raised letters command in Latin, "I have come to give you Gaul." Near the foot of the bed - and aligned with the upper corner of the speech-sign - a smaller figure of the king, now dressed, lifts his hands in prayer as he gazes from an arched window toward a double-row of glistening stars.

Located on the exterior of a large shrine containing the remnants of Charlemagne's body, fashioned shortly after his canonization in 1165, the scene at once thematizes and demands various modes of interpretation. Christ "speaks" to Charlemagne using a manual gesture and written words - conventional signs that we, the shrine's viewers, must read. Charlemagne, his eyes closed, hears the words; and having risen, he looks to the night sky to find in the stars - a natural sign - both confirmation of God's summons and, more pragmatically, his direction to Spain. The composition, with its strong rightward directionality, draws viewers' gazes to the subsequent scenes - Charlemagne's triumphs and defeats in his battles against the Saracens, and his ultimate establishment of the Marienkirche at Aachen - while the rendering of the king's vulnerable, restful body pulls attention to what is central but remains unseen: the bones of the king within the shrine.

Belghaus's book - a slightly revised version of her 2003 Bochum dissertation - offers a deep, compelling analysis of this and other narrative reliefs on the thirteenth-century shrines of Charlemagne at Aachen and St. Elizabeth in Marburg, two closely related objects made as part of larger efforts to promote local cults. Although long praised for their charming anecdotal quality, their close ties with secular illustration, and their lively narrative action, the reliefs have hitherto not been examined as more powerful ideological tools, with their calculated, selective constructions of the saints' lives and their manipulation of viewer response. Moreover, while the larger messages of the respective programs are easily recognized - the promotion of kingly Crusader ideals, traditionally aligned with Staufer patronage, at Aachen, and the celebration of lay female piety at Marburg - few art historians have situated the shrines within their precise institutional contexts or read them in terms of the (self-) interests of their historical patrons and intended audiences. Belghaus's book fills both gaps. On the one hand, her close visual analysis of the individual scenes and their relation to one another allows her to tease out the formal syntax and rhetorical devices by which the designers (a close union of artists and clerical patrons) inflected the stories anew - as art historians Cynthia Hahn and Wolfgang Kemp have done with narrative images in other media. On the other hand, Belghaus's attention to the "staging" (Inszenierung) of the reliquaries within larger cults propagated in moments of intense political crisis - a method clearly borrowed from her Doktorvater Andreas Köstler - enables her to draw conclusions about what Wolfgang Iser would call the works' "implied readers" (implizierte Leser) and (in Hans-Robert Jauss's term) their "horizon of expectations" (Erwartungshorizont). Although these methodologies are hardly innovative, they are seldom brought to bear on objects still often dismissed as "minor arts, " and Belghaus's skilled application of modern theory to such stunning and complicated images yields valuable insights into both the power of pictorial narratives and the place of these within specific social-historical constellations. Specialists may quibble with some of her conclusions, but the book will provide a starting point for new conversations about the cultic and political functions of pictorial narrative in the High Middle Ages - and indeed in the communicative power of pictures more generally.

The book is symmetrically divided into two main sections: the first, longer part focuses on the Charlemagne-shrine in Aachen, the second on the Elizabeth-shrine in Marburg. Each section is further subdivided into three components concerning 1) the development of the respective saint's cult, culminating in his or her canonization and interment in the shrine; 2) the scholarly reception of each shrine to date, in which currently accepted conclusions are synthesized and discrepancies and desiderata noted; and 3) close visual analysis of the pictorial programs themselves.

Although Belghaus's thorough command of the primary and secondary sources on the cults at Aachen and Marburg is impressive indeed, it is in the third portion of each section that she shines most brightly, leading us, scene by scene, through the complex visual strategies by which the designers infused the lives of their subjects with new meaning. Belghaus's analysis makes clear that the long span of time between Charlemagne's death and the re-telling of his life in the Aachen shrine allowed the designers much more flexibility than was the case with the reliquary at Marburg, fashioned as Elizabeth's living presence still resonated. Belghaus attributes the very different narrative structures of the two series - with the Charlemagne-shrine placing a premium on temporal progression and the situation of characters in precise spaces, and the Elizabeth-shrine freezing its characters into static, spatially undefined tableaux - to the differing aims of their clerical patrons: on the one hand, the Aachen chapter's wish to trumpet the importance of their church through its direct association with the emperor, and, on the other, the Marburg clergy's desire to demonstrate the practical inimitability of (and their control over) the ascetic behaviors practiced by Elizabeth. Yet one wonders if the distinctive narrative modes might not also result from the relative distance of these creations from the lifetimes of the saints; here Belghaus would have done well to look into traditions of textual hagiography, which may reveal similar patterns of progressive embellishment or simplification as biographers move farther in time from the person's own life.

Indeed, given the author's reliance on narrative theory culled from literary studies, the absence of comparative textual analysis is striking. After all, written vitae preceded the fabrication of these shrines, and found their way early into liturgical ceremonies performed near them. The pictorial narratives having been created and received in dialogue with textual variants, it would seem that equal attention must be paid to the latter - not only their subject matter, which Belghaus touches on, but also their own distinctive formal compositions, rhetorical maneuverings, and style. This is not to say that words should take priority in this art historical study - far from it. Rather, the distinctiveness of what Belghaus clearly (and rightly) regards as an independent pictorial language would be thrown into higher relief by its comparison with verbal media of communication - which abound in the cultic apparatus of each saint, as this book's rich bibliographic appendix makes plain.

The book's final section, called "the narrativization of the saint's body" ("Die Narrativierung des Heiligenleibes"), pulls together the two shrines, tying them back to the holy relics they encase and the human communities that used them to their own ends. Given the emphasis here, as in the book's title, on the body as a vehicle of meaning, one might expect Belghaus to address explicitly questions of corporality - especially in terms of the hopeful anticipation of Resurrection that imbued the saints' mortal remains with such force, and the medial function of relief sculpture in reminding viewers of the tactile presence and wholeness of those unseen fragments (as discussed in a classic article by Ellert Dahl and, more recently, by Thomas Dale. Belghaus's interest, however, less lies in the theological implications of the holy bodies than in their use by communities to gain, assert, or hold power; in her book as in the medieval sanctuaries themselves, the bodies remain out of sight and reach, and their significance is mediated by the gleaming boxes that hold them. Through her close analyses of the narrative constructions of the saints' lives in conjunction with contemporary institutional politics, the author reveals the respective clergy's anxieties underlying the ostensibly celebratory subject matter: Charlemagne's battles against the Muslims in Spain conclude with his divinely-sanctioned foundation of the Marienkirche in Aachen, a church that, by the early thirteenth century, was facing threats to its status as the imperial coronation site; Elizabeth's rejection of her noble life in the Thuringian court in favor of social activism in the streets of Marburg is shown to be exemplary but also inimitable, too good for ordinary people to follow - a pictorial argument that would have helped the Marburg clergy preserve the status quo, keeping donations from nobles flowing to themselves instead of the poor. In both cases, Belghaus contends, the pictorial narratives run against the grain of established hagiographical genres, allowing viewers to see the holy persons in more ambivalent guises than those the texts give them.

Again, this argument - while largely convincing - would have been strengthened by a closer analysis of the verbal narratives that the pictures supposedly undercut. At the same time, for all the subtlety of her visual analyses, Belghaus's adoption of a decidedly modern, anti-clerical position, in which religious objects stand primarily in the service of elite political ideology, closes off her analysis to other, equally important meanings. For when the designers show us Charles dreaming in the nude or weeping over his slain warrior-companions on a Spanish battlefield; when they show us Elizabeth gazing into the eyes of her beloved husband as she embraces him for the last time or cradling the foot of a seated man who hoists his leg up with one hand, they are crediting their viewers with an ability to "read" the images not only with their minds but with their hearts - to summon up feelings of identification and compassion that will allow them, despite their own distance from the saints, to understand something of their tender humanity. Beyond the politics of corporate power, this human dimension, inscribed so vividly on the shrines' gleaming surfaces, deserves our attention too.

Jacqueline Jung