The job of art historians is to discover the origins of artwork, but when it comes to art from early medieval periods, historians find themselves in a world shrouded with mystery.
“We’ve got objects, but no fancy story to attach to them,” said Sigrid Danielson, in her lecture titled “Art History and the Early Medieval Artist” at Elon University Tuesday evening.
Historians saw the names of artists as “signifiers of ethnic identity and geographic origins of the object’s creator,” Danielson said.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, schools of art history responded to the lack of information about early medieval art by focusing solely on the artist, specifically his or her ethnicity. This resulted in the artist’s work being used simply as evidence to back up the conclusions historians drew about the artist’s background.
Danielson, who, in conjunction with Evan Gatti, assistant professor of art history, is currently working on a collection of essays regarding the art and writings of early medieval times, said she believes that by spending so much time and energy on the artist and not the art itself, the actual role the work played in society is lost.
“I don’t think knowing where this guy was born, or what he called himself … helps us understand the work or interpret the work in light of what we know about larger medieval artistic production and culture,” Danielson said. “It’s like thinking about if your entire goal was to find out if Abraham Lincoln was American, you miss all of that other stuff.”