Some Things Medieval Sculpture has Taught me About Writing

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Two angels guard the border. A weathered Christ, enthroned and haloed, wobbles out of a woefully off-centre vesica piscis between them. The vesica, the lens shape made by two overlapping circles and a divine form in medieval art – not that you’d know it from its name which means ‘fish bladder’ – is endearingly ungeometric, like a partially deflated beach ball stuck in a rock pool. Nonetheless, the angels haven’t noticed and Christ seems to be coping just fine with this most human of appearances.

This is the tympanum – the segmental space above the doorway – at the church of St Andrew, Eastleach Turville, Gloucestershire. It is a fantastic doorway, surrounded by massed chevron and other geometric motifs that radiate outwards around it like a freeze-frame explosion. It must have been overwhelming to walk beneath it, into the church, when it was new around 1150. It’s still quite overwhelming to look at it now.

Recently I was asked what my advice to anyone starting to write would be. The question flummoxed me as I’m continually discovering what writing is, and does, for myself. Very simply: I don't really know. A lot of the time I feel like a fraud anyway as I will sometimes go days and very occasionally weeks without writing anything (though I often feel a bit ‘untethered’ if it’s a long absence). But as I had to come up with an answer something has been whirring in the back of my head ever since and has, perhaps predictably, led me back to the Romanesque. I’ve learned a lot from Romanesque sculpture over the years. Not just about the skills and ideas of twelfth-century stonemasons and their wider world but about creative work in general. Much of what I find in these images and forms is applicable to other fields, including writing, so I’ve written this to remind myself, some partial and half thought-out understandings of writing as filtered through and informed by my own take on a distant corner of medieval masonry.

1. Cherish the irregular and accidental

There are two aspects to this. There are mistakes that lead to new work and new places or ideas that you might never have found otherwise (exciting); and then there are the mistakes that you have to live with (less exciting). Sometimes they are the same thing (confusing).

The first one is harder to write about, funnily enough, as it’s what I’m here for, the discovery of something. Often, the most rewarding and long lasting ‘mistakes’ uncover or deliver an encounter with something new; sometimes this is with an aspect of yourself. Sometimes they are just about an unexpected day out. Either way, if the accidental words lead you there, or back there, in a new way, transforming what you might have thought about that situation or inviting new perspectives in the process, then that’s surely a win. Better yet if they can take others with you on that journey.

The other accidents are harder to deal with. I am a stonemason. Believe me, I can see the mistakes in my own work even when it’s fixed eighty-feet up on a façade. These mistakes remain in my line of vision and memory FOR A LONG TIME. At some point, however, they fade, I forget about them and I can enjoy the work for what it is. Chances are, if it’s been fixed into a historic building (or been published) it has been judged, a consensus has been reached, and it has been deemed acceptable whatever I might think of it. Sometimes it takes a while to reach that point.

Perhaps the sculptor of the tympanum at Eastleach Turville was annoyed at his wonky setting out of the portal through which Christ appears. Perhaps it was of no consequence. I find it engaging and relatable and I expect others do too. Regardless, it has sat at the centre of a beautiful doorway for over 800 years.

2. Places of overlap offer greater rewards

There is the idea of the edge, there is the idea of the in between or liminal, and then there is the idea of the overlap.

When I was writing my PhD in the early 2000s a lot of the medieval imagery that I was studying was deemed ‘marginal’. Marginal imagery included everything from the illustrations in manuscripts (literally in the margins) to the gargoyles and grotesques that fringed churches and cathedrals. It was marginal in other ways, the argument ran, as it had been excluded from academic study, understood to be of little or no consequence – some writers going so far as to say that these were the creations of ‘childlike’ i.e. simple stonemasons who did not understand what they were making. This meant, in a neat circularity, that they were irrelevant and meaningless. I was some years away from becoming a stonemason at this point but as a natural contrarian thought it seemed a bit basic so spent several years researching this prejudice. (A lot of the disdain, interestingly, seemed to come from a post-medieval distrust of ‘decorative’ art, but that’s another subject entirely).

However, much of the imagery deemed marginal also occurred inside and throughout churches and cathedrals, so much more suitable perhaps was the idea of the liminal. It may have worn a bit thin from overuse in recent years but it's still a valuable word and refers to the threshold, the place where one defined thing ceases and another one begins. In this space between meanings new ideas and forms can proliferate, free from the usual restrictions. Liminality can crop up in lots of places but coming back to the content of medieval sculpture we might see liminality in the very form of monsters. Their bodies, although composed of identifiable parts from different beasts and/or humans, often remain unidentifiable. Outside of the classical sirens, harpies, centaurs and so on they are often unnameable too. (And do they identify, by association, the physical buildings where they appear as similarly liminal)?

Meaninglessness is usually thought of as an absence of meaning. But what if it’s the opposite, an excess of meaning that we simply can’t comprehend? As the sixth-century mystic Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, the monster is the least inappropriate image of the sacred, as, like the sacred, it cannot be apprehended, understood, or defined. This brings me round to the idea of the overlap and back to our wobbly Christ at Eastleach. The vesica, the form in which Christ appears, is (or should be) generated by two overlapping circles. Each circle represents a world, in this case human and divine. As mediator between the two Christ appears in the shape made by this overlap, surrounded by the angels (and sometimes monsters) in their role as portents or heralds of the unknown.

Religious art aside, the idea of the overlap between two positions or places is a rewarding perspective. It offers an amplification rather than a reduction. It is both/and rather than either/or. It doesn’t privilege one perspective over another and encourages a mingling and mixing in order to reach something entirely new. It is liminality plus. We don’t have to wait for the miraculous to identify these places either: they are everywhere. The carvings of monsters and other creatures on medieval churches are in fact reminding us (with Talking Heads) that this must be the place. It is the place. Writing is a way into this unplaced place, helping us to sit within, explore it, and perhaps acknowledge that we have direct access to a multitude of universes right here too.

3. The ordinary can (and often does) conceal the extraordinary

For the following fifty or sixty years after the doorway at Eastleach Turville was carved and built a wild experimentation took place within medieval architecture. We call this the Transitional Gothic or simply Transitional. It is a fantastically exciting period to look at. Motifs that didn’t belong together can be found in unconventional displays. Standard forms elongate, distort, reach the very limit of their shape. What emerges, however, is an entirely new style and much of this depends upon recognising the potential of one thing: the pointed arch.

The pointed arch wasn’t new to western architecture; indeed, it had long lurked within Romanesque vaults and blind arcading for example, in which decorative rounded arches are interwoven with each other, producing a pointed arch where they intersected. What was new was the realisation that it could channel weight differently (and more effectively) than a rounded arch, allowing for the creation of taller structures with less masonry. The Gothic style as we know it – pointed arches, large stained-glass windows, the rib vault, flying buttresses – was made possible by this realisation. The ‘French’ work as it was known to contemporaries in England (after its early appearance in the west in the cathedrals and abbey churches around Paris) allowed an eruption of new designs that would remodel sacred and secular buildings for centuries.

I might not write in them everyday but I do always have a notebook to hand. They get filled with gibberish for the most part, scraps, half-sentences, sketches. Sometimes they're readable but by and large they're not. The notebooks stack up and at some point I’ll have a look back, selecting one at random, and discover threads of things that jump out at me and which might kickstart a new piece of work. Often it’s the everyday things, or the things that are already there under your nose, that turn out to be the most surprising and transformational. These words are my own ‘pointed arch’ that only start to carry weight later in their existence, once they’ve been recognised as such and placed in a new position. Sometimes it takes a different perspective, a fresh pair of eyes, to see their potential. If it seems stupid, or doesn't make sense, or hasn't got a place in what you're doing, or is otherwise undefined: whatever it is, write it down. These scraps are like the uneven-sized washers that gather in a toolbox or the blunted screwdriver in a mug on the windowsill, unhelpful, annoying even, until you need to fix something or lift an awkward drain cover. And then, of course, they are perfect.

(Picture credit: Spencer Means, Photo has been cropped from the original. Used, with thanks, under the Creative Commons license as indicated on the above page).

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