British Art Talks: Q&A with Jessica Barker

  • 7 July 2020

As part of the British Art Talks Speaker Q&A series, Jessica Barker answers questions on her podcast episode "What will survive of us is love": Memory and Emotion in Late-Medieval England.

1) Does you think your approach is applicable to modern as well as medieval sculpture?

​Yes, absolutely. In fact, modern sculpture is more often approached in terms of emotion than medieval sculpture. Studies of medieval art tend to privilege social and political concerns (matters that can be documented), rather than the intangible influence of emotional life.

2) Do art historians take the role of emotions seriously enough in their analysis of works of art?

Despite being first 'christened' in the 1970s, the history of emotions is still a relatively new strand of the discipline and one whose potential for our approach to artworks is still being explored. Scholars of modern art are generally much more attuned to the relationship between art and emotion (drawing on ideas from psychoanalysis and phenomenology), than those specialising in medieval art. Interestingly, however, art historians of all periods have tended to be far more interested in emotions such as desire, grief, anger and disgust than in love. Love has never been a fashionable art-historical topic, perhaps because it is so difficult to define.

3) Having made this piece, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the podcast as an art-historical form?

​This was my first podcast, so a radically different experience to my more usual modes of communicating research in writing or through live lectures. What appeals to me is the intimacy of the medium. A podcast can be like a conversation, whereas a lecture is always a kind of declaration. The difficulty, of course, with an aural medium is that I cannot show you any images – so my description has to take the place of the artworks themselves. The listener is then reliant on my words for her understanding of the image, rather than forming her own impressions.

4) What are the challenges of bringing medieval works of art like this one to a contemporary audience?

​As I see it, the challenge is in articulating the significance of a work of art in a radically different historical, social and political context. All the categories that are familiar to us – even the category of 'art' itself – do not hold, or at least not in the same way, in the Middle Ages. It's also important to be aware that when we look at medieval artworks, we look at them through a distorting lens of centuries of later ideas and assumptions about this period of history. This is the problem that Philip Larkin addresses in 'An Arundel Tomb': "how soon succeeding eyes begin to look, not read."

Sculpted figures laying down, hands clasped

Monument to a Fitzalan knight and lady: detail of joined hands, circa 1375– circa 1397. Chichester Cathedral (West Sussex, England).

Digital image courtesy of Jessica Barker.

5) Do you feel that this particular phase of tomb style in medieval England is linked to changing beliefs about death and the afterlife at the time? Does this maybe partly explain its briefness?

​I do – although these changing beliefs operated on a popular level, rather than as 'official' theology. The position of the Church was consistent throughout this period: the marriage bond lasted only 'till death us depart'. However, poetry, epitaphs and the memorials I look at speak to a popular conception of marriage as an enduring bond that lasted beyond death. In terms of its brevity, this is a slightly different question. It is certainly true that the Reformation profoundly changed ideas about the afterlife. So instead of epitaphs speaking of the heavenly future of romantic love, you have an emphasis on companionship in the grave (hence Shakespeare's famous ending to Romeo and Juliet). But hand-holding tombs had already waned in popularity by this point, so there must have been other factors at play.

6) You speak about the artificiality of this romantic gesture, but do you think that maybe part of it was also a genuine expression of love? And also for the benefit and comfort of surviving family members who wished to celebrate the relationship between two people?

​You've hit on precisely the question that first drew me to these memorials, and the one which I think is impossible to answer. Clearly the gesture 'belonged' to a particular historical context (in the sense that it was only popular for a few decades, within one country) and seems to have been motivated in some cases by financial, legal and political concerns we might find far from romantic. Yet to deem the gesture mere artifice would be to dismiss the emotional lives of individuals from the past. The difficulty lies in the idea of a 'genuine expression' – we only know about the love between two people insofar as it is expressed– a term that comes from the Latin to press or push outwards – but these expressions are always historically and culturally mitigated. Their relationship to 'real' feeling is always uncertain (and some would deny that feelings have any sort of existence before we express them).