• 13 May 2020
  • The British Art Talks podcast is a new audio series from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. It features new research and aims to enhance and expand knowledge of British art and architecture.

Medieval tombs often depict husband and wife lying hand-in-hand, immortalised in elegantly carved stone: what Philip Larkin would later describe in his celebrated poem, An Arundel Tomb, as their ‘stone fidelity’.

These gestural monuments seem to belong to a broader tendency towards ‘expressivity’ in late-medieval sculpture. Whereas the figures on Romanesque portals stare back at the viewer impassively, their Gothic counterparts beam with radiant smiles, wipe away bitter tears or grimace and gurney with uncontrolled rage. The nature and significance of this shift has been much debated in recent years, in particular the extent to which the heightened representation of emotion was designed to provoke an equivalent emotional response.

This talk explores these ideas through the gesture of joined hands on medieval tomb monuments. I first address the issue of why hand-joining tombs are almost entirely restricted to a fifty-year period in England, before going on to place these amorous effigies in dialogue with wedding rings and dresses, changes to matrimonial ritual, and the new economic opportunities offered to widows. What emerges is the careful artifice beneath their seductive emotional surfaces: the artistic, religious, political and legal agendas underlying the medieval rhetoric of married love.  

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Jessica Barker

    Jessica Barker is a specialist in medieval art, with a particular emphasis on sculpture. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she was subsequently Henry Moore Postdoctoral Fellow. She joined the Courtauld in 2018, after two years as a lecturer in the department of Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia.

    Jessica’s research addresses questions of the macabre, gender, concealment and the body. Her monograph, Stone Fidelity: Marriage and Emotion in Medieval Tomb Sculpture explores the intersection of love and death in funerary art from fourteenth and fifteenth-century England. She has published widely on death and commemoration, with articles in journals including Art History, British Art Studies, Gesta, and The Sculpture Journal. For her next project, Jessica is thinking about practices of care and conservation in the Middle Ages, in particular how attitudes to the material integrity of sculpture might relate to new philosophies regarding the integrity of the self.

    Jessica is one of the conveners of the Sculptural Processes Group, a network for art historians, curators, conservators and artists interested in processes of making across all periods and geographies.