Arboreal Articulations: Wood Doors and Wood Reliefs in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

Jessica N. Richardson

This research focuses on the wood images/objects in relation to sacrality, liminiality, mobility, and inter-mediality. A first step has been the study of wood images—from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, in Italy—in which the support itself was deemed sacred, independent of its painted or carved surface. Here, wood—an organic substance pregnant with multivalent meanings and a symbolic language that traverses cultures and periods—emerges as a highly charged support capable of hosting miracles and of creating and sustaining meaning, which was then enhanced by imagery often, though not always, referencing the material itself.  A second step will be to consider wood doors dating from ca. 700–1300 from throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, attempting to explain the parallel phenomenon for their creation—one that would seem to relate to the symbolic value of material (lignum) and placement (ianua) and the mobility of objects in diverse media (bronze, ivory, marble, metal inlay) and of ideas that are neither temporally nor geographically bound. Through examination of the cultural values attributed to their material and the motifs and ornament used, as well as the more general significance of tree symbolism and its appearance in a range of media, it seeks to shed light on the sub-genres of medieval door production on the one hand and wood relief sculpture on the other. It thus situates wood carved doors within the much broader set of traditions, but also insists on the importance of site-specificity in a group of medieval objects that ('self-consciously') references its own organic matter in ways that was not common or even possible in other media.


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