Prof. Sarah M. Guérin, Ph.D.

Guest Scholar

Sarah M. Guérin is Assistant Professor of Medieval Art at the University of Pennsylvania. She received a B.Sc. from the University of Saskatchewan, and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. Before joining the faculty at Penn in 2016, she was Assistant Professor at the Université de Montréal (2013–2016), and held postdoctoral positions at Columbia University and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her research centers on the material conditions of medieval art, with an emphasis on the socio-economic circumstances surrounding production and use, including trade, artisanal organization, techniques, function as well as theological conceits that influenced and enabled production. Focusing on art objects, more-strongly defined by their material composition (ivory, gold, silver, precious stones, etc.), opens a wide range of questions regarding not only the meaning of certain materials but also the economic conditions that enable their very conception. Her research and publications have been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Kress Foundation and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  • Arts of Gothic Paris
  • Medieval Globalities
  • Materiality, naturalism, and their intersections
  • Techniques and artistic processes
  • African art, 600-1400
  • Economics of art

Gothic Naturalisms: Metalwork and Mimesis, 1250–1350

Gothic Naturalisms: Metalwork and Mimesis is a series of exploratory essays, wherein I literally assay, test, approaches to the perennial question of increased imitation of reality in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. Each case study pairs a method with a genre of works created by Gothic goldsmiths, bringing a new range of materials to bear on the question, in a medium rarely considered in terms of mimesis. The understudied arts of the orfèvres enriches the definition of lifelikeness, pushing beyond stylistic concerns to examine questions of dimensionality, movement, and process. The current project seeks to consider mimetic artifice as a technique: both in the traditional art historical sense of how it was made, as well as following anthropologist Alfred Gell (1998), as a means of doing something tangible in the world.
The first chapter focuses on the rise of naturalistic filigree to properly frame the botanical relics that fascinated Western Europe in the thirteenth century: fragments of the True Cross and Christ's Crown of Thorns. Questioning the goal of mimesis, the second chapter examines treatises on image magic, translated from Arabic in the high Middle Ages. These texts, in describing the making of the effective image, parallel the creation of elaborate jeweled broaches depicting flora as well as fauna, putting forth a category of moving, portable miniature sculpture that possessed a power to fascinate the beholder. Chapter three considers early apologia for experimental science, framed as investigations into natural magic, or the workings of nature invisible to human eyes, versus black magic enabled by demons. William of Auvergne, among others, posited natural (chemical) phenomena to explain supernatural displays of the past. At this crux of artifice and nature I place a series of reliquaries made to enshrine thixotropic fluids, solids that liquify when mechanical energy is introduced to the system.
Lastly, Chapter 4 looks at medieval enamels and the rise of experimental science in thirteenth-century Paris. As a genre, enamels have seemingly been exhaustively categorized, and close examination of innovative works underscores the participation of artisans and patrons in an atmosphere of innovative one-upmanship. Both Sienese translucent basse-taille enamels and Parisian émail de pliques were developed in the late 13th century. Lesser known, less discussed, and often misclassified, are the ugly step-sisters of these last – a series of combination enamels, also Parisian, that predate the vitreous achievements of the late 13th century. Lacking elegance and pristine finish, they are misshapen and ill-formed. Rather than dismissing such enamels, the focus on experimentation allies concerns of artisanal classes with Aristotelean-inspired interest in experimental sciences then emerging in Paris. While for many authors, the proto-scientific mindset spurred Gothic naturalism, by shifting our attention to experimentation with technique rather than style, I uncover the innate curiosity and inventiveness of medieval artisanal practice.


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