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Navigating the World of Meaning

Author(s): Christina Normore

Source: Gesta, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2012), pp. 19-34
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval

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Navigating the World of Meaning*

Northwestern University

In contrast to established interpretative models such as
Erwin Panofskys iconological method and theories of spolia, Friedrich Ohly proposed a medieval sign theory in which
the physical qualities of an object gain and can shift meaning
through association with other objects: for example, red can
signify martyrdom because it is the color of blood. Seemingly
commonsensical, this model nevertheless poses serious challenges for modern readings of crafted medieval materials as
signs. Using the Nef of St. Ursula as a case study, this paper
examines an extreme but by no means unique instance of the
difficulties arising from the multiple and contradictory senses of
what Ohly termed the world of meanings in every res (thing).
Initially conceived as a table vessel, the Nef of St. Ursula was
first given by the city of Tours to Anne of Brittany in 1500.
Five years later, Anne ordered it to be remade into a reliquary
depicting St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. After
decades as a courtly devotional object, the reliquary was given
to Reims Cathedral, where it primarily served as a sign of royal
favor. The nef thus moved from a predominantly secular to a
sacred context. However, this change in location did not cause
the shift in function from nef to reliquary, which was prompted
instead by its physical properties and enacted through the exchange of items within the sculpted hull. The Nef of St. Ursula
and Ohly thus reveal the interpenetration of ever-malleable
contents and contexts in the making of meaning.

How do things signify? Like many seemingly simple questions, this one concerning the relationship between objects and
meaning is at once basic and intractable. It lies at the heart of art
history but, despite the theoretical arguments of the past thirty
years, is often answered obliquely through scholarly practice
rather than by direct statements. As medievalists increasingly
turn to the issue of matter and its meanings, it is worthwhile to
consider whether the assumptions and methods being brought to
this underexplored aspect of medieval visual culture are indeed
useful and historically informed. In this moment of methodological reflection, it may be informative to look to alternative interpretative models. Friedrich Ohlys pioneering work
on the mechanisms by which medieval res (things) signified is
particularly enlightening in this regard for art historians interested in materials meanings.1 While Ohly admittedly sidelines
many issues that are justifiably important to art history today,
his conceptualization of the connections between things, their
properties, and meaning nevertheless can point to new ways for
art historians to address old questions.

I will first consider the profound differences between the

multivalent res that Ohly identifies within medieval conceptual modes and the modern celebration of things as self-sufficient agents. I then juxtapose Ohlys interpretative model with
Erwin Panofskys still widely influential iconological method.2
This comparison reveals the value of Ohlys approach as a
corrective to more traditional iconography in two respects: it
reconstructs a medieval framework for discussing both how
the formal and material properties of an object are inextricably
linked, and how single objects may contain multiple meanings,
which may become active or latent depending on changes in the
objects location over time. To illustrate the possibilities such
an approach might have in allowing us to move beyond the
confines of singular meanings on the one hand and the devaluation of the objects own role in dictating the terms of its reuse
on the other, I turn next to the curious case of the Nef of St.
Ursula (Fig. 1). The Nef of St. Ursula first entered the historical
record as a serving dish offered by the city of Tours to Anne of
Brittany. At the royal court it was transformed at Annes order
into a reliquary honoring St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand
Virgins and then repeatedly updated to register the ownership
of several generations of French kings and queens. In the late
sixteenth century its significance was transformed once more
when it was offered as a gift to the cathedral of Reims in conjunction with the coronation of HenriIII. The well-documented
reimagining of this object over its first century of existence
allows an unusual degree of insight into the processes of refashioning and reuse that were so typical of medieval artistic culture. The case of the Nef of St. Ursula, with its multiplicity of
patrons, forms, and locations, further makes evident the inadequacies of current scholarly modes that strongly differentiate
context and content as producers of meaning. Aided by Ohlys
charting of medieval res as the bearers of worlds of meaning,
we can perhaps begin to look at objects such as the Nef of St.
Ursula anew and to retrace the flexible webs of significance in
which they were such vital participants.
Modern and Medieval Matter
Ohlys recognition of the culturally contingent nature of
the definition of things is central to his reconceptualization of
medieval signification. In his 1958 essay Vom geistigen Sinn
des Wortes im Mittelalter,3 Ohly quotes a twelfth-century
poem about a stone to illustrate how things mean:

GESTA 51/1 The International Center of Medieval Art 2012

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Christ and the virtue of the angel and the bride of

A just man, justice, the carnal sense, and wicked
A grievous sin, an evil spirit, a false Jew,
A true gentile, a stone is said to be [dicitur lapis].4
Using only one verb, the anonymous poet builds an edifice of
nouns and adjectives. These begin with Christ and end with
the stone. Despite its relative brevity, the listing of things here
can seem exhaustively unending.5 This sense of infinity is compounded by the reconciliation of opposites as false and true,
justice and wickedness meet. Despite its many nominative
forms, the poem has no obvious actors: the only verb is in the
passive voice, a seemingly fragile force with which to marshal
the weight of all that has come before into a single, final stone.
While the stone is the ultimate statement of many disparate
ideas, each must be activated through speech, said to be, in
order to be comprehensible. Ohlys medieval stone is a multivalent statement to be read, not a speaker on its own account.
Compare this with Pebble, a poem also exploring the
meanings of rock by the twentieth-century poet Zbigniew Herbert, that figures prominently in the modern literary theorist
John Frows treatment of things:
The pebble
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning
with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse
Herbert evokes a material world that exists beyond human
interests, in which things are precisely those objects that can
be completely self-sufficient. In an address on the role of poetry
in the modern world, Herbert once expressed his preference for
poetry in which the sign of the word draws attention not to itself
but to the object it signifies.7 In keeping with this objective, the
opening of Herberts Pebble returns insistently to the pebble
itself, refusing to be led away by its sensible qualities to anything remembered, feared, or desired. A pebble is a pebble, a
thing whose qualities run no risk of leading away from its own
particular pebbly meaning.
Broadly speaking, both poems are concerned with what
Frow would call things and Ohly would term res: physical entities that fluctuate in their meaning between determinacy and
indeterminacy.8 Herberts poem begins with the pebble and
only reluctantly branches outward; the twelfth-century poem
instead begins emphatically with Christ and only concludes
with the stone (lapis). It is not surprising, then, that Ohly reads

FIGURE1. Nef of St. Ursula, with additions, gold, silver, carnelian, enamel,
L. 28cm, Tours, ca. 1500, Reims, Palais du Tau (photo: Pascal Lematre/
Centre des monuments nationaux).

the lapis poem and other similar texts as evidence for a worldview in which res descend from God, are, in fact, Gods way of
communicating with humans.9 In contrast, Frow at first sees the
dream of modern matters self-sufficiency in Herberts pebble,
a thing defined by its capacity to be equal to itself, the sheer
objecthood of its material presence.10 Yet as Frow develops his
theme, he must increasingly qualify his initial theory. In the end
he is forced to conclude, Thingness and kinds of thingness are
not inherent in things; they are the effects of recognition and
uses performed within frames of understanding.... This is the
real strangeness: that persons and things are kin; the world is
many, not double.11
The wonder with which Frow presents his conclusion suggests just how counterintuitive it is today to take seriously a
model of meaning that acknowledges contingency and multiplicity. Yet more than fifty years ago, Ohly was already not only
sketching out a similar concept of signification in medieval literature but also pressing further to understand which particular
hermeneutic modes were favored and how the physical qualities of things were bound into interpretative chains in earlier


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epistemes. Unlike limited human words, he notes, Gods res

were considered intrinsically polyvalent.12 Where Herbert celebrates the pebbles lack of non-pebble associations, its ability
not to refer outward to other things or ideas, Ohly explores the
ways in which res do possess qualities that evoke memories,
desires, fears, and so much more. Ohlys res can and should be
verbalized by as many words as their physical properties may
evoke: a stones hardness, for instance, can stand equally for
obdurate refusal and noble commitment.13 No surprise, then,
that in the lapis poem, stone is Christ and the carnal sense,
angelic virtue and terrible sin. It is, in short, a typical res for the
High and Late Middle Ages, a period in which Ohly believes
each thing has a universe of signification, which stretches from
God to the devil.14
Ohly vs. Panofsky
Having established this new vision of medieval things in
the late 1950s, Ohly continued to investigate its implications
not only in the literary but also in the visual arts. One part of
this work was to expand and clarify problems raised by his
own early formulation. In Vom geistigen Sinn des Wortes im
Mittelalter, Ohly noted that while a res had multiple and contradictory meanings, not all of these were emphasized equally
at any given moment:
The thing ... has a universe of signification, which
stretches from God to the devil and which is potentially
present in everything which is designated by a word. It
realizes itself at a given moment only in a direction that
is determined by the context and the property adduced
to the thing. Thus in the concrete textual case the lion
cannot signify God or the devil but only one.... An
interpretation of meaning from the context is also necessary in the case of the signification of things, so that we
can find the signification which is correct, in the given
case, from all the possible ones.15
This is rather vague advice: if all things in the world each have
multiple meanings, how can any of them be fixed long enough
to provide the context by which we interpret the others?16 How
can we know which properties are the ones to be emphasized?
Moreover, having so eloquently defended multiplicity, is Ohly
now attempting to reimpose a false stability?
Ohlys appeal to the use of context, including written
texts, as a check on the interpretation of formal qualities is, of
course, familiar to art historians particularly from the work of
Erwin Panofsky. Yet, in later essays, where Ohly more fully
engaged the mechanisms by which medieval authors found
meaning in things, he delineated a medieval mode of interpretation that differs sharply from the iconological method both
in terms of how it defines the object of study and in the respect
it accords alternative interpretations of significance as objects
shift contexts. The different models that emerged from these

two medievalists studies of texts and images are aptly summarized in two of their most-cited essays. In one of these, Panofsky encapsulated the iconological process into three parallel but
distinct levels in the first half of the chapter best known under
the title Iconography and Iconology. In the other, the 1966
Probleme der mittelalterlichen Bedeutungsforschung und das
Taubenbild des Hugo de Folieto, Ohly explained how physical
properties communicate meaning through an extensive examination of a thirteenth-century painters diagram of the qualities
of a dove accompanying the twelfth-century Benedictine Hugh
of Folietos De avibus (Fig. 2).17
Despite its subtitle, Panofskys Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art pairs
his famous theory of iconological analysis with a comparison
of the role of classical motifs and meanings in the Middle Ages
as well as the Renaissance.18 Indeed, the separation of form and
meaning that is central to Panofskys method is epitomized
in his account by the medieval rather than the early modern
mentality, since he believed the Middle Ages divorced classical style and motif from classical subject matter owing to its
lingering fear of idolatry.19
Panofsky begins his essay with a loaded proposition that
has since become a widely accepted assumption of art historical research: Iconography is that branch of the history of
art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning
of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to
define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the
one hand, and form on the other.20 To model this separation,
Panofsky provides the famous example of meeting a friend on
the street who doffs his hat in salutation. A critical move takes
place at the very beginning of this manufactured anecdote.
Panofsky proposes that when he encounters this acquaintance,
what he sees
from a formal point of view is nothing but the change
of certain details within a configuration forming part of
the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which
constitute my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman)
... I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal
perception and entered a first sphere of meaning. 21
This purportedly commonplace encounter thus brings the
reader, almost against her will, into Panofskys analytical process as a series of colors and forms instinctively coheres into a
thing (Panofskys acquaintance) distinct from its background.
With all other visual stimuli effortlessly blocked out, the human
object in the scholars sight becomes the sole focus of attention and interpretation. That Panofsky wishes his direction of
attention toward a figural, narrative object to be accepted as an
inevitable and neutral act is clear from his naming of its various
components: such objects are primary or natural subject matter,22 and the resulting interpretation provides an elementary,
factual, or natural meaning.23

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FIGURE2. Hugh of Folieto, De avibus, Paris, BnF, MS lat. 2495, fols. 1v2, Dove and Hawk (photo: BnF).

The following two levels of Panofskys analysis similarly highlight the artwork against the backdrop of a surrounding context, usually accessible through written text. At the
second, iconographic level, the object of study is a particular instance of more general traditions. Thus, identifying the
mythic acquaintances raised hat as a greeting requires cultural
knowledge reaching back directly to the Middle Ages: it is
a residue of medieval chivalry.24 In the third, iconological,
level, the artwork is a unique statement that both encapsulates
and transcends its cultural matrix. The acquaintance may be
a man of the twentieth century, but he is also distinguished
by an individual manner of viewing things and reacting to the
world.25 Although based in the visual arts, Panofskys project nevertheless explicitly reaches out toward the world of the
word as well. Just as the naming of the first level signaled its
supposed naturalness, these two stages are tellingly titled to
suggest the relationship between the written and visual sign.
Panofsky draws attention to the link between writing and the
ending -graphy in iconography, as well as the root logos that
lies behind his iconology.

Ohlys later work shares this sense of the sympathy

between word and image, yet to a large extent the medieval
theory of signs he reconstructs is diametrically opposed to Panofskys iconological method. Beginning with a miniature such
as the thirteenth-century diagram of a dove in Hugh of Folietos
De avibus (Fig. 2), the viewer might immediately identify the
combination of lines and colors in the central figure as a dove
(at the very least, a bird). Yet to make meaning from this dove,
the accompanying text reverses Panofskys path. Panofsky saw
the emergence of meaning in the moment when a series of colors, lines, and so forth resolved into a thing, and more refined
meaning as emerging when this thing was interpreted through
texts. In contrast, Ohly shows that Hugh of Folieto steadily dissects both the dove and the biblical texts that refer to it in order
to understand the allegorical message it holds.
Placed before a long discussion of the qualities and signification of the dove, the thirteenth-century miniature serves at
once as a guide and a summary to what follows.26 In keeping
with a long tradition of memory training that linked spatial
arrangement on the page with the organization of information,
Figure 2 also appears in the color plates between pp. 34 and 35 of this issue.

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the delicate web of meanings that Hugh outlines is visually

evoked in the miniature by the array of circles and encircling
texts in which the representation of the dove nests or is caught.
The visual sign of the written word here is deployed as sparsely
and tantalizingly as the careful placement of highly charged
color: strangely, while both words and miniature reference a
similar color palette, the image frequently shifts the named colors to different locations. The tituli enigmatically speak to the
meaning of colors in short phrases. A vertical inscription at the
bottom center reads, red of the feet: blood of the martyrs,27
although the red actually appears in the background behind the
dove rather than the doves foot. A similar inscription at the top
declares that the doves eye shows the maturity of its perception, later explained in the body of the text, where the saffron
color of doves eyes is linked to ripe fruit: in the diagram, the
yellow eyes are not painted on the dove proper but displaced
into disembodied circles that bracket the inscription. 28 Text and
image do, however, align in certain cases. The tail feathers of
the dove are painted gold because, the circular inscription at
top right declares, there will be an eternal reward at the end of
life.29 Neither entirely adhering to nor contradicting the inscriptions, the image renders the precise referent of the brief bursts
of verbal parallelism ambiguous; the red feet, saffron eye, and
golden feathers might be those of real doves in the world or of
flat, schematic doves traced by a miniaturists hand. Unconcerned with the distinction between the real and the pictured,
Ohly and Hugh instead direct the reader to a different set of
dualisms in the connection between feet and martyrs, eyes and
fruit, tail feathers and the End. Each of the doves parts signifies, just as the dove as a whole does, by analogy.
In an extended discussion of the meaning of colors in
Hughs work, Ohly points to the fact that colors had no intrinsic meaning for Hugh and many of his contemporaries. Instead,
a color gained meaning by being a connecting point between
two res that shared it: The significations of colors emerge by
way of the things that have color as a property.... If a things
world of signification develops from the aggregate of its properties, that of the property color develops from the aggregate of
things to which it may refer.30 To put this more concretely, the
feet of the dove may signify the martyrs blood because they are
red, but red only has that possible meaning because it is also the
color of blood. Likewise, saffron can indicate maturity because
ripened fruit can be saffron colored. This understanding of the
way in which qualities convey meaning is extended to properties other than color: the future is signified by the doves tail,
because whereas the one comes at the end of a mans present
life, the other appears at the back end of the bird.31 No property is static, each depends in turn on the presumed meaning
of other res that share that property, which in turn are infinitely
interpretable. The reader, like the dove, is caught in a constantly
shifting labyrinth of meaning.
The messy contingency of such an interpretative method
stands in stark contrast to the attempted regularity of Panofskys iconology. At each level of his careful setting of things

as distinct from their context, Panofsky insisted on having

a control mechanism that would help secure the correctness
of interpretation. Hugh (and Ohly reading Hugh) is basically
unconcerned about establishing such tight boundaries around
a correct meaning. While Hugh often refers to the Bible as an
authoritative source, he is equally willing to introduce elements
of the dove as important signs simply on the grounds that a
certain property exists in real birds. In a particularly beautiful
passage, he examines the gray color of the dove. Although he
can quote no previous discussion of this feature of doves, Hugh
clearly feels that it must have a meaning. He establishes what
this meaning might be through an elaborate analogy with the
equally gray sea:
The color of the rest of the [doves] body resembles the
color of the turbulent sea. Raging with the motion of
the waves, the sea surges; surging with the motion of
the senses, the flesh rages.... While the sea is disturbed
by such great storms, soil is mingled with waves by the
crashing of breakers, and thus by the concussion of sea
and land the sea receives its mixed color. Likewise, while
the flesh suggests and the soul does not agree, it is as
though a certain tone in the body is made from black and
white, which tone, made from various elements, is called
indecisive. Therefore, the sea color on the breast of the
dove denotes distress in the human mind.32
The ability of the dove to signify the psychological effects of
the struggle between flesh and spirit depends on the metaphoric
relationship that can be drawn between qualities of the sea and
the human mind. The actual and even the common literary
behavior of doves for the moment is entirely ignored. Rare is
the dove that surges and crashes on the shores, but the shared
physical quality of gray is enough to justify introducing these
elements into Hughs analysis of what a dove signifies.
Hugh of Folietos analytical methods and those used by
Ohly to reconstruct Hughs argument can both be faulted for
relying almost entirely on close formal reading as the source for
interpretation. Ohly notes some basic details of Hughs background. He also acknowledges that the prologue of De avibus
indicates that both the text and images were designed for the
edification of Hughs fellow monk Rayner. Ohly even cites a
passage from the prologue in which Hugh addresses Rayner:
See how the hawk and dove sit on the same perch. I am
from the clergy and you from the military. We come to
conversion so that we may sit within the life of the Rule,
as though on a perch; and so that you who were accustomed to seizing domestic fowl, now with the hand of
good deeds may bring to conversion the wild ones, that
is, laymen.33
The importance of this meeting of dovelike clergyman and
hawkish soldier, both in the convent and on the manuscript

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page, is reinforced by the miniature above this text (Fig. 2), in

which two gray birds face each other on a ground line that proclaims, This is the perch of the monastic life.34 The remarkably similar dove and hawk are differentiated primarily by
textual labels: clericus and miles above; the contemplative
life / the wall of holy thoughts and the wall of good works /
the active life to the sides.35
Such a clear indication of social roles seems to cry out
for some attention to social structure, reception theory, and
identity formation in reading the figure of the dove, particularly since the clericus and miles birds resemble the dove in
the larger diagram, a comparison facilitated by the fact that all
three appear in the same opening. Writing in the twelfth century, Hugh demonstrates some awareness of the connection
between prologue and text, several times repeating images
from the former in the latter. 36 Ohly, however, shows little if
any interest in such issues. Indeed, he appears not to draw the
connection between Hugh as dove and the dove as a sign of
human nature at all, preferring to treat each image and discussion of the figure in isolation.
So marked is Ohlys isolation of individual miniatures
that he regularly obscures the integrity of manuscript cycles.
Although he extols the virtues of the dove miniature in Biblio
thque nationale de France, MS lat. 2495 at length, he pays
little attention to the prologue image that is found in the same
opening. He not only separates the two pages and places the
miniature of the clericus and miles birds second in a list of three
examples of illustrations in the prologue, but he also neglects
to mention in either his text or captions that the two images
come from the same manuscript.37 This lack of concern for the
integrity of individual manuscripts is endemic. Ohly acknowledges and even partially catalogues the multiple editions of De
avibuss text and illumination cycle. His annotations recognize that these manuscripts differ in ways both small and large.
However, Ohly largely attributes such differences to deviations from the presumed original image cycle: the richer and
more nuanced the miniature, the closer it is assumed to be to
this Ur-manuscript. This singular concentration on individual
images underscores the formalist tendency of Ohlys method
as a whole and his curious willingness to disregard historical
context in favor of literary analysis, even when constructing
larger cultural patterns.
These are very real problems in Ohlys approach, but they
should not be allowed to prevent medievalists from taking seriously the larger challenge that Hughs method and Ohlys more
general conclusions pose for current art historical approaches
in which Panofskian iconology is wedded to social art history
in the attempt to reconstruct medieval modes of perceiving
and making. Despite its flaws, Ohlys theory offers exciting
possibilities for considering how parts may relate to wholes;
rethinking the division between materials and form; and modeling how meanings may lie latent within objects, ready to be
activated when new connections are made between them and
other things.

The Nef of St. Ursula

The need for such a reevaluation of common art historical
categories like material and form, text and context, production
and reception is readily apparent when one is confronted by
a complex object such as the Nef of St. Ursula. Housed since
the late sixteenth century at Reims Cathedral, the Nef of St.
Ursula is primarily discussed and exhibited in relation to Anne
of Brittany, independent duchess of Brittany and twice queen
consort of France. Despite its place in the recent France 1500
exhibition as le seul objet dorfvrerie subsistant spcifiquement excut pour Anne de Bretagne de son vivant, the Nef
of St. Ursula in fact led a varied career of reuse and adaptation, only the early stages of which can be directly linked to
Anne.38 Within its first century, it migrated from the city to the
royal court to the cathedral, transformed from a table-serving
vessel to a reliquary, and changed from a container of spices to
a container of saints. Throughout its well-documented history,
these shifts not only defy any simple separation between social
and political realms but also underscore the importance of the
physical matter and form of the object itself in proposing new
uses and interpretations. Considered as a whole, the history of
shifting meanings that occurred as minerals became a nef and
a nef became the vessel of St. Ursula reveals a compelling pattern of use and reuse that calls for the type of reimagining of
categories Ohlys work can provoke.
The art historical story of the Nef of St. Ursula may be
said to begin, after eons of geological formation, with a set of
materials in a workshop in Tours. In the worldview outlined
by Ohly, each of these substancesgold, silver, enamel, and
carnelianwas already a res in and of itself before the goldsmith began to change its form. To take only one example, the
prominent veined carnelian that would become the nefs hull is
a hard stone, streaked red and white. It has been suggested that
the corruption of the English name cornelian to carnelian is
in part due to this unusual coloration, the similar sound of the
Latin for flesh (carnis) recalling carnelians visual similarity to
flayed flesh.39 Likely based on its carnal appearance, carnelian
was used to avert miscarriages and other female reproductive
disorders, to stop bleeding more generally, and to increase the
flow of breast milk.40 It was also, however, a biblical stone
mentioned in the description of Aarons breastplate and so had
another range of anagogical and historical readings. 41 All these
qualities are present equally in the unworked stone.
At the end of the fifteenth century, a goldsmith fashioned
this large stone into a nef, or boat, complete with golden sails
and bulwark as well as a complement of sailors and soldiers.
The artist at work here may have been the merchant and citizen
of Tours Rmon Guinnot from whom the nef was eventually
purchased.42 The makers mark of an inscribed R and the two
crowned towers of Tours register the nefs facture and sale.43
The nefs delicate workmanship, as well as its precious materials, contributed to the eventual high price the city of Tours
paid for the object.


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FIGURE3. Saltcellar, gold, rock crystal, emeralds, pearls, spinel or balas

rubies, H. 14cm, Diam. of foot, 7.9cm, Paris, mid-13th cent., The Cloisters
Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1983.434 (photo:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY).

Although the majority of the original figures of sailors and

soldiers have long since been removed, the nefs largely intact
rigging, deck, and anchor suggest the balance between naturalism and courtly elegance that likely once characterized the
whole. The fine patterning of the gilded deck rails is arranged
in two registers with a diapered ground of thin rectangles below
and fragile arcades above, while the carefully braided golden
ropes stow a furled enamel sail that appears to bulge and droop
in reference to real cloth. As in many other fifteenth-century
luxury objects, the presence of precious materials is highlighted
by their prominent placement and light-catching polish, yet the
reference to the actual appearance of a seagoing vessel is clear.
This balance of attention between the form of the ship and the
minerals used to create it underscore Ohlys insight that res can
be equally identified in what are usually termed materials and
in the objects they are made to represent.

A Panofskyian reading of the nef is possible for the first

time at this stage, since a man-made form with a traceable
history is in place. For Panofsky, the unworked stone would
likely belong to a precognitive stage of colors and outlines not
yet molded into a recognizable form; in contrast, the nef, as a
bearer of form, is a bearer of human meaning. Although Panofsky never makes the connection directly, in many respects
the process of manufacture reenacts as well as conditions the
sudden jumping forward of the object of interpretation from
the background of the larger world. The boat shape of the nef
dictates its interpretation at the primary level of iconological
analysis, since the recognition of boats belongs to (supposedly)
common experience. Panofsky would undoubtedly warn, however, against assuming that this boat form can be read either as
a real ship or even as an attempt simply to represent a real ship.
The second or iconographic stage of iconology requires the art
historian to examine the longer tradition of any form, whether
it is the startling vision of a head on a platter or the more plausible image of a peach in a womans hand.44
In the case of the nef, such contextualization leads not to
the sea but to the table. Forming precious stones and metals into
ships was a common feature in the design of one of the most
typical of all elite medieval serving vessel types, the so-called
nef. Often erroneously identified in English as a saltcellar, the
nef was most often but not exclusively made in the form of a
boat and could be either purely decorative or a general-purpose
container of salt, spices, or other goods used at table. The form
might have been suggested by the recovery of salt from the sea
or the transportation of cargo by merchants, but the origins of
this type of container remain obscure. It seems already to be
well established by the early thirteenth century, although few
examples survive.45
A lack of sufficient comparative material for what seems
to have been a quite varied type makes any generalizations
about nefs difficult, but a rare early extant example, now in the
Cloisters, New York, suggests both the high degree of abstraction possible in the form and the importance of showcasing
precious materials (Fig. 3). In contrast to the detailed ropes
and railing of the Nef of St. Ursula, the thirteenth-century Parisian artist of the Cloisters example reduced the ship to a single
long crystal hull with a gold cover whose edges are studded
with precious stones and pearls. The conversion of the opening
hook into a curved serpent recalls the use of so-called serpents
teeth in elite dining as a means of testing for poison (the teeth
were believed to sweat in reaction to toxic substances). Records
from the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Valois courts suggest contents ranging from napkins, plates, and silverware to
spices and serpents tongues. Smaller nefs, such as those in the
Cloisters and the Nef of St. Ursula, were more likely to hold
spices or salt.46
For Panofsky, this check of iconographic tradition would
have prevented a misreading. The Nef of St. Ursula is a nef
rather than a ship, not a representation of a seafaring vessel
but luxury tableware in its own right. Its form simply indicates

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that it is in effect a very nice serving platter. Such nefs were

not uncommon as gifts of goodwill from cities to sovereigns:
CharlesV, for instance, received three nefs from Paris following
his coronation entry; Paris also gave Anne of Brittany a gold nef
in 1504.47 This tradition explains why the town council of Tours
considered the Nef of St. Ursula to be an appropriate gift when
Anne of Brittany, queen of France, made a joyeuse entre in
November 1500. Anne had previously participated in an entry
into Tours in 1491 following her marriage to CharlesVIII, at
which she also received a nef.48 When CharlesVIII died from
an accident in Amboise in 1498, the heirless Anne was legally
obliged to marry his successor, LouisXII, which she did in
1499. Although this was her second joyeuse entre into Tours,
the city nevertheless made a concerted effort to please its queen
by devising several new performances and stressing her dearly
held Breton sovereignty in the urban decoration.49 Perhaps the
carnelian was considered appropriate for a frequently pregnant
queen whose children had all died before the age of five; perhaps the striking stone was attractive for its visual splendor.
There is in any event no strong reference either to the sea or
to ships in the five performances staged by the city during the
entry, suggesting that a maritime connotation did not figure in
the city councils choice of gift.50
Panofskys story would presumably end here. The vexed
problem of whether and how Anne of Brittany might have used
the nef at her table lies outside the sphere of the iconological
method. Panofskys focus on the moments of initial creation
and reception often takes the form of a poetics of interpretation as reconstitution and rescue, and generally leads to fixing of the correct meaning of the work at those origin points.
This does not mean that motifs are not acknowledged to recur
and change in later historical moments (that this is possible
is evident from Panofskys discussion of Judith holding the
head of Holofernes on a platter, a shift argued to arise from
the migration of the devotional image of John the Baptist).51
Rather, Panofsky tended either to ignore or to view the materials and biography of particular objects as accretions that must
be scraped away to see an artworks true meaning.
Panofsky might have seen the series of adaptations that
the Nef of St. Ursula underwent in the following century as it
moved from court to cathedral and from saltcellar to reliquary
as distortions to its original significance. Certainly these shifts
added new inflections to the nefs meaning, appearance, and
materials. Yet there is no reason to see these new meanings
as somehow less valid than the old. As the later history of the
Nef of St. Ursula illustrates, continuity and change are highly
relative categories. Rather than being marked by moments of
rupture, the shifting form and function of the Nef of St. Ursula
recall Ohlys claim that the particular meaning of the multivalent res at any given moment is determined both by its own
qualities and their interaction with a shifting web of other res.
Although the boat shape of the Nef of St. Ursula was
almost certainly intended by its first purchasers to signal its
role as tableware, its future forms can be understood only

if the latent meaning of its shape as a link to real boats is

acknowledged to remain despite those intentions. Even if
rarely activated, the shape of the ship always remains as a quality possibly linking the nef to other ships. This connection is
playfully suggested in an illumination from the Grandes chroniques de France created for CharlesV of France. CharlesVs
manuscript contains an unusually extended account of the
state visit of the Holy Roman Emperor CharlesIV.52 One of
the miniatures depicts CharlesV and CharlesIV at a grand
banquet during which the taking of Jerusalem in the First
Crusade was reenacted as a dinner entertainment (Fig. 4). The
miniaturist wittily drew attention to the dual meaning of nef as
both boat and container by creating a visual parallel between
the symmetrical flattened crescents with two decorated ends
of the nefs on the high table and the similarly shaped larger
boat that, as a stage prop representing a troop transport, transgresses the miniatures left border. The shape of the nef given
to Anne of Brittany by the city of Tours seems equally to
have suggested an alternative use for the object. The Nef of
St. Ursula reappears in the archival record in 1505, when the
royal goldsmith Henry Duzen completed a commission from
Anne to refashion it into an object honoring the legend of one
of her favorite saints, Ursula: a surviving receipt refers to a
small boat of gold ... given by the same lady in order to have
the Eleven Thousand Virgins put on. 53
The legend of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins
has several variants, but the key points are simply told.54 Ursula
was a princess of Britain or Brittany, who agreed to marry a
pagan king if he would convert to Christianity. Either to delay
her wedding or because of a burning desire to go on pilgrimage, she set sail with eleven thousand female virgins and some
male companions. They were blown off course and massacred
in Cologne by pagans who, the Golden Legend rather unnecessarily adds, hated Christians. Because of her possible birth in
Brittany, Ursula was an important symbol for Anne of Brittany
as she strove to maintain the independence of the duchy of
Brittany, despite the efforts of both her royal husbands to add
it permanently to the French domain.55
The connection between Anne of Brittany and Ursula is
particularly evident in the Grandes heures de Anne de Bretagne,
which Anne commissioned from Jean Bourdichon in the same
year that her nef was refashioned into a reliquary. In the frontispiece miniature, Ursula appears alongside St. Anne and St.
Margaret as protective companions and patrons of the kneeling
Anne of Brittany at prayer (Fig. 5).56 Ursula is the only saint
who does not gesture toward Anne with her hand, yet her position directly behind and gazing tenderly down at the queen
suggests the close relationship of guardian saint and pious devotee. Their most obvious connection is the golden line of the
shaft delicately held in Ursulas hand that disappears behind the
yellow-gold of Anne of Brittanys shoulder. At the top of this
staff is a flag with the plain ermine-covered ground that constitutes the distinctive arms of the duchy of Brittany, stressing
the role of Breton heritage in uniting the two queens. Ursula


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FIGURE4. Grandes chroniques de France de Charles V, Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2813, fol. 473v, Banquet of Charles V (photo: BnF).

appears again in the suffrages dressed as a queen (Fig. 6). Here

the fateful ship that carried the virgins to their martyrdom is
given the arms of Brittany, prominently placed below the bow
on a heraldic shield that appears next to Ursulas haloed head
near the miniatures center. Given her royal dress and Breton
heraldry, the role of Ursula as an ancestress for Anne is evident. The suffrage miniature further suggests that Ursulas ship
was a sufficiently vital component of her hagiographic identity
within French court circles at this time to merit marking it with
Annes ducal arms.57
In light of Anne of Brittanys personal and political investment in the figure of St. Ursula, as well as the importance of
ships within the Ursula legend, it is not entirely surprising to
find that in 1505 the frequently cash-strapped queen thought the
boat shape of a nef already in her possession could be reused.58
The record of payment to Duzen does not clarify what drove
this alteration in form, but it seems probable that the exterior
changes were motivated by an intended shift in contents. By
1537 the Nef of St. Ursula is referred to in court documents
as a reliquary.59 The precise identity of the saint(s) within is
unspecified, although the relative availability of relics from the

mass grave of the Eleven Thousand Virgins in Cologne makes

it a plausible source.
Duzens modifications consisted primarily of exchanging
most of the figures of sailors and soldiers for a group of female
figures, six of which are extant. While most of these miniature
virgins were made of silver, the figure representing St. Ursula
was executed in gold and dressed once again in the garments of
a French queen: popular tradition has even seen in this figure a
cryptoportrait of Anne.60 Although obscured from sight by an
enamel coating, the material distinction between silver and gold
at the unseen core of the figures was thus keyed to the differing
status of the named, royal Ursula and her less individuated followers. While the archival documentation refers to the Eleven
Thousand Virgins as a group, the Nef of St. Ursula itself thus
reflects Annes more particular interest in Ursula as very much
the first among these saintly equals.
The nefs shift from tableware to reliquary seems only to
have heightened royal interest in declaring the courtly location
of the Nef of St. Ursula. Sometime between 1514 and 1537
the connection between the Nef of St. Ursula and the royal
court was strengthened by the addition of Anne of Brittanys

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FIGURE5. Grandes heures dAnne de Bretagne, Paris, BnF, MS lat. 9474,

fol. 3, Anne of Brittany praying, accompanied by St. Anne, St. Margaret, and
St. Ursula (photo: BnF).

FIGURE6. Grandes heures dAnne de Bretagne, Paris, BnF, MS lat. 9474, fol.
199v, Martyrdom of the Eleven Thousand Virgins (photo: BnF).

daughter Claudes coat of arms to the platform at the top of the

mast.61 The link continued to be renewed in the following years:
first by the inclusion of the intertwined initials of Claudes son
HenriII and Catherine de Mdicis that replaced Claudes coat
of arms on the crows nest, and then by the addition of the
enameled arms of Poland and France belonging to their son
HenriIII on the base. This last royal addition must have taken
place between the time of HenriIIIs election as king of Poland
in 1573 and his gift of the Nef of St. Ursula to Reims on the
occasion of his consecration in 1574. Across four generations,
then, rulers of France continued to insist on the royal pedigree of the transformed nef. In the process, an object that once
showed the special devotion of a Breton duchess to a Breton
saint came to serve as a transmitter of French royal lineage. 62
The final act in the history of the Nef of St. Ursula is
marked by its preservation as a historical document, yet its
multiple previous meanings remain. In 1574, when HenriIII
offered it as a gift on the occasion of his coronation, the Nef

of St. Ursula moved from the royal treasury to the cathedral

of Reims. Just as the nef had originally been given by the city
of Tours because such plate was a traditional gift following
joyeuses entres, this second donation was also likely based
on precedent. Henri II had given a casket-shaped reliquary
crowned by the scene of the resurrected Jesus rising from his
tomb to Reims at his coronation in 1547.63 Like the Nef of St.
Ursula, the Reliquary of the Resurrection was initially made
in the late fifteenth century (it was, however, from the first
intended to hold relics). The selection of the Nef of St. Ursula as
a suitable offering in 1574 was more dependent on its retrofitted
role as a reliquary than its original use as a nef.
However, the precious materials and boat shape that had
previously allowed for reuse were also important factors in the
gift selection. HenriIIIs donation is memorialized on the base
of the Nef of St. Ursula, which declares: HenriIII, King of
the French and Poles, has presented this little ship to the Virgin
Mother of God, so that France [res Gallica], long tossed about


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by waves of sedition, may with divine help finally return to the

tranquil sea of the ancestors. Crowned in 1574.64 The vessel of
St. Ursula thus became the ship of state.65 It is as a little ship
that the Nef of St. Ursula is suitable for memorializing rescue
from the waves of sedition: as in Hugh of Folietos gray
dove, the metaphoric alignment of turbulent sea and spirit connects the object with a larger field of signification. The memorializing function of the Nef of St. Ursula is also evident in the
patterns of conservation and restoration of the nef at Reims.
The centuries-long preservation of the signs of royal ownership in the form of rulers monograms, coats of arms, and the
inscription describing HenriIIIs gift historicizes the Nef of St.
Ursulas earlier provenance in a manner quite distinct from the
constant updating performed by the French court. Although five
saintly female figures were added in the seventeenth century
(perhaps to replace losses) and the decking reworked in the
nineteenth century, these physical changes reflect an interest in
retaining the reference to the relics within through the maintenance of the nefs outer form.66 Likely chosen for its status as
a reliquary, the Nef of St. Ursula was treasured at Reims both
for its sacred contents and as a sign of the cathedrals role as
the site of consecration for centuries of French kings.
Particularly within its first century of existence, the Nef
of St. Ursulas biography presents a varied case study of the
potential for a single res to hold a world of meanings. Like St.
Ursula herself, the Nef of St. Ursula migrated from secular to
sacred as it moved from tableware to reliquary. This radical
change in status did not result from an equally marked change
in location: the Nef of St. Ursula remained a royal possession
for the next seventy years. As with many medieval treasures,
there is no clear distinction here between devotion and politics. Anne of Brittany (and her descendants) could both pray
to Ursula and derive political legitimacy from her. Even when
the vessel finally left the court for the more obviously sanctified
space of the cathedral of Reims, it did so as part of a typical
mixture of spiritual and political needs: HenriIII may have seen
in its virginal relics the possibility of a proper gift to bestow on
the Virgin of Notre-Dame de Reims, but the inscription makes
clear that the political metaphor of the ship of state was also a
significant factor in his deliberations.
Just as the modern expectations surrounding secular and
sacred are severely compromised by the Nef of St. Ursulas
history of reuse, current scholarly constructions of context
are complicated by the importance of its material identity in
motivating the successive changes in its meaning. While the
basic shape and some of the precious materials of the Nef of
St. Ursula were established in its earliest crafting, these were
subject to new readings as gold came to signify differently from
silver gilt, and the shape of a ship changed meaning from a
tableware form, to a martyrs attribute, to the representation of
France. These changes were far from arbitrary. Each new function was equally rooted in the physical properties of the object
itself, so that it seems in this sense to have partially written its
own history. At the same time, the modifications to the vessels

contents played a fundamental part in allowing its transformation from luxury plate to blessed container. While the documentary and physical evidence makes the early history of the Nef of
St. Ursula relatively accessible, the larger theoretical problems
posed to models of meaning, reuse, and indeed the delineation
of the object itself by its shifting significations and forms (a
pattern that refuses to sit easily within normative art historical
categories) remain to be explored.
Context, Contents and Constructs
The shifting roles of the Nef of St. Ursula might at first
seem to be the result of changing contexts or practical concerns
that lie far from Ohlys complex webs of flexible, materially
based signification. Yet they equally fail to adhere to the concept of spolia that undergirds most current art historical discussion of intentionality in medieval repurposing. Indeed, the most
startling moment in the Nef of St. Ursulas history, when thenef
became reconceived as a reliquary, appears at first glance to be
a paradigmatic case of what Anthony Cutler has termed use
rather than reuse.67 Found even in Cutlers thoughtful critical
reappraisal of the category spolia, the current Anglo-American
concentration on ideological rather than formal considerations
in determining evidence of conscious reuse is profoundly misleading in a case such as the Nef of St. Ursula. In its comparative ambiguity, Ohlys more fluid model of meaning making,
as well as his broader definition of the forms and materials
that can come to signify within a single object, offers a far
more plausible conceptual framework for understanding the
rich complexity of object signification in the later Middle Ages.
Anglo-American art historians have traditionally equated
reuse, or at least reuse worthy of serious investigation, primarily
with overtly ideological programs. Early Christian art,the Carolingian and Ottonian renovatio imperii Romani, and thevarious
Crusade and reconquista settings have thus fueled the vast majority of English-language studies.68 Spolia, the most commonly
used term for intentionally reused materials, reflects this bias,
deriving as it does from the Latin spolium, the flayed skin of an
animal and thus, metaphorically, the captured arms of the enemy.
When analyzing the modern scholarly use of the term spolia,
Cutler is understandably concerned primarily with tempering
this tendency and thus largely equates reuse with historicism
and use with pragmatic concerns. He argues that art historians
must be more careful in distinguishing between those instances
in which the second user was aware of his or her posterior status, and was affected by an objects earlier owner or function or
perceived meaning, and those in which such concerns were of
little or no detectable importance.69 The early reuse of the Nef
of St. Ursula is rather hard to account for in these terms. Anne
of Brittany presumably must be counted as both the first and the
second owner, which makes little sense; the transformation from
tableware to reliquary has only an utterly pragmatic connection
to its previous function (containment). The early changes to the
object were not the result of a historicizing intent; such concerns

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figure instead in its later history and are marked by conservation

rather than physical alteration.
However, to chalk up the myriad roles of the Nef of St.
Ursula simply to a general medieval understanding of the
mutability of objects70 would be to ignore the equally glaring
fact that at each step its previous meanings and functions were
integral to setting the stage for its future adaptations. The physical qualities of a ship silhouette, the vessels precious materials
and, most important, its capacity to serve as a container for yet
more precious materials are not signs of an imperial past or
enemy culture, but they are very real and particular qualities
of the nef offered by Tours to Anne of Brittany, qualities that
were desirable for and intentionally retained in the Nef of St.
Ursula. Ohlys attention to the details of each res and respect
for the significance of physical properties in making meanings
may usefully intervene here as a corrective to the tendency felt
even among art historians to explain appreciation of the material in terms of generalities.
The absorption of Ohlys insights into a new model of
reuse, however, requires certain accommodations to the commonly employed categories of text and context. Ohly observed
that res always possess a wide range of meanings keyed to
their physical properties, both material and formal, but that
the particular meaning of any given quality operative in a
single situation is dependent on how it is perceived to relate
to other res. This acknowledgment of both the importance of
formal elements and their ability to tie together the world of
meanings requires a serious reconsideration of the distinction
between object and context employed in most discussions of
reuse. Spolia are largely constructed by scholars as old objects
inserted into new contexts. The Nef of St. Ursula refuses this
mode of resetting in several ways: moving from city to court, it
remained equally a table nef; moving from court to cathedral, it
was equally a reliquary. Moreover, the most surprising change
in its history was the result less of context in the traditional
sense than of contents.
Neither simply the newly added female figures nor the
possible movement from a sideboard to a side altar changed
a nef into the Nef of St. Ursula. The central alteration instead
involved the substitution of relics for spices within the object.
Just as the enameled St. Ursula sculpture added to the vessels
deck was differentiated from its fellows by the unseen gold
that lay below its colored surface, so, too, the Nef of St. Ursula
derived its status as a reliquary not from the sculptures on its
outer surface but from its new, saintly inhabitant(s).
The relics and edible contents that could be placed within
the carnelian hull of the Nef of St. Ursula trouble not only the
boundary between context and content but also the very nature
of the object of study. Able to move in and out of the recessed
space, composed of fragile, perishable organic matter, they
are nevertheless integral parts of the object, the elements that
define its function and significance. Despite the rapidly increasing recognition of the importance of relics in medieval material
culture, these are substances that are far more difficult for art

history to absorb than the brightly glinting stones and gold that
form the rest of the nef.
Only recently and somewhat hesitantly have art historians
begun to treat elements such as spices or relics as part of their
object of study. The perishable nature of spices lies uneasily
within the traditional conceptualization of art as a permanent
remnant of societies and agents, that battered but resilient representative from a lost past that Panofskys method so eloquently
evokes as in need of scholarly aid in order to imaginatively
restore its setting.71 Similarly, while touch and hearing have
begun to creep inexorably into a more embodied medieval art
history,72 smell and taste,73 with a very few exceptions, remain
largely the preserve of contemporary art and its critics. 74
A similar if not stronger unease surrounds the place of
relics, particularly human remains, within objects presented as
art. With regard to the objects they display, many art museums
choose to remove human remains or tell docents not to mention
them.75 On the one hand, this removal may partially appease
potential descendants and prevent ghoulish interest in visitors.
On the other hand, it arguably helps to maintain the distinction
between the art museum and the natural history museum by
presenting objects classified as art in a properly aestheticized
and secularized form. Yet relic contents are sometimes the only
thing that makes it possible to identify a vessel as a reliquary,
as numerous other examples of reused caskets make clear. The
Nef of St. Ursula may be unusual in its recasting of a food
vessel into a holy vessel, but it is far from unique. Already in
the ninth century, a Late Antique Roman serving dish was refitted with a small inscription to make it a suitable receptacle for
the bones of St. Sebastian.76 The Pamplona Casket, often cited
in discussions of spolia, received no physical changes at all
other than the addition of relics within it: to this day it retains
its highly secular iconography of outdoor partying and hunting as well as a dedicatory inscription praising Abd al-Malik,
son of the Amirid regent Al-Mansur.77 Such instances reveal
a constant underlying truth about the nature of reliquaries as
a broad category, namely, that they derive their meaning from
the fact that they hold relics.78 These contents in turn take their
meaning from their perceived connection to other things, often
though not always human. The link here is generally material
rather than visual, yet it suggests the dependence of meaning
on an interconnected web of things. As Ohly shows in tracing
the pattern by which one res endows another with signification
through a shared property, content in such a case is context;
all components of the thing not only go into making its meaning but also link it to other meaningful things. Just as relics
themselves derive their sanctity from their relationship to a
holy human, so too is the reliquary distinct from other containers because of its relationship to the relic. The material of the
relic mediates between such disparate things as saint and box,
each with its attendant array of meanings, much as Hugh of
Folieto claimed the color gray not only links doves and waves
but through the qualities of each conveys a broader message
concerning human nature.


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The alterations in the contents of the Nef of St. Ursula

are thus at once analogous to the additions and subtractions
of other, more visible sections of the sculpturesuch as the
figures and coats of armsand to the changes in the objects
physical location that are more commonly acknowledged
to be significant by art historians. The ease with which the
nef became a reliquary and the continual ebb and flow of its
additional other meanings underscore the blurred boundaries
between secular and sacred so often acknowledged but rarely
truly admitted in scholarship on the period, which still tends to
speak of the borrowing of motifs or a reuse of objects as crossing a divide that largely seems to be a product of modern rather
than medieval perception.
Considered in light of the signification of their properties, the numerous overlaps between spices and relics may also
have contributed to the ability of the nef to become the Nef of
St. Ursula, just as its representation of a ship did. Spices and
relics are, of course, in many ways distinct from each other:
spices lose their pungency over time, while relics are often said
to endure without change; spices generally come from plants
or the earth, while relics are almost always associated with
specific saints. Yet in a far larger variety of ways, the two categories of res are remarkably similar and were closely linked
in medieval and early modern Europe. Each through their different properties evoked the pleasant, the supernatural, and the
curative.79 Scent in particular was fundamental to linking the
two substances: paradise smells sweet like spice, and so does
the incorrupt body of the saint. Spices were frequently used in
healing, but so were relics. Not only might relics and spices
be applied to the outer body, both could also, on occasion, be
consumed.80 This intersection of qualities not only may have
eased the refashioning of an object such as the Nef of St. Ursula,
but it also speaks to the larger interpenetration of things and
meanings more broadly within medieval culture.
Such overlaps are made apparent when meaning is conceived, as Ohly proposed, as the result of the ever-shifting

relationship of things mediated by their properties. In place of

separating context from text, putting texts into contexts, this
more adaptable practice addresses the methodological problem
of context as construct by directly engaging with the processes
by which this construction takes place, in both the past and the
present. In doing so, it allows us to recapture some of the original connotations of the term context itself. The more limited
modern use of the term is aptly summarized by the eleventh edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which defines
context as the circumstances that form the setting for an event,
statement or idea; the parts that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.81 Yet context
once held a far wider range of meanings. Its late medieval uses
more closely reflect its origin in the Latin contextere, referring
to the weaving together of words and sentences, the construction of speech, of literary composition, while sixteenth- and
seventeenth-century authors used it to express the connection or coherence between parts of a discourse.82 Focused on
connections and construction, these earlier meanings present
meaning making as a process of facture in which various parts
are linked together to create signification.
Tracing the history of an object such as the Nef of St.
Ursula underscores the importance of attending to the ways in
which individual things weave in and out of their larger surroundings. Just as things may be emphatically present, they
are equally given to being vague and profoundly conditional.
In pointing to the porous joints between doves and seas, souls
and stones, angels and demons, Ohlys work challenges medievalists to look more carefully at the processes of connection
that operate in the histories of our objects of study; for these,
indeed, may in the end be the very place where meaning, however messy, is made. If we are to navigate the richly varied
world of meanings that Ohly opens before us, we will need to
embrace an older vision of context as an agile and open weave
in which all aspects of an object are liable to new configurations, as human effort continually tinkers with the open work.

I would like to thank Aden Kumler and Chris Lakey for their many generous and insightful comments on both the original and revised versions of
this paper.

1. Many of Ohlys most relevant essays have been gathered in two collections: F.Ohly, Schriften zur Mittelalterlichen Bedeutungsforschung
(Darmstadt, 1983); and idem, Sensus Spiritualis: Studies in Medieval
Significs and the Philology of Culture, trans. K.J. Northcott, ed. S.P.
Jaffee (Chicago, 2005).
2. First published as E.Panofsky, Introductory, in Studies in Iconology:
Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York, 1939),

331. Reprinted with some expansion in idem, Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of the Renaissance, in Meaning in the
Visual Arts (Chicago, 1955), 2654.
3. F.Ohly, Vom geistigen Sinn des Wortes im Mittelalter, in Schriften zur
Mittelalterlichen Bedeutungsforschung, 131. Unless otherwise noted,
quotations in this article are from On the Spiritual Sense of the Word in
the Middle Ages, in Sensus Spiritualis, 130.
4. Ohly, On the Spiritual Sense of the Word, 12: Christus et angelica
virtus, Christi quoque sponsa / Iustus iustitia, carnalis sensus, et usus /
Pravus, peccatum grave, daemon, falsus hebraeus, / Verus gentilis dicitur


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esse lapis (my translation). Northcotts slightly different translation

ends, each is said to be a stone, making the preceding nouns rather
than the stone the subject of dicitur esse.
5. On this quality in lists, see U.Eco, The Infinity of Lists from Homer to
Joyce, trans. A.McEwen (London, 2009), 1518.
6. Z.Herbert, Pebble, Selected Poems, trans. C.Milosz and P.D. Scott
(Harmondsworth, 1968), 108.
7. Z.Herbert, Poeta wobec wspczesnoci, in Poeszje, ed. K.Podgrecka
(Warsaw, 1998), 58. I would like to thank Bethany Braley for providing
me with a translation of this speech.
8. Despite their differing linguistic roots, these terms as used by the two
authors are roughly equivalent: Frows terminology (J.Frow, A Pebble,
a Camera, a Man Who Turns into a Telegraph Pole, Critical Inquiry,
28/1 [Autumn 2001], 27085) is drawn in part from Martin Heideggers
formulation, in which Heidegger explicitly links Ding and the English
thing to the Latin res (M.Heidegger, The Thing, in Poetry, Language, Thought: Martin Heidegger Works, trans. A.Hofstadter [New
York, 1971], 17482), while Ohlys original text uses Ding and res
9. Ohly, On the Spiritual Sense of the Word, 13.
10. Frow, A Pebble, 273.
11. Ibid., 285.

35. Contemplativa vita / paries sanctarum cognacionum; Paries bonorum

oporum / activa vita.
36. E.g., the tame hawk is a spiritual father because it seizes the wild birds
(laymen) and compels them to die to the world (Clark, The Medieval Book
of Birds, 14243); Rayner is told that as a monk he will seize and convert
laymen (ibid., 11819).
37. Ohly, Probleme der Mittelalterlichen Bedeutungsforschung, ills. 35:
BnF, MS lat. 2495 is ill. 4.
38. Paris, Grand Palais, France 1500: Entre moyen ge et Renaissance (Paris,
2011), ed. E.Taburet-Delahaye etal., cat. 31, p.105.
39. The English carnelian is related to the medieval Latin carneolus, used for
the red form of sardius or onyx. Sardius, which can be used for carnelian as well, of course is not linked etymologically to carnis. Isidore of
Seville claims the Latin name sardius is owed to its supposed discovery
by the Sardinians, linking hematite instead with blood; Isidore of Seville,
Etymologies, trans. S.Barney (Cambridge, 2006), 323.
40. T. Forbes, Chalcedony and Childbirth: Precious and Semi-Precious
Stones as Obstetrical Amulets, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine,
35 (1963), 390402, at 394; and F.Klein-Franke, The Knowledge of
Aristotles Lapidary during the Latin Middle Ages, Ambix, 17 (1970),
13742, at 141.

12. Ohly, On the Spiritual Sense of the Word, 58.

41. Exodus 28:17. Carnelian is the first of the twelve stones listed.

13. Ibid., 9.

42. The municipal record of the purchase from Rmon Guinnot, with a short
description of the workmanship and basic iconography of the nef, were
identified by H.Lambron de Lignim, Quelle influence le sjour de la
cour en Touraine a-t-il exerc sur le langage et sur le dveloppement
de lart thtral dans cette partie de la France? Congrs scientifique
de France, 5me session, 1 (1847), 11945, at 134. An attribution to a
member of the Rousseau family on the basis of the hallmark has also been
suggested, first by E.Giraudet, Les artistes tourangeaux (Tours, 1885),
356. The brevity of the payment record makes it unclear whether the nef
was made with Anne as the intended first owner.

14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. On the larger issue of appeals to context, see M.Bal and N.Bryson,
Semiotics and Art History, AB, 73/2 (1991), 174208, at 17580.
17. Reprinted as F.Ohly, Probleme der Mittelalterlichen Bedeutungsfor
schung und das Taubenbild des Hugo de Folieto, in Schriften zur Mittelalterlichen Bedeutungsforschung, 3292, at 3233; and idem, Problems
of Medieval Significs and Hugh of Folietos Dove Miniature, in Sensus
Spiritualis, 68135.
18. Panofsky, Iconography and Iconology.
19. E.Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (New York,
1972), 42113.
20. Panofsky, Iconography and Iconology, 26.
21. Ibid., 26.

43. First noted by P.Verlet, Bulletin [Societ des antiquaires de France],

1937, 13940.
44. Panofsky, Iconography and Iconology, 29, 3637.
45. R.W. Lightbown, Secular Goldsmiths Work in Medieval France: A History (London, 1978), 3.
46. Ibid., 3031. Nefs could, on rare occasions, be adapted to liturgical service as containers for holy water, a use that has been suggested
for the Cloisters saltcellar,

22. Ibid., 40.

23. Ibid., 2628.
24. Ibid., 27.
25. Ibid.
26. M.Carruthers, The Book of Memory (Cambridge, 1990), 24042.
27. rubor ped[um] cruor m[a]r[tyriu]m
28. oc[u]l[u]s ec[c]e matu[r]as sensus
29. color aure[us] i[n] posteriorib[us] e[s]t in finitio[ne] [a]et[er]n[a]e retributionis munus
30. Ohly, Problems of Medieval Significs, 104.
31. per ea [posteriora dorsi columbae] finem vitae praesentis in quolibet
homine moraliter demonstrat; W.B. Clark, The Medieval Book of Birds:
Hugh of Fouilloys Aviarium, Medieval and Renaissance Text and Studies, 80 (Binghamton, NY, 1992), 132.
32. Ibid., 13335.
33. Ibid., 11819. Ohly (Problems of Medieval Significs, 84) quotes
roughly the first half of this passage.
34. Hec [sic] pertica e[st] regularis vita. There may be intended wordplay
here between two definitions of pertica (as both perch and measuring
rod) that strengthens its role as a sign of the regular life.

47. Lightbown, Secular Goldsmiths Work, 31, 108.

48. C.Oman, Trsor de la cathdrale de Reims: La nef dAnne de Bretagne,
Les monuments historiques de la France, 12 (1966), 12325 at 125.
49. Lambron de Lignim, Quelle influence, 134.
50. Boats did play a prominent role in the festivities at nearby Amboise several days later, where Julius Caesars construction of a fleet was restaged.
Entertainments under the control of the court were often linked through
this type of symbolic play, but there is no evidence to suggest collusion
between the two locales on this occasion.
51. Panofsky, Iconography and Iconology, 3638.
52. A.D. Hedeman, The Royal Image: Illustrations of the Grandes Chroniques de France, 12741422 (Berkeley, 1991), 12834.
53. Based on a receipt dated 3 June 1505 signed by the royal painter Jehan
de Paris for plate received from Henry, including a petite navire dor
... que la dicte dame a faict prendre pour mectre les unze mil vierges;
C.Oman, Medieval Silver Nefs (London, 1963), 18.


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54. For a basic outline, see J. de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. W.G.
Ryan (Princeton, 2012), 64246. Anne of Brittanys interest in St. Ursula
(with whom she shared a royal status and Breton origin) rather than the
Eleven Thousand Virgins as a whole runs counter to the general shape
of the cult at this time, which tended to stress the corporate nature of
the group; see S.B. Montgomery, St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand
Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group
Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe (Bern, 2010), 146.
55. Like many female rulers, Anne of Brittanys political engagement has
largely been sidelined if not dismissed out of hand by historians. For some
important correctives indicating her proactive work on behalf of Breton
autonomy, see M.Nassiet, Anne de Bretagne, a Woman of State, in
The Cultural and Political Legacy of Anne de Bretagne, ed. C.J. Brown
(Woodbridge, 2010), 16375; and idem, Les traits de marriage dAnne
de Bretagne, in Pour en finir avec Anne de Bretagne?, ed. D.Le Page
(Nantes, 2002), 7181.
56. Anne and Margaret are frequent companions of Anne of Brittany in her
books of hours both as the namesakes of Anne of Brittany and her mother
respectively and as saints connected to childbirth and rearing. See E.
LEstrange, Penitence, Motherhood, and Passion Devotion: Contextualizing Anne de Bretagnes Prayer Book, Chicago, Newberry Library, MS
83, in Brown, The Cultural and Political Legacy of Anne de Bretagne,
81100, at 9193.

66. Bimbenet-Privat, Lorfvrerie de Franois Ier, 47.

67. A.Cutler, Reuse or Use? Theoretical and Practical Attitudes towards
Objects in the Early Middle Ages, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano
di Studi sullalto Medioevo, 46 (1999), 105679.
68. Following a few isolated studies in the mid-twentieth century, the literature on spolia has grown exponentially in the last several decades.
For examples, see G.Bandmann, Mittelalterliche Architektur als Bedeutungstrger (Berlin, 1998); P.Buc, Conversion of Objects, Viator,
28 (1997), 99143; J.Der, Das Kaiserbild im Kreuz: Ein Betrag zur
politischen Theologie des frheren Mittelalters, Schweizer Beitrge zur
allgemein Geschichte, 13 (1955), 48110; F.W. Deichmann, Sule und
Ordnung in der frhchristlichen Architektur, Rmische Mitteilungen,
55 (1940), 11430; A.Esch, Spolien, Archiv fr Kulturgeschichte, 51
(1969), 164; I.Forsyth, Art with History, in Byzantine East, Latin
West: Art-Historical Studies in Honor of Kurt Weitzmann, ed. C.Moss
and K.Kiefer (Princeton, 1995), 15362; D.Kinney, Spolia: Damnatio
and renovatio memoriae, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome,
42 (1997), 11748; eadem, The Concept of Spolia, in A Companion to
Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe, ed. C.Rudolph (Malden, MA, 2006), 23352; A.Shalem, Islam Christianized:
Islamic Portable Objects in the Medieval Church Treasuries of the Latin
West (Frankfurt, 1998); and E.Zwierlein-Diehl, Interpretatio christiana: Gems on the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, in Engraved
Gems: Surivivals and Revivals, Studies in the History of Art, 54, ed.
C.M. Brown (Washington, DC, 1997), 6383.

57. On the ship as a sign of St. Ursula, see Montgomery, St. Ursula, 4044,
5556; and G. Zarri, La nave di santOrsola, Annali dellInstituto
Storico Italo-Germanico in Trento, 19 (1993), 12955.

69. Cutler, Reuse or Use? 1056.

58. On Annes practice of creative reuse, see C. Vrand, Les collections

dobjets dart dAnne de Bretagne travers ses inventaires: Le spectacle
et les coulisses (Thse, cole Nationale des Chartes, Paris, 2010).

71. F.B. Flood and Z.S. Strother, Editorial: Between Creation and Destruction, RES, 48 (2005), 510, at 5, 7, 10.

59. M.Bimbenet-Privat, Lorfvrerie de Franois Ier et de ses successeurs

daprs des inventaires indits de 1537, 1563 et 1584 conservs aux Archives nationales, Bulletin de la Socit de lhistoire de lart franais,
1995, 4154, at 47. Bimbenet-Privat expresses reservations as to whether
the Nef of St. Ursula was in fact a reliquary given the lack of additional
corroborating evidence concerning the identity or presence of the relics.
For the sake of simplicity, I have chosen to take the documentary source
at its word. Bimbenet-Privats caveat does, however, raise fascinating
avenues for future inquiry concerning the role of belief in materiality and
its meanings that extend well beyond Western European reliquaries (e.g.,
are the dedication offerings and relics occluded in, but considered vital to
the power of, a Buddhist stupa part of its materials even if no one living
has seen them?).
60. Ibid., 47.
61. Ibid.
62. This portion of the Nef of St. Ursulas history comes closest to resembling
the processes of appropriation outlined by R.Nelson, Appropriation, in
Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Nelson and R.Schiff (Chicago, 2003),
63. Bimbenet-Privat, Lorfvrerie de Franois Ier, 4749.
POSUIT ANNO MDLXXIIIII. I would like to thank Barbara Newman
for her help in correcting this inscription.
65. On the ubiquity and malleability of the ship of state in sixteenth-century
French royal iconography, see F.Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in
the Sixteenth Century (London, 1975), 121207. HenriIII was already
portrayed as a calmer of the turbulent seas during the reign of his brother
CharlesIX in both poetry and festival imagery; ibid., 13537.

70. Ibid., 1077.

72. A growing body of recent scholarship exists on the role of touch and
sound in premodern art. For just a few examples, see G. Frank, The
Memory of the Eyes (Chicago, 2000); D.Howard and L.Moretti, Sound
and Space in Renaissance Venice (New Haven, 2009); R.Nelson, Empathetic Vision: Looking at and with a Performative Byzantine Miniature,
AH, 30 (2007), 489502; and B.Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon: Space,
Ritual and the Senses in Byzantium (University Park, PA, 2010).
73. The metaphoric evocation of these senses has received the most attention. See, for example, R.Falkenburg, The Fruit of Devotion: Mysticism
and the Imagery of Love in Flemish Paintings of the Virgin and Child,
14501550, trans. S.Herman (Amsterdam, 1994).
74. Contemporary use of scent and taste varies widely: a small sampling
of this diversity can be seen in the disparate work of Janine Antoni, the
Center for Tactical Magic, Fallen Fruit, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Hilda
Kozari, Gordon Matta-Clark, Giuseppe Penone, Ashley Rowe, Dieter
Roth, Saito Takako, Daniel Spoerri, Rikrit Tiravanija, Sissel Tolaas, and
Clara Ursitti.
75. While there is a substantial body of literature on human remains in museums, it issues almost exclusively from within anthropology and natural
history museums and largely focuses on repatriation of ancestral bodies to
native peoples. See, for example, M.Brooks and C.Rumsey, The Body
in the Museum, in Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic
Institutions, ed. V.Cassman etal. (Lanham, MD, 2007), 26990; K.Cooper, Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and
Practices (Lanham, MD, 2008); and P.Turnbull and M.Pickering, eds.,
The Long Way Home: The Meaning and Values of Repatriation (New
York, 2010). Although concern with the display of bodies was brought
to the fore by the legal actions of those seeking to reclaim ancestors
bodies, it has since come to alter museum practices surrounding all human remains in countries such as Britain; T.Jenkins, Contesting Human
Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority (New
York, 2001), 4.


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76. Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art; Baltimore, The Walters Art
Museum; and London, The British Museum, Treasures of Heaven: Saints,
Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe (Cleveland, Baltimore, and
London, 2011), ed. M.Bagnoli etal., cat. 19, p.42.
77. J.Harris, Muslim Ivories in Christian Hands: The Leire Casket in Context, AH, 18 (1995), 21321.
78. This is not to say that reliquaries always mimetically portray the details
of the relics within. As Cynthia Hahns work on speaking reliquaries
has clearly shown, the shaping of reliquaries into forms such as arms
is often determined by functional needs and does not regularly correlate to the presence of an arm bone within; Hahn, The Voices of the
Saints: Speaking Reliquaries, Gesta, 36 (1997), 2031. As reliquaries,

however, they contain, have contained, or have been believed to contain

79. P.Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (New
Haven, 2008).
80. Unsanctified flesh was also distributed as a spice for medicinal use; see
K.H. Dannenfeldt, Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth Century Experience
and Debate, Sixteenth Century Studies, 16 (1985), 16380; and R.Sugg,
Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (New York, 2011), 1122.
81. Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. context n.
82. OED Online, s.v. context n, accessed 20 July 2012,


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PLATE1 (Kumler and Lakey, Fig.2, and Powell, Fig. 12). Sacramentary of
St. Gereon, Cologne, ca. 1000, Paris, BnF, MS lat. 817, fol. 12, Annunciation
(photo: BnF).

PLATE2 (Kumler and Lakey, Fig.4). Lyell Aviary, Oxford, Bodleian Library,
MS Lyell 71, fol. 4 (photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

PLATE3 (Kumler and Lakey, Fig.3, and Normore, Fig. 2). Hugh of Folieto, De avibus, Paris, BnF, MS lat. 2495, fols. 1v2, Dove and Hawk (photo: BnF).

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PLATE5 (Fricke, Fig.1). Reliquary, gold, mother-of-pearl, and enamel, 10.5x

8 x 7cm, Paris, ca. 1400, front view, stolen from Museu dArt de Catalunya,
Barcelona (photo: Ramon Manent).

PLATE4 (Fricke, Fig.11). Jean Malouel, Grande Piet ronde, detail, Paris,
Muse du Louvre (photo: The Louvre).

PLATE6 (Fricke, Fig.9). Ugolino di Vieri, reliquary for the corporale, detail
with the Miracle of Bolsena, Orvieto, Duomo (photo: Scala).

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PLATE7 (Kessler, Fig.9). Cross, base, gilt metal and enamel, St.-Omer,
Muse de lHtel Sandelin (photo: Bridgeman Art Library, New York).

PLATE9 (above) (Kessler, Fig.6). S. Vincenzo al Volturno, monastic church,

stained glass, Christ (photo: Soprintendenza per I Beni archeologici e la attivit culturali del Molise).

PLATE8 (Kessler, Fig.8). Brazen serpent, plaque, enamel, London, Victoria

and Albert Museum (photo: V&A).

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PLATE10 (Powell, Fig.9). Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, ca. 1437, oil on
panel, 65.5 x 149.5cm, Frankfurt, Stdel Museum (photo: U.EdelmannStdel

PLATE12 (Powell, Fig.14). Turin-Milan Hours, Turin, Palazzo Madama

Torino, MS Inv. 47, fol. 30v, follower of Jan van Eyck, Agony in the Garden,
ca. 1440 (photo: Fondazione Torino Musei).

PLATE11 (Powell, Fig.13). Kazimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915, oil on

canvas, 53 x 53cm, St. Petersburg, Russian State Museum (photo: Scala/Art
Resource, NY).

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