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Maintenance Work and the Long Life of Materials in Medieval Art

Tuesday 9 May 2023, 5.30PM

Speaker(s): Dr Jessica Barker, The Courtauld Institute

Abstract: Historians have rarely worried about the maintenance of things and materials, leaving this apparently mundane problem to conservators. This overlooks the simple fact that, just as we are surrounded by objects that are scuffed, scratched, dirty, or worn, so people in the past were required to confront the gradual material deterioration of the things they encountered in their everyday life.

Works of art are not necessarily any less subject to the processes of physical decay than more prosaic objects, although their pristine presentation in museums today masks such material vulnerability.

Then, as now, slowing this process of deterioration could only be achieved through protective measures and regular maintenance. But whereas today this work typically takes place in the relative seclusion of the conservation studio, in the Middle Ages maintenance work often occurred in full public view, within the space of the church and sometimes even integrated into religious rituals.

In this lecture I will explore an extraordinarily detailed set of maintenance instructions set down by an early sixteenth-century English bishop which offer a remarkable window onto the practicalities of historical conservation procedures, as well as metaphysical ideas about the transience of the material world.

Drawing out some of the key themes from this maintenance program (its ritual performance, its analogies with medicine, its philosophical stakes) and placing them in dialogue with surviving artworks, I argue that maintenance work offers an instructive new perspective from which to consider the material turn, as well as a deeper point of connection between history, art history and conservation.

Further information about our speaker Dr Jessica Barker

Registration details

Location: Philip Rahtz Lecture Theatre, K/133, King's Manor

Admission: Hybrid event - free lecture via eventbrite ticket or zoom registration.