This event has now finished.
  • Date and time: Tuesday 9 May 2023, 5.30pm to 6.45pm
  • Location: In-person and online
    Room K/133, King's Manor, Exhibition Square (Map)
  • Audience: Open to alumni, staff, students, the public
  • Admission: Free admission, booking required

Event details

York Medieval Lecture

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 Jessica 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, she argues 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.

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About the speaker

Jessica Barker is a specialist in medieval art, with a particular emphasis on sculpture. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she was subsequently Henry Moore Postdoctoral Fellow. She joined The Courtauld in 2018, after two years as a lecturer in world art at the University of East Anglia. Jessica’s research ranges across northern Europe and the Iberian peninsula, addressing questions of the macabre, gender, materiality and the body.

Her prize-winning monograph, Stone Fidelity: Marriage and Emotion in Medieval Tomb Sculpture, explores the intersection of love and death in funerary art. She has published widely on death and commemoration, with articles in journals including Art History, The Burlington Magazine, Gesta, and The Sculpture Journal.

Her current projects include co-curating an exhibition exploring measurement and regulation in medieval and contemporary art, entitled The Rule: Shaping Lives, Medieval and Modern, which will open at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art in 2026. This lecture relates to her next book project on time and materiality in late-medieval art, part of which is due to be published in Art Bulletin in Autumn 2023.