A Day Trip to Saint-Maurice d’Agaune by Nancy Thebaut

With the number of COVID-19 cases in rapid decline throughout Switzerland, Meseret and I decided to take a day trip to Sion and Saint Maurice. I’ll focus this blog entry on Saint Maurice only, however, as other Global Horizons members have previously written about their time in Sion.

Just a few minutes from the train station is the city’s crown jewel: the Saint-Maurice d’Agaune Abbey and Treasure. Founded in 515 by King Sigismund of Burgundy, the abbey is a prominent stop along the Via Francigena, or the pilgrimage route that connects St Peters in Rome to northwestern Europe. It is dedicated to Saint Maurice, a third-century Theban military saint who was popular among the kings of Burgundy and the princes of Savoy. Typically armed with a lance and shield, he was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire from the tenth century onward. In many Germanic countries, he is often represented as black in the mid-thirteenth century and thereafter.

The two most striking aspects of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune are its palimpsestic architecture and treasury. After visiting the church, we entered a partially open-air archaeological site that—with the help of excellent and newly installed educational displays—reveals the abbey’s complex architectural history. We were able to simultaneously see the site of the original tomb of Saint Maurice as well as parts of the five earlier churches.

The collection of the treasury is astounding, and thanks to the recent research and curatorial work of Pierre-Alain Mariaux, it is also now more intellectually accessible than ever before. A few standouts include St Martin’s vase (ca. 20 BCE vase with a fifth- or sixth-century setting), the ewer of Charlemagne (1st half of the ninth century), and the châsse of St Sigismund and his children, which was made in the so-called Saint-Maurice workshop (12th century). Perhaps my favorite, however, is the head reliquary of St Candidus (ca. 1165). In neighboring drawers and display cases, we found former contents of this reliquary, including twelfth-century textiles and relic labels from the Holy Land, a head cap (kamelkaukion) that likely belonged to Count Amadeus III of Saxony (1103-1148), and bits of wax that a goldsmith put below the silver plate to prevent deformations.

On a more personal note, the trip felt significant in a couple of ways.  It was my first art-related trip since the outbreak of the pandemic, and so to study such an exceptional site and collection of objects in person—and not on a screen!—was a veritable treat. But more importantly, visiting the abbey of Saint Maurice seemed particularly timely in the wake of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests throughout the globe. With the start of the fall semester only a couple of months away, I am actively thinking about ways that I can bring what I learned at the abbey into the classroom. Namely, that studying St Maurice the person, his relics, those sites that bear his name, and his modern-day (mis)appropriations might offer students an important way into thinking about black representation and erasure in the Middle Ages and beyond.

Researching global horizons at times of a pandemic?! Our way: the GH seminar by Stefanie Lenk

The time since early spring has been a great challenge in many respects. One of these challenges has been the almost complete standstill of academic life. It is only now that Swiss university libraries slowly open their doors again, academics being allowed in their offices – carefully respecting the required safety distance, and academic mailing lists containing a little more than the depressing sight of one conference cancellation after the next. Normal university life, to be sure, seems still far away. In Bern, a very quiet term has just ended. When the buzz and excitement of a proper university term will kick in again, no one can tell today.

Like everyone else, the Global Horizons project had to put up with drawbacks. Our journey to Colombia this summer had to be postponed, as did Saskia Quené’s long prepared international conference Between Figure and Ground. No less incisive, however, has been the sudden absence of daily companionship with colleagues and friends, of ideas flying around and the mutual encouragement at times.

However, Global Horizons did not simply stop when Covid-19 arrived in Europe. In fact, one of our group endeavours even intensified over the last months, and has been a great source of consolation and inspiration. I am talking of our GH seminars, in which project members, GH’s scholars in residence, and guests discuss a paper or a project of a couple of the attendants, often at an early stage of development. The GH seminar has always been my favourite part of a university week. But now, exchanging ideas with colleagues is a special gift. Of course, we met online. Often, we got together over large distances, called in from Paris or Berlin. GH seminars’ atmosphere is very collegial and encouraging, but still, everyone is of course eager to bring something interesting to the table. Thanks to the great diversity in Global Horizon’s profile, the breadth of topics is astonishing. This semester, just to give you an idea, I pondered over interactions between two illuminated late medieval gospel books at the Ethiopian monastery Dabra Hayq Estifanos, learned about the many ways to look at perspective in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the Prado, thought for the first time about the re-use of late antique medicine boxes as reliquaries, or followed Al-Biruni on his “geometrical path”. It must be said that this is only a fraction of this term’s particularly rich programme!

When it was my turn, I brought a dissertation chapter that I am currently revising for publication, which looks at the personification of Jordan in the dome of the Orthodox baptistery of Ravenna. Every time, I am a bit anxious before I present, and enthused afterwards! It is one thing to ask a friend or colleague for their opinion on a draft, but it is another to find yourself in front of a dozen of really smart advisers, scrutinizing your work from totally different angles, who all just want your best!

To say it in more general terms, this unusual semester made me that much more aware of the great gift of academic collaboration and exchange, which even defeats the constraints of a pandemic.

Global Horizons Writing Retreat in Valendas by Nancy Thebaut

Writing can so often be a lonely endeavor, but during a recent Global Horizons writing retreat up in the quiet mountain village of Valendas, it was anything but that. Housed in a seventeenth-century townhouse (with multiple wall paintings intact!), we spent a few days writing, talking about writing, and setting goals for the coming semester and year. We also found time to have delicious communal meals and take walks around the village, characterized by its dramatic views of the Rhine, snow-capped mountains, and dairy farms.

We arrived on Saturday and kicked off the retreat with a discussion about issues we individually faced with our current writing projects, whether dissertations, books, articles, or conference papers. There was admittedly something deeply comforting (and even cathartic) about sharing our challenges and learning that we all face similar difficulties. So often, we tend to think that we are alone in our struggle to write; this is, of course, far from true. Coping with writer’s block, finding time to write, resisting distraction, and managing writing-related anxiety were all common problems voiced by members of the GH team.

After taking turns naming the challenges we face when writing, we began to think in terms of strategy: what are our different tricks, so to speak, in overcoming these difficulties? I found myself taking lots of notes during this part of Saturday’s and then Sunday’s group meetings. For some, beginning the day with a timed session of free writing was a way to get into one’s work and overcome the initial anxiety that many of us face each time we open our current project; for others, creating a realistic ‘to-do’ list the night before is crucial for a productive writing session the following day. Other tips include writing in 25-minute spurts that are each focused on a particular question or problem; planning rewards in addition to writing goals each day; and keeping all writing for a single project within one word document (so that nothing gets lost!). 

An additional point of discussion was the place of conferences in relation to our writing projects. Some apply to conferences with the idea that, if accepted, the conference will be the opportunity to develop projects otherwise not yet begun; for others, conferences are for work that has already been carefully thought through. Although sometimes our strategies differed, we all agreed that formal analysis can be an excellent way to overcome writer’s block: simply pull up the image that interests you the most in your project, and begin writing about that. Writing, in this way, can be a form of thinking, and it is through the process of writing that many figure out what they want to say about their objects.

These meetings, however important, were of course not the primary way we spent our time in Valendas. On Sunday, the first full day of the retreat, we had breakfast at 8 am and then promptly found different rooms within the house, many of which were filled with long tables perfect for communal writing, and settled in with our laptops for the day, taking breaks only for meals and an occasional walk. I personally had one of the most productive writing days that I have had in a while—there was something deeply motivating about working alongside other pre-modernists in a space to which we had traveled for the sole purpose of writing. Learning that we all experienced similar personal and intellectual challenges viz. our own projects and sharing tips on how we could all be more satisfied with our work was at once edifying and empowering. I am trying to remember what I learned in those few days in Valendas as I continue to write—albeit now in a much more isolated state, given the Coronavirus outbreak—and recall that we are not alone in the challenges we face, personally and intellectually, as academic writers.  

Madrid and its surprises by Corinne Mühlemann

The forecast predicted rain. Madrid’s sun was the first surprise we encountered on this trip. We felt as if the winter is gone. While enjoying the sun we were thinking about the workshop Dialogues in the Late Medieval Mediterranean: Methodological Encounters and (Dis)Encounters which was organized by the Cost Action Islamic Legacy: Narratives East, West, South, North of the Mediterranean and should take place the following day.

The workshop was held at the Casa Árabe, the second surprise. Al-bait al-‛arabī is a meeting point between Spain and the Arab world in Madrid as well as Córdoba. It exists since 2006 and allows different institutions, private as well as public, to dialogue and interact. The location was perfectly chosen by the organizers since our discussions were diverse ranging from Mudejar inscriptions to Cyrillic script on Ottoman diplomatic documents to medieval textiles from Iberia. The researchers themselves showed a wide geographical range too, from as far as Croatia and Serbia in the East to the US in the West. This variety in topics as well as in different methodological approaches enriched our discussions in many ways. It was just the perfect surrounding to present our thoughts about the transfer of craft knowledge between Baghdad, al-Andalus and Norther Europe on the basis of the Niello technique for metalwork and the Lampas weave for textiles. Furthermore, this workshop enabled us to think about a future workshop Global Horizons will organize in 2021 together with Antonio Urquízar and Borja Franco (both UNED, Madrid) from the Cost Action.

The third and last surprise certainly was the special exhibition Las artes del metal en al-Ándalus at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional. We were able to see one of the Niello objects discussed in our paper. Seeing this casket in front of us created further questions about its marvelous making. How discussions in front of objects enrich our thinking is something we will keep in mind for the preparation of our workshop in 2021.

Metal Work in Al-Andalus – exhibition architecture made of metalwork

Global Horizons in Sion by Stefanie Lenk

This week we got spoiled with inspirations from many directions. Jaś Elsner visited us in Bern and we discussed his current work on copybook drawings for Coptic textiles on papyri. We got into a lively discussion about how to detect and talk about the determinacy and indeterminacy of drawings – a subject that has kept us busy since Jess Bailey’s and Corinne Mühlemann’s Drawing and Weaving workshop earlier this year.

On the following day we travelled to the beautiful city of Sion in the Valais, an hour and a half away from Bern. We were so lucky to have two excellent guides at our side – Patrick Elsig, the director of the History Museum of Sion, and Mme Zinn who showed us around the Basilique de Valère – a veritable time-machine!

Patrick Elsig led us through the current exhibition Aux sources du Moyen Age which assembles a surprising wealth of art from the first millennium found in the Valais. Also the interior design of the exhibition space is worth to be seen, as its former use as the prison of Sion is not only still palpable, but even used in an imaginative way to frame the exhibits.

The basilique de Valère and the attached History Museum are extraordinary for the richness of curious and wonderful things – be it the oldest playable organ in the world, the mill inside the church, the church treasury in the former archive of the basilique, filled with graffiti of its distracted users, or the panel showing the adoration of the magi that showed us once more in how many ways the horizon plays a central role in the imagination of the sacred and the mundane worlds.

Japan 2019: Research-trip together with Kristopher Kersey (UCLA)

In this ten-day trip, we will visit many of the most important religious and metropolitan sites of “classical” and “early medieval” Japan (ca. 700 – 1300). We begin in Nara, the capital of Japan from 710-784. Here we will visit the large temple complex Tōdaiji (with its monumental bronze icon of the Buddha Vairocana), the treasure hall of the temple Kōfukuji (famed for its sculptures), and the Shinto shrine of Kasuga Taisha. We will also visit the important collections of Buddhist art and ritual implements at the Nara National Museum.

The trip is deliberately timed to make possible a visit to a special, two-week-long exhibition of artifacts from the Shōsōin Repository (an eighth-century collection of luxury objects, many of which came to Japan via trade with the continent). This annual exhibition, in its 70th year, consistently ranks as one of the most heavily trafficked exhibitions in the world, a testament both to the enduring appeal of such objects and their central place in Japanese museum culture.

From Nara we will travel to the sacred Mount Kōya, founded by the eighth-century polymath Kūkai. There we will visit the Hall of Numinous Treasures (Reihōkan), hike the necropolis and temple grounds, and stay overnight at a subtemple on the mountain. The next morning, we will make our way from Mount Kōya to deep within the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Here we will join the Kumano Kodō, a series of medieval pilgrimage routes that snake through the mountains connecting three important Shinto shrines (the Kumano Sanzan). It is, along with Santiago de Compostela, one of two pilgrimage routes inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. After a hike to the main shrine of Kumano, we will spend a night at a hot spring before traveling to the last two of the shrines, ending with the Shinto goshintai of Nachi Falls.

Following these two days in the rural Kii Peninsula, we will return to Kyoto by train in order to spend a few days visiting key sites in the premodern capital of Japan. Among the destinations are the Hall of Thirty-Three Bays, Kiyomizudera, Rokuharamitsuji, Seiryōji (home of the legendary “first” icon of the Buddha), and the Byōdōin. We end with a return trip back to Tokyo to see the second rotation of the Shōsōin Exhibition there, a perfect bookend to the journey. Days are also punctuated by occasional two-to-three-hour seminars during which we can reflect on what we have seen and workshop our ongoing research projects.

En route to Nara
Fuji!