On the Uses of Iconographic Study: The Example of the Sponsus From St. Martial of Limoges


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

The great advantage of the study of iconography in relation to early drama is that it ruptures the usual self-contained structures that literary criticism has consistently attempted to impose on individual plays and on quasi-dramatic forms. Careful and systematic study of the iconography quickly determines that the dramatic structures being observed are not at all self-contained, and that instead they involve a careful focusing of our attention that paradoxically denies the unity of the dramatic action. Indeed, the concept of unity, which is still being applied to such plays by some American critics, is surely the most inaccurate conception that could possibly be utilized as a device to describe the "action" of early drama, which was never intended to be viewed as a self-sufficient art form. The religious plays in particular have their roots in cultic experience, and are deeply influenced by the manner in which the cult looks at religious scenes in the visual arts as well as in imagination. When we tum specifically to the medieval religious music drama as well as to the quasi-dramatic rituals to which it was so closely related, the purpose of the spectacle is quite easily distinguished; in the words of Dom Odo Casel appropriately quoted by C. Clifford Flanigan in a study of the Quern queritis trope, "God has made it possible for us, even in this life, to enter into the divine present."1 Iconography therefore leads quite naturally to phenomenology and the recognition that perceived experience and observable structures need to be the focus of our attention as we attempt to place the individual medieval play, in this case the Sponsus from St. Martial of Limoges, into its proper critical context.

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