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Danford: Manipulating Matter: Stucco Sculpture in the Early Middle Ages


In the early Middle Ages, sculpture made from stucco was a popular artistic medium. Used primarily for reliefs rather than free-standing statues, early medieval stucco sculpture was regularly painted in vibrant colors and gilded.  Medieval texts describe figures modeled “ex gipso” as precious and variegated.  Such admiration for the medium’s sumptuous qualities belies stucco’s humble nature as a friable and ephemeral material that was fast and inexpensive to produce.  Moreover, as a modeled art form, stucco evoked archetypal creation narratives, such as Prometheus sculpting man out of clay or the Judeo-Christian god modeling the first man from mud.  Medieval stucco sculpture was a prestigious art form, rich in its connotations and striking in its effects.

This project investigates the conceptual dimensions of stucco’s use in the early Middle Ages, and over the course of four chapters, examines four monuments where figural sculpture in stucco appears as an essential component of a larger, multi-media decorative program.  The case studies include: the fifth-century Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna, the eighth-century Tempietto Longobardo in Cividale del Friuli, the ninth-century Westwerk in Corvey, and the eleventh-century Chapel of St. Ulrich in Müstair. 

Dating from the fifth century to the eleventh, the monuments span a historical period that is, by and large, without monumental sculpture in stone. The chronological and geographical breadth of the material considered allows me to engage with a wide range of theoretical issues, such as material iconography, the polysemy of matter, the semantics of technologies of production, medium specificity, and mediality.