by Wendy A. Stein. Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2016. 136 p. ill. ISBN 9781588395979 (pbk.), $25.00.
Reviewed March 2017
The stated goal of How to Read Medieval Art is to familiarize viewers with how to interpret the narrative stories in medieval artworks. Having worked for fifteen years at the Cloisters, Stein’s writing demonstrates a comfortable familiarity with the art, which are from the collections there and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The writing is expressed in a clear and straightforward approach accessible to the twentieth-century reader.
The book does not delve into artistic style or expression. Rather it places more emphasis on the actual stories illustrated by the objects and how they satisfied the needs of the patrons for whom they were created. Since the Church was the major patron, most of the earlier works reflect biblical stories and theological teachings. Stein successfully communicates the complex theological concepts articulated in the artwork without weighing down the reader in deep religious theory. Key medieval doctrines such as typology and other types of biblical exegesis are explained. The book investigates the relationship of global events as related to the change of artwork patronage and the usage of secular themes for pieces.
The book includes amazing full-color illustrations and very detailed views of the artworks, including enlarged views, which enables the viewer to see finer details. The physical binding of the book is adhesive perfect bound, and it does not seem to be hardy enough to handle intense use.
The book has a bibliography, but is very brief, limited to a single page. Also, there is no glossary and the text recommends going to the Met’s web page for fuller explanations and resources. Some of the term explanations are not provided, expecting the reader to jump back and forth between pages to find definitions. There also is no discussion or representation of Celtic and Islamic art. The artwork represented is almost all Judeo-Christian works with some classical and secular pieces. Despite this, this book is really a wonderful read, quite beautiful, and very good overview of the narrative stories behind medieval artworks.
This book is part of “How to Read Series”; as such it is a valuable resource for explanations to challenging themes. Although the artwork is solely from the Met's collections, the clarifications of medieval themes, religious views, and artistic interpretation are applicable to any collection. It is a helpful starting point for people unfamiliar to Judeo-Christian art and the historical time period. This book would be an appropriate purchase for public libraries and secondary schools, or as a resource for higher education institutions offering introductory art history courses.