Dr Joanne Anderson, a lecturer in art history at The Warburg Institute and convener of the MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture, talks about her research, which focuses on art and visual culture during the medieval and Renaissance periods.
My research focuses on art and visual culture during the medieval and Renaissance periods, roughly the 13th-17th centuries. A broad spectrum but this helps me to think about continuities and changes over time in relation to image types, artistic production and ways of looking, which includes imagining what cannot be seen – I spoke about dragons in this context recently at the the Being Human festival.
These are global times but I am interested in a landscape close to home that has mattered in history for more than a 1000 years: the Alps. The mountains were (and still are) a natural border between the Italian peninsula and northern Europe. Crossing them could be a challenge. they were cold, harsh and dangerous but also rewarding, with the natural wonders inspiring generations of artists: from Albrecht Dürer to JWM Turner.
A discourse of north and south is a natural by-product of this getting from A to B. But the Alps and the land in between were also a place to call home. The fertile valleys provided hospitable environments for food production and market trading that, along with church and state, sustained community life.
In a borderland of peoples, languages and cultures, local identities were borne out by images and image making. This extends to the visual culture of royal alliances made on the European stage. One of my current research projects is a series of wall paintings commissioned by Sigismund of Tyrol and his first wife Eleanor Stewart, daughter of James I of Scotland, for their castle in Meran/Merano (South Tyrol was formerly annexed by Italy in 1920).
The mid 15th-century ‘portraits’ in their reception room are an expression of political unification and dynastic power. They also reinforce gender stereotypes thanks to the recycling of popular prints originating from Germany that riff on chivalric romance. The portraits are thus a mirror to an ideology rather than the soul; painting to impress but equally to delight those entitled to look, not least in terms of technique – terra-verde or grisailles, which creates a monotone aesthetic much like their printed sources, with flashes of colour to enliven costume and setting.
As another émigré Scot, I have been following the Eleanor trail for a while and this image of the new bride replete with lion rampant and thistles makes the Tyrolean Alps a compelling place to work.
How images of rulers were crafted and what ideals they projected to viewers in past times can help us think about the role of images more broadly. In the daily bombardment of signs, symbols and stories, from Facebook and bus hoardings to images of our political leaders in the media, it’s always worth taking a closer look to understand the strategies in play.
Dr Joanne Anderson joined The Warburg Institute in the summer as lecturer in art history and convener of the MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture, having previously taught at Birkbeck, University of London and the Universities of Sussex and Warwick. Her research interests include the imagery of Mary Magdalen of northern Italy and the Alps, primarily in the parish church context, and its development in a cross-cultural territory. Among other projects, Dr Anderson is currently preparing a book based on her PhD thesis.
The next interview in this researcher series will be published on 22 December and focuses on Dr Catherine Gilbert’s work in SAS’s Centre for Postcolonial Studies