Migrating Art Historians and Walking as an Art Historical Method | MARTIN LEŠÁK



From March until the end of June 2017, eleven students of Art History at the Masaryk University of Brno (me included) and their professor Ivan Foletti organized and participated in the project entitled Migrating Art Historians[1]. The aim of this project was to approach medieval churches, monasteries and objects created around pilgrimage roads through the bodily experience and not only through books available in libraries. Walking from one church to another formed a significant part of this experience [Fig. 1]. During the four months (one entire semester), the group covered the distance of 1540 kilometers – from Lausanne (Switzerland) to Conques (France), to Saint-Benoît sur-Loire (France) and to Mont-Saint-Michel (France). Three walking periods were alternated with three sojourns at the monasteries, where the group at least in part followed the monastic order. Furthermore, during each of these periods three international workshops were held. Students could follow papers and lectures of such guest speakers as Michele Bacci, Hans Belting, Éric Palazzo, Cécile Voyer, Sible de Blaauw, Stefano d’Ovidio, Francesco Gangemi, Cynthia Hahn, Tanja Michalsky and Martin Treml. While discussing the project and its merit for art historical studies, during the last week, Martin Treml stated that the Migrating Art Historians can be seen not only as an art historical project but also an act of performative arts. By saying this, the scholar surprised everyone in the group, since this was not at all what this project was supposed to be. It is not the aim of these paragraphs to support or disprove the statement. This reflection will, however, explain the role of walking in the whole experience. Furthermore, it will clarify the way in which the bodily experience transformed our understanding of medieval monuments and formed new questions regarding them. We will let a reader decide to what extent this experience was art. Finally, it should be stressed that though the text is written by me, it was the discussions with the whole group and the shared ideas that form its content. 

Today, we are used to travelling by cars, trains, plains etc. On the contrary, walking longer distances is getting less and less common. In other words, distances are getting longer, time we spend on the way shorter. Our bodies are only passive participants in the act of getting from one point to another. Art historians, as many others travel fast in order to visit as many sites as possible, besides, thanks to the virtual world, they do not have to travel at all[2]. The context of monuments as well as their materiality is consequently being forgotten. However, it was a man who walked for which the medieval monuments, especially those created around the pilgrimage roads, had been built. To return our body its active role (a tradition which we have shared with our ancestors for centuries) meant not only to approach the context of medieval pilgrims, but also to slow down time by “adapting our lives to the rhythm of our bodies”, as Adrien Palladino and Ivan Foletti stated[3].

The latter scholars also reminded the thoughts of Michael Baxandall which are significant concerning the project. Baxandall believed (simply put), that the way people viewed objects in past was determined by their cultural and historical context. They have seen them through the “period eye”[4]. We suggest that this regular movement – the group walked around thirty-three kilometers a day – brought us closer to this “period eye” of medieval men. Walking – which is timeless in its essence – allowed us, using words of Foletti, “to follow steps of medieval pilgrims”; to dwell, at least partially, into the medieval realm[5]. It should be emphasized however that we did not try to reconstruct medieval life. This, as we well realized, would be after all impossible.


Landscape, Pilgrims and Architecture

Walking from one church, monastery or cathedral to another sacral building surely changed our approach towards and questions asked about objects of our studies. While slowly moving towards a silhouette in the distance, we realized not only the importance of expectations and memories in this prolonged encounter but also that cathedrals and churches are very often harmoniously settled in natural surroundings. Further we started to wonder: What was the experience of medieval pilgrims when seeing and walking towards these silhouettes [Fig. 2]?



This query aroused both curiosity as well as anxiety caused by the distance itself. We were still too far from objects, unable to touch them or observe their detailed structures. The traditional art historical methods concerning dating, style, or authorship could not be relied upon. Following ideas of Rudolf Arnheim, who stated that “[architecture] expands radially from its center”, we could claim that as art historians we focused on this dynamic expanding of sacral architecture and its capacity to affect medieval men[6]. Clearly, however, the interest in the dialogue between medieval pilgrims in movement and sacral architecture in distance is linked rather with the perception itself than with the traditional art historical categories. Consequently, to find at least a partial answer, it seems to be necessary to rephrase the question. For example: How did medieval pilgrims perceive landscape which sacral architecture was a part of? Here we should remind the reader that the idea of landscape is not limited to a visible area of land. It exists, as Eric Hirsch claimed, as the relationship between “here and now” (foreground actuality) and “there” (background potentiality) in which not only all senses but also thoughts, faith, memory, and myths, could have played an essential role[7].

A way to partially approach this kind of experience from medieval men’ perspective, might be provided, as I argued elsewhere[8], by Veronica Della Dora’s recent book. In her monograph – Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium – Della Dora claimed that men in the Byzantine Middle Ages “imagined the earth as a ‘landscape mosaic’, landscape as a container of topoi [evocative places], and, in turn, topoi as mnemonic containers of spiritual meanings”[9]. Put differently, it was through biblical topoi residing in landscapes – mountains, caves, seas, rivers, gardens and wilderness – that nature and in fact the totality of the cosmos was perceived. We suggest that the medieval pilgrims’ landscape containing a silhouette of a sacral building in the distance can be outlined through two of these topoi especially – wilderness (place of death, chaos, testing and disobedience, but also purification redemption and revelation) and garden (paradise)[10].

Should have the medieval men truly perceived landscape in this way, through these topoi, we believe a sacral building, which was paradise in itself[11], would have the power to transfer the garden from the background potentiality towards the foreground actuality, once more evoking Hirsch’s thoughts [Fig. 3][12]. In other words, we suggest that it could, besides other things, transfer the paradise from the horizon to the close surroundings of the medieval men and even to his or her soul. In it, just as in land, as Della Dora also reminded[13], may reside wilderness or garden. Thanks to a distanced silhouette of a church or just a sound of bell echoing from it, the wilderness would be driven away; the garden would be reinforced.



Regular walking on the pilgrimage roads not only brought us closer to the medieval pilgrims’ perception of the sacral architecture. Through our tired human bodies, the Migrating Art Historians project led also to a deeper understanding of medieval porches, narthexes and atriums as Ivan Foletti demonstrated. Only an exhausted pilgrim could, for example, appreciate benches in the portal area (and not only) which formed a part of the 11th and 12th centuries architecture [Fig. 4][14]. The group comprising of people who had been used to live mostly in interiors, was suddenly immersed into the natural cultivated or uncultivated surroundings – the exterior, which is for the 21st century rather unnatural. We cannot judge whether the walking below the sky across 1540 kilometers from Lausanne to Mont-Saint-Michel formed an act of performative arts. Yet, we are certain that it helped to form new questions and to better comprehend medieval objects. Walking itself thus became an art historical method which, we suggest, should be followed in the years to come[15].





Martin Lešák is a PhD student of art history at Masaryk University in Czech Republic and at the Université de Poitiers in France. Under the guidance of Ivan Foletti and Éric Palazzo, he focuses on the relation between monumental decorations created in Rome during the Carolingian period and the stational liturgy of the city. He participated in the experimental project Migrating Art Historians during which he studied the dialogue between medieval pilgrims, landscape and architecture.



[1] See for example Ivan Foletti, Adrien Palladino, “The Experimental Project of Migrating Art Historians”, ICMA News, vol. iii (2017), pp. 7–10; Ivan Foletti, “L’art de pèlerinage (médiéval) comme expérience corporelle. Le projet ‘Historiens de l’art migrateurs’”, Convivium, vol. v/2, (2018) (to be published) and Ivan Foletti, Katarína Kravčíková, Sabina Rosenbergová eds, Migrating Art Historians, to be published in 2018. See also videos created during the project at the youtube channel of the Center for Early Medieval Studies at the Masaryk University of Brno. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKL0JgPYjP_w_DxkC5pPdrQ

[2] See for example the virtual visit of the Louvre, https://www.youvisit.com/tour/louvremuseum

[3] See Foletti, Palladino 2017, p. 8.

[4] See Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, Oxford 1988 (1972) and Allan Langdale, “Aspects of the critical reception and intellectual history of Baxandall’s concept of the Period Eye”, Art History, vol. xxi (1998), pp. 479–497.

[5] Ivan Foletti, “Poutnické umění dnes: Tělesná zkušenost a studium středověkého umění”, Paper for StředověC jinaX, Brno, 21 September 2017.

[6] See Rudolf Arnheim, The Dynamics of Architectural Form, Berkeley – Los Angeles – London 1977, p. 93.

[7] See Eric Hirsch, “Introduction”, in Eric Hirsch, Michael O’Hanlon eds, The Anthropology of Landscape, Perspective on Place and Space, Oxford 1995. p. 2; cf. Willy Hellpach, Die geopsychischen Erscheinungen, Leipzig 1911, p. 230 and Richard Hartshorne, The Nature of Geography, Lancaster (pa), 1951 (1939), p. 152.

[8] See Martin Lešák, “Sacral Architecture on the Horizon: Sacred Landscape of Medieval Pilgrims”, in Ivan Foletti, Katarína Kravčíková, Sabina Rosenbergová eds, Migrating Art Historians, to be published in 2018.

[9] See Veronica Della Dora, Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium, Cambridge 2016, p. 41.

[10] See for example Della Dora 2016 or John Howe, “Creating Symbolic Landscapes: Medieval Development of Sacred Space”, in John Howe, Michael Wolfe eds, Inventing Medieval Landscapes: Senses of Place in Western Europe, Gainesville 2002, pp. 208–223.

[11] For the church and the monastery as paradise, see for example George H. Williams, Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought, New York 1962, esp. pp. 47–48 and Heather J. Anderson, The Terrestrial Paradise: A Study in the “Intermediacy” and Multi-Levelled Nature of the Medieval Garden of Eden (Ph.D. Thesis; University of New York at Buffalo), Buffalo 1973, esp. pp. 137–209.

[12] See Hirsch 1995.

[13] See Della Dora 2016, pp. 93–144.

[14] See Foletti 2018.

[15] See for example Joseph Pierce, Mary Lawhon, “Walking as Method: Toward Methodological Forthrightness and Comparability in Urban Geographical Research“, The Professional Geographer, vol. lxvii/4 (2015), pp. 655–662 and Hannah Macpherson, “Walking methods in landscape research: moving bodies, spaces of disclosure and rapport”, Landscape Research, vol. xli/4 (2016), pp. 425-432.