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Karen Gould Prize Citations


Elina Gertsman’s Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna (Penn State University Press, 2015) is an intellectually vibrant study of the approximately forty extant vierges ouvrantes, shrine madonnas produced between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. These vierges, sliced vertically at the front, could be opened to reveal an array of sculpted or painted images. For Gertsman, their gendered materiality and the viewer’s physical involvement are paramount: moving away from formal analysis, she approaches perceptions of the vierge ouvrante as a culturally charged material object with which to think, feel, and pray. She relishes the strange unfamiliarity of the madonnas, scattered across western Europe from France to northernmost Sweden but condemned by late-medieval and early-modern reformers, envisioning them as “a Barthian punctum: a sting, a wound, a point of entry into late medieval visual culture”. If the point is focused, her angles of entry are multiple: Worlds Within is an exceptionally multidisciplinary book, approaching her subject through innumerable cultural and disciplinary prisms. Gertsman examines the Virgin’s body performatively, as a liminal threshold to heaven and salvation; provocatively, as the object of a kind of sublime medical intervention (a spiritual C-section); playfully, as a stimulus to touch, particularly tempting in the case of her ivory madonnas. Readers are invited to open and close a gatefold of the Rhenish Shrine Madonna, just as believers once opened and closed the vierges ouvrantes themselves. The volume is lavishly produced, seeming to share the medieval delight in the book as luxury tactile object.


Christina Maranci’s Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia (Brepols, 2015) is a closely-observed, beautifully written, and deeply evocative architectural analysis of a culture at a global crossroads. With meticulous scholarship, Maranci explores Armenia’s creative engagement with the Byzantine, Sassanian, and Umayyad empires, underscoring the fluidity of cultural frontiers between them. Her title is drawn from the iconic ruins of the cathedral of Zuart‘noc‘ (whose name means ‘vigilant powers’ or ‘guardian angels’), located in a theater of war between Byzantium and Persia. A second cathedral—at Mren, on a high plateau currently in a militarized border zone—represented a ‘high tide’ of Byzantine imperial activity on the early medieval frontier, as well as embodying the aspirations of local nobility. Aristocratic culture is also reflected at the lesser-known princely church at Ptlini, with its sculptural depictions of hunting and banquets. Vigilant Powers is informed throughout by a powerful sense of place. These churches, built of volcanic rock, “reverberated with the sound of hymns and processional footsteps”, Maranci writes, and formed part of a landscape of inherent visual drama. “When the sun shines on the plateau,” the cathedral of Mren “is blazingly radiant; in cloud cover, it seems to smolder”. Sadly, each of the three Armenian churches is imperiled in the twenty-first century by political and military tensions, as well as by seismic activity and natural erosion. Her book is also shaped, therefore, by a pressing sense of urgency about the survival of this unique Armenian patrimony. 

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