Book Review: Sculpting Simulacra in Medieval Germany, 1250-1380 (Pinkus)—Review by James Robert Adams

Book Review: Assaf Pinkus. Sculpting Simulacra in Medieval Germany, 1250-1380. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. 234 pp. $119.95. ISBN 978-1472422651.

Assaf Pinkus’s Sculpting Simulacra in Medieval Germany, 1250-1380 presents an understanding of Gothic statuary derived from medieval theories of image-production and provides a fresh interpretation of Gothic statues as similitudes of real people so that presence of the represented person is manifested to the observer. Pinkus is particularly interested in the idea of the simulacrum and uses that concept to set his work in contrast to earlier scholarly interpretations of Gothic statuary. His thesis argues that sculptured simulacra offer the possibility of a “nonreligious laid experience” (2) because the statues offer themselves as a “factual presence” and not as simple aesthetic objects.

Pinkus claims that we should understand Gothic statuary as an expression of the medieval image-production theory of the simulacrum, arguing that the statues do not necessarily possess a strictly religious meaning. He describes three types of medieval images: bild, ydola, and symulacra (2). The bild and ydola each have religious connotations—the first is used for devotional practices and the latter refers to pagan idols—but the symulacra differs by referring to images created in the likeness of human persons that have been altered so that they are not simply pure representations of the original individual. Pinkus employs the concept of simulacra as it features in the writings of Aquinas (d. 1204), Hervé de Bourg-Dieu (d. 1150), and the Tristan romances (c. 12th c) (pp. 6-9). Rather than depicting persons for religious purposes, the simulacra are statues that depict natural likenesses for other purposes, such as portraying political prowess.

Pinkus notes that recent studies on the statues of this period have focused on the audience’s perceived response to the statues in specifically religious terms. The works of Bruno Boerner and Mary Carruthers speak to the emotive quality of the statuary, which evokes feelings of devotion and empathy among the laity.[1] They primarily base this perceived response, according to Pinkus, on the writings of contemporaneous female spiritual writers; however, Pinkus argues that basing the laity’s response on a small community of female mystics cannot be the primary means for understanding the laity’s response to these statues. He argues that the statues, though sometimes religious in nature, “invite an immediate sensual experience” that defers the expected devotional experience until the viewer has experienced the sensual aspects of the objects (15). Pinkus challenges the scholarly assumption that Gothic statues evoked primarily religious experiences and primarily possessed religious meaning. Instead, these statues, as simulacra, evoke a wide possibility of emotions.

Specifically, he argues that Gothic statues offer the presence of the represented so that the viewer experiences an idealized copy of the individual through the representation. He argues that these statues encouraged “intuitive and imaginative responses” (15). The viewer does not merely passively observe the statue but instead interacts with it in order to experience an emotional or somatic response. This response is achieved, according to Pinkus, through the creation of statues that are seemingly intended to be representations of “real” human beings, but they have been altered so that the statue no longer is a pure representation but a slightly altered copy designed to elicit some type of response. For example, he notes that the style of dress and facial expressions of the noble brothers Ekkhard and Hermann in the Naumburg Stifterfiguren (finished mid-13th c). Hermann’s (the older sibling) dress reflects the historical reality of his higher political rank, but the facial expression of Ekkhard, the younger sibling, presents him with a more authoritative demeanor (42). The simulacrum makes present the represented but is not itself wholly like the represented. In this way, the simulacrum distances the original from the copy, and creates space for multiple interpretations, making assigning a singular meaning impossible. Hence, the simulacra do not necessarily possess a strictly or inherently religious meaning. This difference, according to Pinkus, allows for a multiplicity of meanings to be ascribed to the statues and the viewer to respond with a sense of the political power of the individual depicted. Pinkus’s use of the concept of symulacra and the possibility of multiple meanings sets his interpretation apart from prior scholarship.

In chapters one and two, Pinkus challenges prior scholarly assumptions and interpretations of Gothic statues by analyzing the Naumburg Stifterfiguren (figure 1) and the statues of the nobility in the cathedrals of Freiburg, Prague, and the Church of St. Mary in Mülhausen. These statues are representations of the city’s nobility who funded the renovation of the cathedral in the mid to late 13th century. Scholars, such as Martin Büchsel, presume the statues were intended either to present an accurate physical depiction of the persons or to represent them as ideal types, such as the ideal noble or the Imitatio Christi.[2] However, Pinkus notes that each statue problematizes scholarly assumptions through small details that distance the statues from their historical origin. For example, the two female statues in Naumburg are presented in dress and exhibit mannerisms that oppose their social status. As simulacra, these statues differ from the individuals and social ideals they are assumed to represent; instead, their realism invites the viewer to experience them as if they were themselves real persons rather than representations and assign a “wide range of flexible identities” (58) to these statues so that the viewers’ experiences and interpretations vary. The distance between the statues and their origin illustrate Pinkus’s contention that the theory of symulacra problematizes attempts to attach a stable or singular meaning to the statue.

In chapters three and four, Pinkus examines two religious statues, the martyr cycles found in the Holy Cross Minster of Schwäbisch and the Schreinmadonna (also known as Vierge ouvrante), to illustrate that religious statues do not necessarily evoke only religious but also various emotional and somatic experiences, such as outrage or horror at the graphic depiction. Pinkus points out that the martyr cycles are unique because they do not capture the martyr in the expected representation. Many times, martyrs are presented with peaceful expressions in the face of death so that they mimic Christ in his crucifixion, such as in the Christus Triumphans tradition. These cycles, however, do not depict peaceful martyrs; instead, the martyrs are captured at the moment of their death with expressions of fear and anguish, such as baring teeth or screams. As simulacra, these cycles represent actual persons and events but alter them from expected peaceful representation to evoke an emotional reaction, such as horror or identifying with physical pain of the figure, from the viewer. The cycles present the viewer with a “gallery of violent simulacra” (129) evoking a somatic experience so that the pain of the martyr is “felt” by the onlooker. His argument is a direct challenge to Caroline Walker Bynum’s contention that violent medieval simulacra carried a positive meaning by association with the suffering of Christ and that pain was associated with the soul rather than the body.[3] Pinkus argues that these cycles illustrate that violence did not necessarily carry a positive connotation; rather, the statues present violence as a negative reality in which the somatic experience of brutality is substituted for devotional feeling. However, Pinkus does not compare these statues to any representation of the Christus Patiens tradition which undermines his claim that the martyr representations were unexpected or that the expressions so shockingly unexpected that the viewer’s response was emotional or somatic rather than religious.

Similarly, the Schreinmadonna (figure 2) are a series of statues of the Virgin Mary in which the torso or abdomen opened revealing a series of images, such as saints or Christ. Pinkus contextualizes these statues as devotional items used among mystics and aristocratic monastics in order to compare the experience of female mystics with the female statue. Using the Ancrene Wisse (“Rule for Anchoresses”), he compares the description of the anchoress enclosed in her cell but, at some times, able to be seen by observers through small windows as similar to opening of the enclosed virgin womb. Analogizing the womb of Mary to the anchoress’s cell, Pinkus argues that the Schreinmadonna is a simulacrum of the anchoress’s denied body. Just as the statue can be opened and viewed, the anchoress’ cell is open to be viewed; however, the body of each woman, the anchoress and Virgin Mary, is denied to the viewer, one by virtue of being an object and the other by enclosure. The viewer plays the part of a voyeur in gazing on the body of the Virgin in the Schreinmadonna, yet the integrity of the Virgin’s body remains intact. Similarly, the anchoress in her chastity and seclusion remains untouched by the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer. The experience offered by the Schreinmadonna is not primarily religious, in this argument; instead, the statue offers the viewer a somatic experience analogous to the experience described in the Ancrene Wisse. As simulacra, the statue offers a real presence of the represented figure for the experience of the viewer, but Pinkus contends that experience is not necessarily religious, as scholarship has assumed. However, Pinkus assumes there is a distinction between religious and non-religious experiences that are not clearly defined, nor is that distinction contextualized within the period under examination. These emotional or experiential categories are treated as static and opposing categories, but somatic experiences can also have religious connotation. Rather, the experience of the statue can be multifaceted including non-religious emotional or somatic experience.

Pinkus’s work offers several positive contributions to the study of medieval art. First, he offers a truly interdisciplinary approach to understanding these statues, using history, art history, and material culture to closely scrutinize each statue under examination. He avoids making assumptions about the purpose of the creation of the statues and instead attempts to interpret them in their final composition. Another positive contribution is Pinkus’s challenge of scholarly assumptions concerning the purpose of Gothic statuary. More importantly, Pinkus offers scholars interpretations of these statues that are not specifically religious but also somatic and political. By analyzing the statues as symulacra, he successfully challenges prior scholarly consensus of the meaning of Gothic statues and he opens the possibilities for considering the experience of the medieval laypersons that encountered these objects. However, the focus on overturning traditional scholarship presents a problem within this study because it does not clarify its implications for research into Gothic statuary.

The book argues for the multiplicity of meaning inherent in Gothic statuary and as a result seeks to overturn earlier scholarship that attempts to explain these statues as having a singular focus, yet there are several issues with this approach. First, this focus limits Pinkus’s contributions, as he does not discuss the greater implications of his work for the field of art or architectural history. This study explores the multifaceted nature of Gothic statues as medieval symulacra and overturns prior scholarly assumptions about the statues’ meaning to medieval viewers, but his focus on overturning prior scholarship obscures the positive contribution his thesis offers to medieval studies. Second, the work does not clearly delineate the differences between the perceived experiences of the viewers. There is a constant critique of assuming that viewers had religious or devotional responses, but it is not clear how these responses differ from the other proposed responses, such as somatic or voyeuristic responses. It would be helpful to clarify the way in which these experiences and responses are categorically different, as the study asserts. Lastly, there is a tendency to flatten scholarly consensus on these statues. The work repeatedly challenges the assumption that these statues possessed a primarily religious meaning and response, but that is an assumption made by the author that may not be reflective of the entire argument of the challenged authors, such as Bynum. This flattening truncates the interaction of this study with prior studies so that Pinkus’s study does not fully integrate prior insights to construct a clearly way forward. Pinkus successfully argues for understanding these statues as medieval simulacra possessing the possibility of multifaceted meanings. However, the work does not fully explore what this insight might mean for broader historical questions or its implications for the future study of Gothic statuary. The work opens a new pathway for thinking about the development of Gothic statuary and architectural development, but it leaves these larger questions to the exploration of future researchers.

James Robert Adams

James Adams holds a Master of Divinity and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Church History from The Catholic University of America. James resides in Durham, NC with his wife and two sons.


Figure 1. Ekkehard II and Uta von Ballenstedt, Stifterfiguren, West Choir, Naumburg Cathedral, c. 1249. Photo credit: Renate Rössing. Source: Deutsche Fotothek. Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Figure 1. Ekkehard II and Uta von Ballenstedt, Stifterfiguren, West Choir, Naumburg Cathedral, c. 1249. Photo credit: Renate Rössing. Source: Deutsche Fotothek. Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Figure 2. Virgin of Mercy combined with Throne of Mercy, c. 1390s. German National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany. Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber. Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Figure 2. Virgin of Mercy combined with Throne of Mercy, c. 1390s. German National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany. Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber. Creative Commons 3.0 license.


[1] Bruno Boerner, Bildwirkungen: die kommunikative Funktion mittelaterlicher Skulpturen (Berlin: Reimer, 2008); Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
[2] Martin Büchsel, “Nur der Tyrann hat sein eigenes Gesicht: Königsbilder im 12. und 13. Jahrhundert in Frankreich und Deutschland,” in Das Porträt vor der Erfindung des Porträts, ed. Martin Büchsel and Peter Schmidt (Mainz: P. von Zabern, 2003), 124-5.
[3] Caroline Walker Bynum, “Violent Imagery in Late Medieval Piety,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 30 (2002): 3-36; Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Germany and Beyond (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

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