By Axel Bolvig
Making Medieval Art, edited by Phillip Lindley (Shaun Tyas, 2003)
Introduction: 1411, Queen Margrethe I, who had gathered Denmark, Norway and Sweden into a personal union, ordered the refurbishment of a chapel in one of the towers of Roskilde cathedral. She wished it to be vaulted and furnished with new windows and a painted decoration so that the chapel should be ’bright and fair’. We do not know if the windows were adorned with stained glass but the painted decoration can still be seen. It consists of elegantly painted ornamentation and conventionalised trees with leaves, but there are no figurative narrative subjects. Has the lack of religious and narrative subjects something to do with the queen’s request for a bright and fair chapel? Almost all other decorations depict scenes from the Bible or holy stories and without really knowing their function it is clear that the intentions behind them do not stem from a staunch sense of pleasant decoration. From the time of Saint Gregory the Great it was a widespread notion that images in churches should be perceived in a didactic way as the bible of the illiterate. One can question the effectiveness of this linguistic function of the wall paintings. A conventional religious iconographic image cannot be understood without previous knowledge of the stories in the Bible or the lives of the saints. Even if most of the paintings are of a narrative character they possess no linearity, they have a non-discursive function presenting all their information in the one and same syntax and consequently they cannot function as a substitute for the discursive linear spoken or written language. It is important to underline that by looking at narrative images the linear narration is performed by the spectator in his or her ‘reading’ of the contents, and not by the artist. The main function of images, it could be argued, lies in their appeal to the emotions and not to the intellect of the spectator.