Aden Kumler (University of Chicago) and Christopher R. Lakey (Johns Hopkins University)
Gesta: Vol. 51, No. 1 (2012), pp. 1-17
Influenced by typological exegesis and traditions of theological-philosophical speculatio, medieval people understood materials and material things as participants in powerful economies of signification. In his landmark 1958 essay, “Vom geistigen Sinn des Wortes im Mittelalter” (On the Spiritual Sense of the Word in the Middle Ages), the cultural philologist Friedrich Ohly described the medieval meaning of things (Dingbedeutung) as authorized by modes of scriptural analysis but exceeding the boundaries of sacred texts to include monuments, artifacts, and materials.
This essay serves as an introduction to Friedrich Ohly’s life and work and offers an analytic orientation to the methodological and historical questions taken up by this special issue of Gesta dedicated to medieval conceptions of significationes rerum (the signification of things). Reflecting on both the insights and limitations of Ohly’s penetrating account of medieval significs (the meaning of things in the world as expressed through words), the essay poses several art historical challenges to Ohly’s vision of medieval works of art and architecture, while arguing for the continuing relevance of his thought for art historical consideration of the meaning of things in the Middle Ages.