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Art History and Fine Arts

Imagining the Miraculous with Professor Anna Russakoff


On May 16, 2019, Associate Professor Anna Russakoff, chair of the Department of Art History and Fine Arts, celebrated the launch of her new book Imagining the Miraculous: Miraculous Images of the Virgin Mary in French Illuminated Manuscripts, ca. 1250–ca. 1450. Speaking to an audience of academic colleagues and AUP community members on the 8th floor of the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons, she discussed how close analysis of depictions of the Virgin Mary in French Gothic illuminated manuscripts helps us understand how artists in the Middle Ages conceived of the miraculous.

Before delving into her research, Russakoff outlined the long editorial process that preceded the publication of such a rigorous academic work (she submitted her first draft of the book in September 2015). “The hardest part was not the working but the waiting,” she explained, laying out the various stages of revisions, including copy-editing, indexing, sourcing images and obtaining image permissions. The work included long hours in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and required liaising with the Vatican over image rights. Russakoff’s efforts paid off; the book provides not only a thoughtful analysis of the process of imagining the miraculous in these manuscripts, but also beautiful reproductions of the illuminations in question.

“The Virgin and Child is the most common image of the Gothic period,” Russakoff explained, noting that it was necessary to distinguish between the Virgin’s appearance as an icon or representation and her apparent physical manifestation. She outlined the subtle techniques used by artists of the period to imbue “life” into images of the Virgin – including the use of color and “grisaille,” or gray scale, to level the differences between the iconography and those interacting with it, blurring the lines between image and apparition.

Russakoff drew on several miracles that appeared prominently in manuscripts from the period, including one involving a siege of the city of Orleans. In order to ward off invading armies, the city’s defenders placed a wooden image of the Virgin Mary on the ramparts. When a stray arrow found its way over the walls, the image moved its knee to deflect it. Depictions of the story variously depict the Virgin as a sculpture, a painting or a vision through diverse techniques of visual narrative. By exploring the ways in which illuminated manuscripts depict sculptures or panel paintings in their pages, Russakoff helps readers imagine how the miniatures themselves may have led observers to believe they were witnessing miracles.

Following her explanation, Russakoff took questions from the audience. Subjects covered included the textual aspects and wider circulation of such manuscripts, as well as the eventual decline of the practice of depicting the miraculous in this way. “Toward the end of the Gothic period, the very idea of these miracles is critiqued by the Protestants,” Russakoff explained. She describes how one woodblock carving debunks a supposed miracle by showing somebody pouring varnish into the eyes of a Virgin Mary statue to give it the appearance of weeping.

Russakoff’s latest publication builds on her existing body of research; she has published numerous articles and book reviews on the subject and is co-editor of two further publications: Jean Pucelle: Innovation and Collaboration in Manuscript Painting (2013, with Kyunghee Pyun) and Human and Animal in Medieval France (12th–15th c.) (2014, with Irène Fabry-Tehranchi).