Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A Time of Change


Master of Jouvenel des Ursins and Workshop, Saints Hildegarde of Bingen
and Bernard of Clairvaux
From Mare historiarum by John of Cologne
French (Anjou), c. 1447-1455
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 4915, fol. 369v

For some time I have been pondering whether I should say something about the changes that have taken place in the work I am doing on this blog.  It is possible that you may have noticed that new reports are posted less frequently than they used to be.  Some of this is on account of personal reasons, chiefly the collapse of two additional disks in my lumbar spine last summer, plus a broken leg last autumn.  The leg has healed and even the disks seem to be improving with time.  But they still present a barrier to long sessions at the computer desk. In addition, the crash of one computer in mid-January has left me bereft of thousands of images collected over the last five years.  I know I should have had back up, but hindsight is 20/20, foresight is not.

However, these personal problems are not the most serious reason that essays are less frequent than they once were.  The true cause is the tremendous explosion of material that has become available in the last few years and, most especially, in the last two years.  

When I began doing this blog, way back in 2008, there was very little available.  Many websites from museums and galleries carried some pictures of the works in their collections, but these were frequently in very low resolution and quite often merely thumbnails.  They were better than absolutely nothing, but they were hardly ideal.  Therefore, I restricted myself mostly to the few sources that carried some pictures that were better quality.  This scarcely amounted to a thorough survey of the multivariant sweep of the iconography of Western Christian art.  Its greatest virtue was probably the fact that I could complete a survey of what was available in just a few hours and work it up into a post.  Since I was still working a full-time job this was a blessing in its own way.

My retirement in 2010 didn't change things much, except that I now had a greater amount of time to spend on work collecting and researching images.  And this continued in pretty much the same way for several years.  But, toward the end of the 2010 decade, the quantity of available images began to increase as more and more museums responded to calls for opening up their image resources to the broader public.  Especially helpful was the work of the Creative Commons, an organization founded in 2001 to open digital resources to all.  American museums were among the first to open their resources of non-copyright images, and these were chiefly where my earlier essays were sourced.  European museums, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Rijksmuseum and London's National Gallery, were very slow to join in this effort and what was available remained difficult to use and of spotty quality for many years.  

The COVID pandemic has made a huge difference.  Suddenly, the entire world found itself in quarantine.  Museums and libraries were shut, exhibitions and programs were cancelled, tourists were gone, staff were working from home.  It was grim.  However, with true human ingenuity, many of the laggard institutions recognized the value of the digital world and began to make up for lost time.  There has been an explosion of available sources, and the quality of the digital material available has also increased dramatically.  Indeed it literally increases and improves daily!  

It is this, even more than my ability to sit at the computer for long periods, that has often caused me to run out of time in researching a topic.  Several projects have been abandoned because I could not complete the survey of sources in time to make the post timely.  In addition, the closure of libraries meant that a particular book needed to make sense of the visual material was unavailable.  One or two essays have been posted after the event they were intended to accompany had already passed.  Rather than to delay those that were nearly finished yet again, I posted them anyway.  After all, neither the realm of faith nor the representation of events in the history of art will change much in another year.  

Where it is feasible, I have also been updating the images in my older essays with new or  higher quality material as I go.  This also slows down the work on new essays.  But I think that the sacrifice is worth it.  I keep track of page views by the viewers and think that I owe it to people to give them the best material I can find. 

Older posts are often highlighted by being listed in the right hand column of the webpage.  The group of essays listed there changes constantly in keeping with the liturgical cycle for the year, focusing on the Sunday Scripture readings, feast days and seasons.  Every time one of these older items is listed, I review it and try to update any images that can be updated.  I find myself astonished to realize that to date I have completed over 400 of these essays!  

I am thrilled that so much more visual material is now available and also thrilled with the constantly improving quality of both this new material and updates to old material that museums and libraries are constantly providing.  However, research that once could take a week or two now stretches to more than a month, sometimes more than one month.

I hope this will explain why new articles are coming more slowly than they once did. 

© M. Duffy, 2022