CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

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Colossus Imagination: Roland Statues in Late Medieval Germany

Session 3 Imagination and Projection

Art History Department at Tel Aviv University.


During the fourteenth century, colossal statues of the semi-historical figure of Roland appeared in the free cities of central, eastern, and northern Germany, from Magdeburg, Quedlinburg, and Halberstadt, to Bremen Hamburg, and Braunschweig.

Surprisingly, however, none of the colossi display any of the Roland iconography, but instead feature attributes related to their ontological status as living giants, and to their protective functions. These would have aroused what I term the colossus imagination: the cultural imagination that material (wood/stone), medium (colossal sculptures), topic (mighty giants), and geography (foreign lands), evoked in contemporary viewers; and the final product – the sculpture – as an imaginative presence of the other.

No colossi had been produced in the Latin West since Late Antiquity, but they nevertheless nourished the medieval imagination. Legends of living sculptures and giants were transmitted through late medieval travel accounts and epic literature. These sources mention the erection of colossal statues and the presence of giants in foreign lands, and of foreign races and times. The sculptors of these works are referred to as pre-civilization giants, who were able to magically invigorate their statues. Within this framework, I argue, the colossal Roland was viewed as a living, protecting giant of almost mythological times.

Assaf Pinkus

Assaf Pinkus is an associate professor and chair of the Art History Department at Tel Aviv University. His research focuses on gothic sculpture in the German speaking lands and trecento painting. In 2002 he completed his PhD with distinction at Tel Aviv University on the sculptural programs of St. Theobald in Thann (Workshops and Patrons of St. Theobald in Thann [Münster: Waxmann, 2006]), engaging with workshop's routine and visual propaganda. From 2004 to 2006 he was a postdoctoral fellow at Freiburg University, where he embarked on a broader project on the Parler tympana at Augsburg, Freiburg, Schwäbisch Gmünd, Thann, and Ulm, concentrating on aspects of art patronage, narrativity and spectatorship of late medieval sculpture (Patrons and Narratives of the Parler School [Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2009]). His new book on the medieval notion of symulachra and the living statue addresses imaginative responses to medieval sculpture arguing for a nonreligious experience of medieval art (Sculpting Simulacra in Medieval Germany, 1250–1380 [Farnham: Ashgate, 2014]). He has published articles in the Zeitschrift für KunstgeschichteWiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte, ViatorArte medievale, and Gesta. His current study "Visual Aggression: Martyrs Imagery in Late Medieval Germany" engages with soma-aesthetics and bodily response to violent imagery.