On Sophie Oosterwijk’s review of Figure and Lettering. Sepulchral Sculpture of the Jagiellonian Period in Bohemia by Jan Chlíbec and Jiří Roháček (Praha, Artefactum 2014). [The original review by Sophie Oosterwijk was published in Umění/Art 6, LXIII, 2015, pp. 492–493.]
Objections of the authors against the review of Sophie Oosterwijk:
Sophie Oosterwijk, in her review of our book Figure & Lettering, presented a number of imprecise statements, confused information, mistakes and untruths, and we therefore consider it our duty to defend several facts that concern our text or that she considers to be ‘serious drawbacks’. Her rebukes are essentially irrelevant for us, although we consider it to be necessary to refute them. At first, Oosterwijk generally characterises the English edition of the book as a welcome contribution to the Anglophone literature on the subject of European medieval sepulchral sculpture and appreciates that the book, which she characterises as a scientific work, introduces Czech material that is practically unknown to medievalists abroad. She then only generally describes the structure of the book and its individual parts.
Her criticisms of the book are threefold. First, she notes that there is a difference between writing a book for the domestic public and a translation for foreign readers, who are not generally acquainted with Czech historical events and religious movements, such as Hussitism and Utraquism; she would have welcomed a table in the book outlining Czech historical events in a European context, or a map depicting the individual localities mentioned in the book. On that point we would add that our work is intended for the professional community, whom we would expect to have knowledge of basic historical facts, and that the book is not a Michelin guide and its intended readership is the academic community.
Another critical comment the reviewer makes concerns the bibliography. According to Sophie Oosterwijk, both introductory studies in the book (art historical and epigraphic) contain few references to international literature and the citations that are there are ‘haphazard’ (random); she also mentions that there are no bibliographic references for some of the famous international sepulchral works the book mentions. She likely did not realise the main aim of the book is to draw attention to Czech materials that researchers abroad may not know, and not to present a bibliography of generally known works, which, after all, can be found by anyone on the internet or in available study aids. We referred to the international literature in the introductory studies, where it is mentioned in terms of its connection in one way or another to Czech sepulchral work or in relation to other art-historical and epigraphic facts discussed. It is utter nonsense for Sophie Oosterwijk then to rebuke us for including no reference in the book to Jerome Bertram’s Icon and Epigraphy, since his epigraphic study was only published in 2015 – one year after our book was published! Other comments by the reviewer are also inaccurate. She cites Psalms 91:13 in connection with the iconographic importance of the lion or the dragon at the foot of the dead. She overlooks the fact, however, that it is mentioned on page 42 in reference to the Erwin Panofsky’s seminal work Tomb Sculpture (1964), which first pointed to the source of this symbol.
The third area of criticism involves alleged offenses in the translation of terminology. She mentions, for instance, that canopy is the term more commonly used in sepulchral discourse than baldaquin. In this case, we remind her that in the important work by Andrew Butterfield Monument and Memory in Early Renaissance Florence (Art, Memory, and Family in Renaissance Florence, Cambridge 2000), the author uses both terms interchangeably and in the same sense. This does not of course mean that some parts of the translation could not be the subject of discussion, which would inter alia reflect some of the incompatibility between Czech or German terms on one side and the less differentiated English terminology.
A fundamental weakness of the review is that Sophie Oosterwijk wholly ignores the extensive catalogue of all sepulchral figural works that forms the main part of the book. Although the catalogue includes several tombstones imported into the Czech region from abroad (e.g. from the workshop of the Passau master Jörg Gartner and his circle) or works by sculptors from outside Bohemia produced here (from Austria, Passau, Saxony and one Italian working in Bohemia for a certain time), the reviewer takes no notice of them and does not even an attempt to include them in the wider European context. Thus, she unfortunately does not provide anything on the main part of the book. Only when she mentions the sepulchral monument of Augustin Lucian Sankturienský († 1493) in Týn Church in Prague does she express a wish to know something more about its original appearance and voices her assumption that it must have been captured in early descriptions or drawings. We can assure her that all the early descriptions of this work are recorded and cited in the catalogue entry in the book, and that no drawings of the tombstone as it originally appeared have survived to the present day (the tomb was destroyed during the Counter-Reformation after the Battle at White Mountain, and only the architectural part of the tomb has been preserved – its baldachin).
It is the dream of every author for his or her work to receive a qualified, critical review. Such a review is in its own way a dialogue between the reviewer and the reviewed author(s), who can draw new ideas and inspirations from the review and further shape and elaborate his or her conclusions. Unfortunately, Sophie Oosterwijk’s review of our book provides us with no such useful feedback.
Jan Chlíbec – Jiří Roháček
Response of Sophie Oosterwijk to the objections of the authors:
The response by both authors to my positive review of their book highlights the need for better communication and the confusion that cultural differences and linguistic problems may cause. They regard a review as a dialogue between reviewer and author, whereas I wrote my review first of all to inform potential readers of the book, although I had also hoped that authors and publisher might benefit from my criticism of the presentation of their material.
I did not ignore the extensive catalogue of the book – far from it – but there are hiatuses in places. Thus the lack of drawings or descriptions of the original appearance of the tomb monument of Augustin Lucian Sankturienský in Prague should have been mentioned in the book – not in the response to my review. I also did not overlook the authors’ reference to Psalm 91:13: the point was that they only mention the origin of the motif of the lion and the dragon, but not its actual meaning or subsequent metamorphosis on medieval tomb monuments. A few added sentences in the text would have clarified much, just as the inclusion of a map does not make this scholarly work into ‘a Michelin guide’: it is merely a courtesy towards the international reader and a valid means to bring information across clearly and concisely.
Jerome Bertram’s latest book (2015) is the culmination of a lifetime’s work on medieval epigraphy and tomb monuments across Europe, and I cited it for the benefit of the authors’ future work. It was because of Bertram’s expertise – so akin to the authors’ own fields – that I asked him to write a review of Figure & Lettering for the journal Church Monuments 30 (2015), which has recently been published. Again here lies an opportunity for collaboration that I advocated in my review.
Finally, my third criticism was not about terminology – for one can indeed quibble about the use and meaning of terms such as baldaquin and epitaph – but about the comprehensibility of the English text overall. Here we have again the problem of communication: if a translated text fails to be understood, it undermines the usefulness of the book.
None of my criticism was aimed at the authors’ undoubted scholarship or at the admirable desire to make these monuments known to a wider international scholarship. I can only reiterate my desire for more (and better) communication and collaboration, and for many sequels to Figure & Lettering.