Monumental Sounds: Art and Listening before Dante - Matthew G. Shoaf. Leiden: Brill, 2021


by Mark Porter


Some books are easy to get a feel for from their covers; others require a bit more time to understand what the author is really trying to achieve. For me, this is a volume that falls very much into the latter category. Brill’s beautiful production – which includes numerous color plates of the decorations under discussion – sits alongside a somewhat cryptic blurb and an intriguing juxtaposition of themes which both drew me in and left me wondering whether the author really had what it takes to bring off an engaging and interesting piece of writing. The volume promises an examination of interactions between sight and hearing in 13th-century Italian church decorations, including discussion of authority, the way in which worshippers listen to sacred speech, and the ways in which visual art can serve to reconfigure sacred stories so as to activate different modes of listening. The foundation for Shoaf’s narrative is laid using scenes from The Divine Comedy in which visual depictions of figures are experienced as speaking or singing, evoking sonic activity through the vividness and naturalness with which they are portrayed. Indeed, in many ways, the book seems to consist of an imaginative journey that asks what might happen if we take these descriptions as a paradigm for further exploration. 


In embarking on this journey, Shoaf needs to triangulate between a variety of discourses and fields of knowledge. We are confronted straight away, therefore, with the question of disciplinary and methodological orientation. While drawing on literature within the wider field of sound studies as well as numerous theological texts, this is a volume firmly anchored in the realm of art history and interpretation. The relationship between seeing and hearing can be guided in numerous ways, but one which Shoaf draws out most clearly focuses on the way in which figures are portrayed, for example speaking or listening, in a way that implies sonic activity. These depictions can illustrate attitudes of hearing, some more devout and some less so in nature. Visual art can serve to nuance the goods and evils of different modes of audition, something that it is capable of precisely through its ability to commentate through a different sensory avenue. We are guided through different ways of depicting the ear and their potential implications but also consider the visual attention of the different individuals who are depicted, their emotions, their posture, their role in a scene. There are many fascinating interpretations in the volume, however, throughout our journey, it is visual artworks and decorations which form the main point of departure, and it is analysis of their sonic evocations that forms our primary paradigm for analysis. While this lends the volume a firm basis upon which to build its argument, part of me wanted the conversation to emerge from a greater variety of directions. For a work drawing together visual and sonic elements, it would have been nice for the sonic to come more often into the foreground. The hierarchy of and relationship between the senses is a crucial theme throughout the volume, and Shoaf is quick to dismantle a simple priority of the visual over the sonic or vice versa in favor of their interpenetration. However, I am not convinced that enough is done to reflect this more egalitarian approach on the level of methodology.


As the author himself points out, the book is organized neither chronologically nor in a way that gives equal discussion to each image. We are, instead, taken through a progression of themes, organized by the affordances of particular artworks that form the focus of the discussion. The choice of artworks has clearly been a careful one, and Shoaf does much to broaden the discussion beyond the small selection that he takes as his primary material for analysis. One of the key focuses throughout the book is the desire to cultivate proper and spiritual listening and the role that visual art can take on in relation to this cultivation. However, such a seemingly simple topic does indeed quickly branch out to take in the broader range of issues that we were promised on the cover. Shoaf thoroughly brings into question any latent notions we might have that art in churches should be seen largely as inspirational and aesthetic decoration, drawing out the numerous ways in which visual elements can serve to question or reinforce power, to cultivate devotion, and to redirect the focus of worshippers or their mode of participation in worship. Indeed, this visual dimension can often be constructed so as to address particular problems or issues that were perceived to pose particular challenges or risks. While remaining permanently in place within a building, regardless of any activity around them, they can nevertheless also be drawn in to contribute towards liturgical rituals, taking on a role in dynamic processes of interaction which they are only capable of by virtue of the multisensory interplay that takes place between sound and image. Questions of power, influence, and modes of listening which don’t necessarily conform to expectations are crucial considerations throughout the volume, and Shoaf’s analysis of these comes to a head in the conclusion: “Narrative art’s lessons in listening served interests of powerful individuals and institutions faced with issues the sense of sight could not handle alone and might well have aggravated: people not hearing in ways conducive to reducing social friction (Padua); to upholding authority of church personnel (Pisa, Assisi); to ensuring their own spiritual progress (Padua, Pisa, Assisi); to participating in community (Padua, Pisa, Assisi); to accessing highest levels of attainable truth (Assisi); to experiencing phenomenal reality ‘truly’” (p. 260).


Part of me is skeptical. Shoaf leans heavily on a reading of the works discussed in a way that, to me as an ethnomusicologist, can feel highly conjectural. I am drawn in by his narratives and the stories that he tells, but I am often left feeling that I would welcome the support of a broader range of evidence before deciding whether or not to buy into his interpretations. As he seems aware, this is a narrative of artists, theorists, and theologians more than it is of the everyday worshipper and, as such, it often conjures a more idealized world than I necessarily find totally believable. Did these artworks really serve to activate listening? Or were good intentions more often lost within the realities of everyday worshippers? Shoaf gestures towards the diversity of listening practices and less than ideal listeners, however I am not convinced he gives them quite the voice they might deserve to do justice to this situation. Nevertheless, Shoaf offers a great deal of insightful analysis, and part of me is left feeling inspired. As a scholar and as a musician I often pay attention to the way in which music and sound function in particular liturgical and ritual acts, however I have only rarely been drawn to consider the interrelationship between sound and visuality. The 2015 volume, edited by Susan Boynton and Diane Reilly, that is cited by Shoaf helped to open up my own (sonically biased) thinking to this crossover, to the potential of multisensory approaches, and to their tantalizing offer of an interdisciplinary paradigm that, for some reason, has not always been as obvious a field for exploration as it should have been. I am glad that authors such as Shoaf are engaging in sustained projects at this intersection, and I hope that further dialogue will emerge from a variety of different directions so that the multisensory analysis is further reinforced by multidisciplinary engagement and approaches.