Animated Materiality in the Medieval Catholic West phase 2: Techniques of Life

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Mads Heilskov


DKK 832,301




Internationalisation Fellowships


The Animated Materiality project explores how objects were able to obtain life and be experienced as living beings by medieval people. The central idea is that life should not be seen as an essence that living beings simply have, but rather as something that can be acquired through a process of ensoulment. In the case of medieval living objects, this process can be broken down into different techniques encompassing artisanal techniques such as polychrome paint, uses of movable joints, hair, skin etc. as well as ritual techniques, such as public liturgies, processions and private devotions. The project explores how these techniques when combined gave images and sculptures a status which allowed them to acquire a soul and thereby life.


In today’s world, what can and cannot be distinguished as “alive” is getting increasingly difficult to determine. Advances in artificial intelligence, robot technology and medical science, where artificial organs and limbs are being invented and the ability to sustain the body after the brain has died is possible, a nuanced debate about what constitutes life is a necessity. The “Animated Materiality” project supplies this central question in modern science with a historical depth and seeks to enrich the discussion with fresh perspectives. These perspectives suggest a de-essentialisation of life and opens up the possibility that artificial or hybridised bodies can, in their own way, be understood as living.


The “Animated Materiality” project is housed at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London which holds a rich collection of medieval art. There, the project will be conducted in collaboration with the institute’s own conservators as well as with the institute’s collaboration partners at the Victoria & Albert Museum. This way, the technical details that allowed the selected sculptures to be perceived as living by medieval Christians can be investigated in depth and with the equipment and technical skills required. This means that selected sculptures will be scanned for hidden deposits of relics and their materials and pigments will be analysed. These analyses will enable us to determine with precision the sequences of human action that gave life to the sculptures.

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