May 9, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 15

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    Art historian of the Middle Ages Michael Camille, 1958 –– 2002

    A major art historian whose eye, intellect and humor helped open the Middle Ages to new perspectives, Michael Camille, the Mary L. Block Professor in Art History, died Monday, April 29, of a brain tumor. He was 44.

    Traditionally trained at Cambridge, Camille expanded his discipline with high theory and earthy observation over the course of an abundantly productive career at the University. He studied medieval image making, from playful marginal illuminations to the carvings of grand cathedrals.

    From these details, he learned that the neat separation of “high” and “low” culture, of word and image, are modern artifacts. Camille showed it has not always been this way, most famously in Image on the Edge (1992), his study of the “lascivious apes, autophagic dragons, pot-bellied heads, harp-playing asses, arse-kissing priests and somersaulting jongleurs to be found protruding from the edges of medieval buildings and in the margins of illuminated manuscripts,” and most explicitly in his last completed work, Monsters of Modernity: The Gargoyles of Notre Dame (forthcoming from the University Press), on the rebuilt Notre Dame cathedral as a modern vision of the middle ages.

    Linda Seidel, the Hanna Holborn Gray Professor and Chair of Art History, explained that Camille’s work was “never merely intellectual; there was always this spontaneous emotional connection. He would find something in his subject to recognize and then make it familiar to everybody else.” This emotional relation to his material was connected to a distinctive method. Camille wrote in the introduction to Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator (1996): “What is most important about that person who forms the subject of this book is the fact that he is not important––at least in terms of the history of art.”

    Camille, said Seidel, “was really working the underside, topics that people had ignored before––the margins of pages, ‘unimportant’ artists who become mirrors of their time, the edges of buildings, out-of-the-way carvings. He recovered them. Other scholars would see some huge monument as a whole, with the relationship of all the parts assumed; he would look at groups of little figures on separate structures and discover the minute gestures that drew these otherwise isolated things together.”

    Born March 6, 1958, in Keighley, Yorkshire, England, Camille was the first student from his school to attend Cambridge in 50 years. After graduating first class with honors in art history and English in 1980, he earned an M.A. in 1982 and a Ph.D. in art history in 1985, after which he joined the Chicago faculty.

    His first book was The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in the Medieval Art (1989). His next volume, Image on the Edge, communicated the essential insight that “the art of the Middle Ages was not a somber expression of social unity and transcendent order. Rather, it was rooted in the conflicted life of the body with all its somatic as well as spiritual possibilities.”

    His introductory volume, Glorious Visions: Gothic Art (1996) “was used heavily in classrooms as an alternative to the very dry conventional version of the gothic,” said Seidel.

    His last two published books were The Medieval Art of Love (1997) and Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (University Press, 1998).

    On the work Camille was engaged in at the time of his death, his partner, Stuart Michaels, said, “he was becoming more and more interested in sculpture and secular material. He was asking ‘where did this idea of the medieval and the gothic come from?’ They’re modern concepts.

    Under the rubric of his Guggenheim project, ‘Signs and Streetlife in Medieval France,’ he had begun working on urban streets, wooden houses, secular structures, things not even treated as medieval art, rather as folklore.” A second major work in progress was Stones of Sodom, a study of the traces of medieval homosexuality in art, for which he had been doing travel and photography.

    Seidel recalls a popular episode of Public Radio International’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass took Camille to the Medieval Times theme park, where actors jousted and “wenches” served pizza.

    “He’s wondering what this academic is going to think. But Michael’s attentive, delighted response captures so much of his pleasure in discovery––even the nonsensical made sense in his eyes. His scholarship was a way of making the unfamiliar accessible.”

    Camille is survived by his parents, his sister Michelle, and his partner of 16 years Stuart Michaels.

    The Art History Department is planning a memorial service for 5 p.m., Monday, May 20, in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.