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Nina Katchadourian and the Gallery of Late Medieval Secular Art


I want to talk about this whole gallery, since it is the gathering of these objects that interests me. This gallery is officially called the “Lawrence A. and Barbara Fleischman Gallery of Late Medieval Secular Art,” and it’s kind of a throughway. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that people usually don’t stop here very long, and that they are usually on their way to somewhere else. This is a weird space: you lose it and find it, lose it and find it again. When I came to this gallery years ago, the case I really got attached to was this one that says “Door Equipment” on it. The objects in this case were made without a certain version of refinement—and that has to do with the materials, and what you could do with them, but also the fact that these things had to work, and they had to be sturdy, and they had to last. They speak to the functionality that is required to make a key or a hinge or a doorknocker or a lock, and I like the roughness of touch.

Door, Europe, 14th century. Wood, iron. 69 × 40 × 5 7/8 in. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection, 1955.

So many of these things must have been in people’s hands, and been touched by people’s hands, and, I imagine, been in people’s pockets (if it’s something like a key). There are so many objects in this museum that people have never touched, except for the person or workshop that made it and maybe a privileged user. The objects in this case are completely not in that category. Hands have been all over these things, and weather has been all over these things.

I have always loved the keys and locks, but the object I noticed for the first time on this visit was the doorknocker in the shape of a prophet. The person who made this must have realized how funny it was to have a prophet on your door announcing “I am here, with a message for YOU.” It looks so somber and intimidating. A door knocker is like the firm handshake of the house. Who are you about to go see? What kind of person is going to be behind that door?

When I showed it to Alex Nagel, he said he liked it too, because it’s a quotation of medieval art within medieval art: it offers “a prophet” in a churchy tabernacle. “I imagine it’s no prophet in particular,” he said. “It’s just, ‘Knock, with the prophet.’” And what kind of amazing knock would this produce! So many things in this case make imaginary noises. There is knocking and creaking and clanking. I like to extend it further to imagine what the rest of the street would have sounded like, or what it sounds like behind the door, inside the house. A door knocker is a sound that comes from outside, on the street, but you hear it in the house, so it’s in this amazing zone between the two.

Double Key, Europe, 15th – 16th century. Iron. 1 3/16 × 3 3/8 × 13/16 in. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection, 1955.

These are vernacular objects. They are highly decorative objects—there are a lot of iron curlicues on that wooden door—but the decorative sensibility is not a design sensibility. No one made a drawing that was then realized in the form of this door. Symmetries and patterns were discovered in dealing with this door. It’s designed in a way that’s in accordance with what metal can do. You can stick a pair of tongs in there and twist it to make those curlicues things. It’s metal doing what metal does.

The other great thing about this gallery is this: there are a lot of question marks on the labels. Here are two more great keys. On this one it says, “Double Key. There is an undecipherable description around the end. Wrought Iron. French (?).” When a label has a question mark, it gives the object a kind of freedom, an independence from us. It has resisted art-historical classification, to some degree, and we have an opportunity to write the imaginary provenance of that object ourselves.

Door Knocker, Europe, 15th – 16th century. Iron. 20 1/4 × 7 × 4 3/8 in. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection, 1955.

It is in the nature of objects like these to be made and remade. They are made to last, and to be made to last longer through repair. If you start looking for evidence of repair in these exhibits, you will find it. A section of the large wooden door had puzzled me earlier, a corner very high up where there seemed to be an extra keyhole. I hadn’t been able to reconcile why a keyhole belonged there, in this odd position, but now I see that it was actually a patch job: an old keyhole plate now holds together a worn-out part of the door. And there was another example neither of us had initially seen: along the bottom of the door was a long metal strip, reinforcing a spot where the wood had frayed, perhaps kicked away by people opening the door roughly with their feet, eager to get inside and out of the wet weather on a sludgy, late-medieval secular day.


Nina Katchadourian

NINA KATCHADOURIAN is an artist. She lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

All Issues