The “Winckelmann” of Medieval Art: Jean-Baptiste Séroux d’Agincourt

The “Winckelmann” of Medieval Art: Jean-Baptiste Séroux d’Agincourt

Jean-Baptiste Séroux d’Agincourt (1730–1814) helped to bring respectability to the study of pre-Renaissance Christian arts. His monumental Histoire de l’art pars les monuments, depuis sa décadence au IVme siècle jusqu’à son renouvellement au XVIme is one of the earliest studies to give attention to medieval art history, but, as the title makes clear, Séroux d’Agincourt, not unlike Winckelmann, considered classical Greek art and architecture superior to late antique and medieval art and unmatched until the arts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Born to a respectable but impoverished aristocratic family, Séroux d’Agincourt first sought a career in the French cavalry, but he retired after a few years because of familial obligations. After moving to Paris to serve Louis XV as a tax collector, he joined the learned salon of Madame Geoffrin, where he became acquainted with a number of artists and antiquarians. Rather late in life, from 1776 to 1778, he went on a Grand Tour, traveling through England, Belgium, Holland, and Germany and studying with the archaeologist Count de Caylus and Gothic art enthusiast Horace Walpole. In 1779, he settled in Rome where he became fascinated by its early Christian catacombs.

In 1780, with the support of Louis XVI, Séroux d’Agincourt began to compile material for a magnum opus comparable to Winckelmann’s but with a specific focus on Christian arts from antiquity through the Renaissance. He employed a number of skilled draughtsmen, architects, and engravers, including Italian printmaker G.G. Machiavelli. During the French Revolution, his property in France was confiscated, and, consequently, the publication was delayed, but he continued to research and edit his manuscript for the next twenty years. Six, large-format volumes finally appeared as a series of 24 fascicules between 1811 and 1823, the last fascicules published posthumously.

Séroux d’Agincourt’s Histoire de l’art pars les monuments includes a narrative history of art, in which he devotes a few sections to art under the Byzantine empire, or, as he refers to it, “l’Empire d’Orient.” He had very little first-hand experience with Byzantine art because he never traveled to the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, these sections rely heavily on well-known historical tidbits (like Pope Gregory III’s condemnation of Iconoclasm), Gibbon’s history of the Roman empire, and illustrated accounts by travelers to the East. Unlike Gibbon, he did not blame Christianity for the decline of art, instead making clear that he believed decline began before the emperor Constantine.

Because Rome was his place of residence, the majority of plates show monuments and objects in Italy, but he highlights what he believes is “Greek” (i.e. Byzantine). Although his focus is on architecture, painting, mosaics, and sculpture, the plates include a few illustrations of “minor arts” including some of the earliest illustrations of late antique and Byzantine ivories.

Séroux d’Agincourt’s text is often criticized for a lack of critical acumen and a naïve approach to stylistic analysis, and the illustrations for inaccuracies. Nevertheless, his work influenced nineteenth-century artists and collectors who enjoyed Byzantine and medieval art for its “primitive” qualities. Furthermore his collection of original drawings, some of which were not published and are now in the Vatican Library, continue to be of value to art historians, not only for depictions of lost art works but also as one of the most extensive compilations of research and materials on the subject matter. 

 
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