The Giessen conference provided the first occasion for both historians and art historians to jointly discuss medieval seal imagery. The main focus was on corporate seals, which occurred as an innovation in European sealing practice just before 1100. Until then seals had been personal signs. While seal usage by individuals implied a direct relationship between the holder and his or her image on the seal, this equivalence did not apply for corporate seals. As the question of how a medieval seal image could cover a whole communitas had barely been discussed yet, this question became the conference’s key issue.
The three papers of the opening session focused on the beginnings and foundations of seal usage as practiced by corporations in the Higher Middle Ages. Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak (New York) defined a principal paradox between the seals of individuals and those of collective bodies: While the holder of a personal seal was depicted within tight iconographical patterns as the member of a particular social ordo, communities tried to create unique seals images. Referring to examples from France and England between 1200 and 1350 Bedos-Rezak demonstrated how corporations applied seals as a medium for individualisation. Franz-Josef Arlinghaus (Kassel) examined sealing practice in medieval urban communities from a perspective of the theory of social systems. Pointing to the fact that single members were considered to be able to represent the corporate body, he argued that civic seal images equally functioned as iconographic pars pro toto. He postulated the much discussed hypothesis that these seal images did not visualize the constitutional status of the represented corporation. They rather provided an image agreeable both in- and outside the community. Manfred Groten (Bonn) focused on the changes of legal mentality during the early scholastic movement, which led to the emergence of common seals. Only when corporations became legally responsible by that time, could they qualify as seal holders. Taking examples from 12th century Westfalia, he could demonstrate how a former episcopal seal could become a cathedral chapter’s common seal. He emphasized a long-lasting process of transformation until seals emerged, which we consider as corporate.
The second session presented two recent research projects on medieval seals. Due to the fact that one is located in the field of historical research, while the other derives from the history of art, different interests and approaches of both disciplines came into joint discussion. Ruth Wolff (Florence) examined the appearance of certain iconographical motives such as saints and scholars of law in late medieval Italy. She pointed out that the choice of a certain iconography was not determined by the holder’s status, either individual or corporate. Furthermore Wolff could prove that motifs such as the stigmatisation of Saint Francis appeared much earlier on seals than they did in other works of art. Wolfgang Krauth (Tübingen) presented his research on early Westphalian city seals dating before 1275. He discussed the reasons for choosing a particular image and pleaded for a stronger awareness to consider seals as media of symbolic communication.
The following section focused on the relationship between seal images and other forms of late medieval art, in particular reproductive media. Peter Schmidt (Bamberg) reviewed the long lasting lack of interest in reproductive works of art such as seals in the history of the discipline. Furthermore he examined a strong adoption of seal images in other visual media, which has not been recognized by historical research so far. Pilgrim badges for instance appearing in a pointed oval shape and bearing inscriptions, claim to be sigilli in order to authenticate a pilgrimage. Andrea Lermer (Paderborn) analyzed the Veneçia Tondo on the facade of the Doge’s Palace in Venice as a key work regarding adoption of seal images. She argued that this personification of the Venetian republic, created around 1340/50, has close iconographic similarities to the contemporary golden bull of the Emperor Louis the Bavarian. However the Doge’s bull itself never had any reference to this imperial legitimation of power, but always carried the image of the Doge introduced into office by St Mark as the Venetian patron saint.
The first out of two sessions on seals as representational instruments concentrated on city seals. Antje Diener-Staeckling (Münster) compared the seal usage of municipalities in the episcopal cities of Naumburg and Halberstadt. She pointed out the fact that we hardly know who actually held the first common seal in either of the cities. It becomes evident that only when these seals were replaced in the 14th century the council was in charge of their usage. In Naumburg as well as in Halberstadt the community’s new seal image was chosen by the dominant group rather than by the episcopal lord. Winfried Schich (Berlin) analyzed city seal images bearing etymological reference to the communities’ names, the so called “redende Siegel”. Taking examples from the counties of Hesse and Brandenburg, he could prove that this mode of imaging mainly applied to younger urban foundations lacking established patterns of corporate identity. Etymological seal iconography was often created under direct influence of the local lord.
The papers in the final session extended the perspective on representational modes of seals beyond civic corporations. Andrea Stieldorf (Bonn) examined the sealing practice in female monastic houses. Considering institutions in German speaking areas, she emphasized a particular conservatism among female convents, restricting the choice of seal images even more than male houses. From the 11th century onwards nunneries mostly choose stereotypical motives such as their patron saint without being influenced even by the strong heraldic impact on seal imagery in the Late Middle Ages. Thomas Krüger (Augsburg) compared the seal usage of various institutions in medieval Augsburg, in particular the cathedral chapter and the city council. Studying the appearance of corporate seals on various charters from Augsburg, he showed how from the 13th century onwards the institutions marked their rank through the order of their seals placed beneath mutual documents.
The conference was characterized by constructive and intensive discussions among the scholars from the various disciplines. This led to a better understanding of different methodological approaches to the issue of medieval seals. Art historians could prove that other late medieval art works reflected the seals’ function of authentication. Furthermore they turned attention to aesthetical contexts, in which common seals were situated besides other forms of corporate visual representation. In their concern with spaces, in which seals were kept and used, they met the interests of historical research. Papers delivered by historians emphasized on specific sealing practices. Due to the contemporary legal framework they considered seal images as clearly distinct from other instruments of visual representation in the later Middle Ages. For instance late medieval nunneries adopted two different modes of using images: Whereas female piety led to a particular visual culture forming a distinct corporate identity, the style of their seals witnessed an enormous iconographic conformity with general standards. Therefore the methodological perspective for future research on visual representation has been differentiated. At the same time understanding of contemporary medieval perception and usage of seal images improved.
Closely tied to the question of representation the issue of common seal images as media to establish corporate identity was discussed. Taking into account that imagery on corporate seals came under increasing pressure of iconographic formalisation during the 13th century, participants argued that the images do not visualize the idea of the constitutional status of a corporation in a modern sense of identity. The seals rather present images of the community as it wanted to be seen by its environment. Through integration of pictorial elements such as sites, obviously evoking identity, corporate seal images took on an individual character, which made them distinguishable from the seals of other institutions. The compositional as well as aesthetical modes to create visual individuation will remain a key issue for further interdisciplinary discourse.