Navigating the world of meaning

Christina Normore*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


In contrast to established interpretative models such as Erwin Panofsky's iconological method and theories of spolia, Friedrich Ohly proposed a medieval sign theory in which the physical qualities of an object gain and can shift meaning through association with other objects: for example, red can signify martyrdom because it is the color of blood. Seemingly commonsensical, this model nevertheless poses serious challenges for modern readings of crafted medieval materials as signs. Using the Nef of St. Ursula as a case study, this paper examines an extreme but by no means unique instance of the difficulties arising from the multiple and contradictory senses of what Ohly termed the "world of meanings" in every res (thing). Initially conceived as a table vessel, the Nef of St. Ursula was first given by the city of Tours to Anne of Brittany in 1500. Five years later, Anne ordered it to be remade into a reliquary depicting St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. After decades as a courtly devotional object, the reliquary was given to Reims Cathedral, where it primarily served as a sign of royal favor. The nef thus moved from a predominantly secular to a sacred context. However, this change in location did not cause the shift in function from nef to reliquary, which was prompted instead by its physical properties and enacted through the exchange of items within the sculpted hull. The Nef of St. Ursula and Ohly thus reveal the interpenetration of ever-malleable contents and contexts in the making of meaning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-34
Number of pages16
JournalGESTA-International Center of Medieval Art
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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