The distinctive Zodiaque books on medieval art, with their colorful cloth covers, ribbon bookmarks, and rich black-and-white photographs, began in a monastery in Burgundy, France during the 1950s. Growing out of a journal of the same name, the goal of the monks at the abbey of la Pierre-qui-Vire was to renew interest in medieval art, especially pre-Gothic, with high-quality photography that brought out its simple linear power and figural abstraction in response to the current modernist aesthetics.
Beginning with the power of Burgundian Romanesque architectural sculpture, the monks looked to theories about the spiritual purity of ‘primitive’ art to reinforce their beliefs in the potential of medieval imagery to replace tired, saccharine, nineteenth-century ‘Saint-Sulpician’ religious art. Journal issues were dedicated to the arts of Autun, Tournus, Vézelay, and Auxerre as well as sub-Saharan Africa and Albert Gleizes (important Cubist painter who was teacher to first editor-in-chief, Frère Angelico Surchamp). Other issues addressed themes like abstract art or concerns about sacred art.
The issue on Autun grew into the first book in 1953, beginning the Travaux des mois series on famous medieval sites. This was followed shortly after by the best-known series, organized by geographic region, La Nuit des temps, with its distinctive hardbound volumes. Bourgogne romane from 1954 was the first product of La Nuit des temps. In both are found the evocative ‘héliogravures’ or photogravures, a photographic process that is similar to aquatint since the photographic negative is transferred to a copper plate where artistic intervention becomes possible.
These initial photographic campaigns were directed by la Pierre-qui-Vire monks; however, they hired professional photographers. The photogravure printing process also occurred outside the abbey, but the volume layouts, maps, text pages, and soon color photographs and binding, were handled in a monastic printing atelier in the tradition of opus dei.
By the early 1960s, much of the photography was being handled by the Zodiaque team. Sales of the first volumes had been brisk and returns were financing more ambitious undertakings, such as the triple volume treatment of Irish art, authored by Françoise Henry or the expedition to the Middle East for La Terre Sainte romane. New series were launched, such as les Points cardinaux, where Zodiaque photographs of important monuments were paired with primary texts from historical, ecclesiastical or contemporary literary sources. Regional itinerary guides to Romanesque sites became an offshoot of the Travaux des mois series. Pocket-sized guides were published under the La Carte du ciel title.
A number of introductory volumes were conceived for La Nuit des temps, including the Glossaire des termes techniques de l’art roman, Lexique des symbols, Dictionnaire d’iconographie romane, Routes romanes I-III, Invention de l’architecture romane, Floraison de la sculpture romane I-II, and others. Although new photographs were being taken as sites were added, the continual addition of thematic series allowed the recycling and regrouping of existing photographs.
Every site offered the Zodiaque team a pilgrimage of sorts—traveling in a small panel van with their photographic gear, the monks used a network of contacts to gain access to churches and museums. The locations were often remote, bringing visual records of nearly forgotten medieval sites to publication for the first time. They rented equipment such as scaffolding and aerial lifts that allowed close-up studies of architectural detail. They timed visits when objects or manuscripts were being taken apart for repair work and photographs could better portray separate elements.
The first texts were merely accompanying descriptions or local histories, often written by resident clerics. However, Zodiaque’s model and predecessor came from similar books published by Arthaud, also with héliogravures but written by giants such as Marcel Aubert. With the advent of collaborations like that of Zodiaque and Henry, the editors began seeking higher-quality scholarship. Raymond Oursel (son of Charles Oursel) wrote nearly exclusively for Zodiaque. Anne Prache, Willibald Sauerländer, Lucien Musset, and other academic authors contributed to key volumes.
Yet the greatest selling point remained the amazing photogravures. Less documentation than fine art prints, the compositions grew out of the resonances Surchamp had first perceived between a Cubist aesthetic and the directness of Romanesque visual narrative. An abundance of details, even to the expense of iconographic identification, emphasized an artistic vision of medieval art that rejected the notion of ‘Roman-like’ naturalism inherent in the term ‘Romanesque,’ particularly in terms of sculpture. Instead, these photographs celebrate a more original understanding of visual expression, free of the slavish imitation of nature that one might associate with Gothic classicism, and thus often believed to be more conducive to profound spiritual reflection.
Over time the number of examples ranged widely in dating and location. Fascination with minimalist forms spawned L’Art Gaulois, the Scandinavia, pre-Romanesque Spain, and Ireland series. Demand drove companions to Christs roman and Vierges romanes on comparable Gothic illustrations. Foreign publishers sought partnerships; a collection of translations into Dutch and German came out. Volumes on Ethiopia and Russia appeared. An atlas was designed.
The first editor stepped down in 1995 and a new team rethought Zodiaque’s goals and launched fresh topics for the journal, still going strong, and new book series–opening out consideration of other world religions in La Route des mages, adding major Gothic monuments in the collection Le Ciel et la pierre, and regrouping examples in fresh ways with Visages du moyen age. Advances in offset duotone printing allowed less complicated preparation of black-and-white photographs with nearly the same rich tones as photogravures. In 2001, la Pierre-qui-Vire sold the entire enterprise and all stock to an outside company, which was soon merged into a larger corporation. Publication of Zodiaque books ceased in 2004.
For more information on Janet Marquardt, see this link.
This article was originally published on the website for the International Center for Medieval Art.