A major art historian whose eye, intellect and humor helped open the Middle Ages to new perspectives, Michael Camille, the Mary L. Block Professor in Art History at the University of Chicago, died April 29, of a brain tumor.
Trained at Cambridge in the traditional discipline of medieval art history, Camille expanded that discipline with high theory and earthy observation. He studied medieval image-making from playful marginal illuminations to the carvings of grand cathedrals. From these details he learned that the neat separation of "high" and "low" culture, of word and image, are modern artifacts. Through his study of the Middle Ages, Camille showed it was not always this way.
He was recognized by his colleagues for his ability to use art to illuminate both medieval and modern life, something he achieved repeatedly in the course of an abundantly productive career at the University of Chicago. He made these connections most famously in Image on the Edge, his study of the "lascivious apes, autophagic dragons, pot-bellied heads, harp-playing asses, arse-kissing priests and somersaulting jongleurs to be found protruding from the edges of medieval buildings and in the margins of illuminated manuscripts," and most explicitly in his last completed work, Monsters of Modernity: The Gargoyles of Notre Dame, on the rebuilt Notre Dame cathedral as a modern vision of the Middle Ages.
After a distinguished career at Peterhouse College, graduating first class with honors in Art History and English in 1980, Camille went on to earn an M.A. in 1982 and a Ph.D. in Art History in 1985, after which he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. His first book was The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in the Medieval Art ( 1989 ) . His next volume, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art ( 1992 ) communicated one of Camille's essential insights: that "the art of the Middle Ages was not a somber expression of social unity and transcendent order. Rather, it was rooted in the conflicted life of the body with all its somatic as well as spiritual possibilities."
His last two published books were The Medieval Art of Love ( 1997 ) and Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England ( University of Chicago Press, 1998 ) .
Under the rubric of his Guggenheim project, 'Signs and Streetlife in Medieval France,' he had begun working on urban streets, wooden houses, secular structures, things not even treated as medieval art, rather as folklore.
Camille was the recipient of a 1988 leave and travel fellowship from the Getty Foundation. Camille won a 1992-93 National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and a 2000-2001 Guggenheim Fellowship. During the 1990s, he held visiting professorships at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of California-Berkeley. He also served as visiting directeur d'etudes at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He was engaged in the life of the University in many ways, including sitting on the Board of the University of Chicago Press from 1993 to 1997, helping found the Lesbian and Gay Studies project at the University, and serving on the task force on undergraduate education. He is survived by his parents, his sister Michelle, and his companion of 16 years, Stuart Michaels. The Art History department is planning a commemorative service; friends, colleagues and students may contact the department for more information.
Michael Camille's innovative and influential work in medieval art history was imbued with a queer perspective from the start. His first book, The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art, made his name as one of the most interesting young art historians working on the middle ages. Informed by contemporary theories reflecting the influence of feminist and gay movements of the 1970s, he showed how the ubiquitous image of the destruction of pagan idols in medieval art was related to anxieties about despised groups such as Jews, homosexuals, prostitutes, and infidels.
His most influential book, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, analyzed the widespread erotic and scatological imagery in medieval manuscripts and sculpture that had been ignored in mainstream art history and medieval studies. In a more popular book The Medieval Art of Love, he included homoerotic images as well as providing feminist informed analyses of "courtly love" to a wider public.
Camille was a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Workshop at the University of Chicago in the early 1990s and its elaboration in the current more ambitious Lesbian and Gay Studies Project of the Center for Gender Studies. He published an important article in the pioneering collection Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. His article, "The Abject Gaze and the Homosexual Body: Flandrin's Figure d'Etude" ( 1994 ) traced the role of Flandrin's famous Louvre male nude in the gay imaginary from the 19th century to the present day.
His most recent publication was a volume he co-edited with Adrian Rifkin, Other Objects of Desire: Collectors and Collecting Queerly ( 2001 ) . It is based on a conference he had organized in April 2000 at University of Chicago. His own article was on the homoerotic side of the Duc de Berry, one of the most important patrons of the arts in the middle ages best known for commissioning Les Tres Riches Heures.
Michael's book on Notre Dame, Monsters of Modernity: The Gargoyles of Notre Dame, to be published later this year by University of Chicago Press, continues his interest in the erotic and homoerotic, this time in the 19th century reconstructions of the Paris landmark and the gargoyles that have become the most popular representations of the medieval. At the time of his death, he had completed his first full-length manuscript devoted to homosexuality, entitled Stones of Sodom, which is a study of the meaning of explicit and indirect depictions of homosexual relations and desire in Romanesque church sculpture.