MEYER SCHAPIRO is best known for writings on Romanesque and modern art; these fill the first two volumes of his selected papers. That his contributions to the history of early medieval and Gothic art constitute a sizable third volume will surprise even specialists in these fields. Late Antique, Early Christian and Medieval Art contains 22 articles and treats momuments of painting, mosaic, sculpture and architecture, ranging from the illuminated calendar of A.D. 354 to the 15th-century Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin.

Nearly half the studies appeared as reviews, introductions to books, or addenda to earlier articles; but the volume also includes 11 major essays written over the past 40 years, of which several have had an important impact on the understanding of medieval art. A number of the shorter pieces might have been omitted, and Schapiro's little book on medieval text illustration, Words and Pictures , is not reprinted although it would have been an appropriate inclusion.

Schapiro has always regarded the single work of art, not the progressive development of linked works, as the proper unit of investigation. Only the individual object permits both the intense, immediate experience and the historical penetration that characterize his approach. For Schapiro, therefore, the article or lecture has been a more comfortable vehicle of presentation than the full-scale book. This volume does not survey the art of the Middle Ages; rather, it probes selected problems of style, iconography and interpretation.

Like all art historians, Schapiro has spent part of his time as a connoisseur, determining the time and place of origin of artworks. Many of Schapiro's judgements, based on a remarkable sensitivity to nuances of style and presented with rhetorical floiurish, have withstood the tests of time and new discovery. His conclusion that the 17th-century copy of the calendar of 354 was made from a 9th-century replica of the original is generally accepted, as is his dating of the Vatican Joshua roll to the 10th century. And if his attribution of the anomalous frescoes in Castelseprio to the 8th century still remains uncertain, Schapiro's arguments are, nonetheless, more plausible than most others.

Persuaded that in artistic forms and themes lie manifestations of historical circumstances, Schapiro never pursues connoisseurship as an end in itself. For him, the art historian's task is to reconstitute those circumstances. In so doing, he can expand and invigorate the viewer's encounter with art.

Although the ostensible purpose of the monuments Schapiro examines in these essays was religious, he uncovers political content in many of them. He argues that the reliefs portraying the story of Joseph in Egypt on the ivory throne of Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna were chosen because, during the 6th century, the Old Testament patriarch was understood as a model of episcopal authority over civil affairs. And he proposes that the Vatican roll, a unique parchment scroll decorated with a picture frieze illustrating the exploits of Joshua, originated as apiece of political propaganda for a Byzantine emperor who was trying to recapture the Holy Land from the Moslems. Schapiro's discovery of secular references in the David imagery of a 13th-century book of psalms is convincing, even if he cannot pinpoint the precise English king for whom it was created. Less compelling, however, is his contention that the 7th-century Ruthwell Cross, carved with reliefs of bibilical events, was erected on the Scottish border as a monument of Northumbrian power. Likewise, doubts persist about Scharpiro's assertion that the Moorish style and ectastic subjects of the Gerona Apocalypse may be the reflections of tension-between regligious hardliners in Asturias and assimilative Christians in Toledo.

While maintaining that many pictures contain layers of symbolic meaning, Schapiro insists with equal vigor that others carry no specific allusions and should not be overinterpreted. He proposes, for example, that English artists envisioned Cain's murder weapon as a jawbone because of a quirk in the Anglo-Saxon language. Similiarly, he conjectures that the bowman at the summit of the Ruthwell Cross, unlike the other reliefs, is a metaphor for force, not the illustration of a biblical story. For Schapiro, the "drolleries" in the margins of Gothic manuscripts -- fantastic and often obscene little pictures -- are poetic, not programmatic, images.

As the autohr himself points out, however, the jawbone weapons and the archer also have long histories in art. Would they not have conjured up those iconographic histories in the minds of medieval viewers and have added, thereby, to the associative meaning of the depictions? Further, many of the marginial motifs find analogues in contemporary sermons that were introduced, not only to pique the listeners' attention, but also to teach moral lessons. Schapiro gives unclear guidance as to when to look for multiple references in a work of art and when to refrain from interpreting.

Schapiro is most revealing when treating works in which thematic innovation coincides with stylistic invention. He studies the Ascension of Christ in English art because, counter to medieval norms of decorum, which dictated that the Lord should be shown in full face, English painters portrayed Christ disapperaing into the cloud and visible only from the knees down. Schapiro's investigation of this phenomenon elucidates a whole mode of medieval thought that emphasized subjectivity and individual observation over ritual and tradtition. When he examines the mousetrap made by Joseph in the Merode altarpiece, he uncovers not merely a simple symbol but a complex microcosm of the clash of religious and secular pursuits that gave rise to the Renaissance. Even if he is wrong about a detail or two (for example, the board Joseph is drilling is more likely part of a winepress than a bait box), Schapiro is still far more compelling than the scholarly exegetes who obscure the art object in a web of esoteric footnotes.

Readers will not find in this volume a coherent history of the art of the Middle Ages; they will have to suply for themselves the background of the diverse discussions. If they do, they will be taught by a master teacher to see and think about medieval art.