Jaroslav Folda Kathy Jo Wetter

title.none: Belting, Likeness and Presence

identifier.other: baj9928.9502.005 95.02.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jaroslav Folda, University of North CarolinaKathy Jo Wetter, University of North Carolina

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Chicago London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. xxiv + 651; with 12 color figures and 295 black and white figures. $65.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-226- 04214-6. Bild und Kult—Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst. Munich: C.H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung (Oscar Beck), 1990. Pp. 700; with 12 color figures and 294 black and white figures. DM 178,00. ISBN: ISBN 3-406-34367-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.02.05

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Chicago London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. xxiv + 651; with 12 color figures and 295 black and white figures. $65.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-226- 04214-6.

Bild und Kult—Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst. Munich: C.H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung (Oscar Beck), 1990. Pp. 700; with 12 color figures and 294 black and white figures. DM 178,00. ISBN: ISBN 3-406-34367-8.

Reviewed by:

Jaroslav Folda
University of North Carolina
Kathy Jo Wetter
University of North Carolina

During the late 1970s and 1980s Hans Belting devoted enormous scholarly energy to an inquiry into the problem of holy images in the Orthodox East and the Latin West before ca. 1500. His earlier book, Bild und Publikum im Mittelalter, Berlin, 1981, and a variety of articles indicated facets of his approach and thinking. See, e.g., his "Introduction," and "Die Reaktion der Kunst des 13. Jahrhunderts auf den Import von Reliquien und Ikonen," in Il Medio Oriente e l'Occidente nell'Arte del XIII Secolo, H. Belting, ed., Atti del XXIV Congresso Internazionale de Storia dell'Arte, Bologna, 1979, vol. 2, Bologna, 1982, pp. 1-8, 35-53, his "An Image and Its Function in the Liturgy: The Man of Sorrows in Byzantium," Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 34-35 (1980-81), pp. 1-16, and his "The `Byzantine Madonnas': New Facts about their Origin and Some Observations on Duccio," Studies in the History of Art, 12 (1982), pp. 7-22, among others. The present book, Likeness and Presence, represents a culmination of his ambitious attempts to address the history of the holy image.

Belting discusses his approach in the "Foreword" and chapter 1 (pp. xxi ff. and 1-16), as well as elsewhere in the book. First, he is studying the "Holy Image" which "... not only represented a person but also was treated like a person, being worshiped, despised, or carried from place to place in ritual processions... ." He omits therefore "... the other major image which came down to us from the Middle Ages: the narrative image...". In making this distinction, Belting reminds us of the studies of A.M. Friend, Jr., and Kurt Weitzmann on the origin and method of text illustration: Friend addressing the author portraits and Weitzmann, the cycles of text illustrations. Belting however cites neither the relevant ideas of Friend nor Weitzmann on this methodological approach to manuscript illumination—presumably because the holy images he is addressing are not imbedded in text—despite his intense interest in the concept of the archetype, and the practice of model and copy.

Second, he is focussing on "a history of the image before the era of art." The "era of art" as Belting defines it, is the period in which works of artists have been discussed, since Vasari and others, in terms of the history of style, art "invented by a famous artist and defined by a proper theory." In studying by contrast the holy image before the era of art, Belting "is concerned with images, which were all conceived in relation to each other, rather than with artists. We approach the mentality of the time when we look for the presence of the old in the new and pay attention to the continuity of types and gestures in the `holy images,' as Weigelt did earlier." (p. 397) While acknowledging the problem of writing a history of the image without the history of style, Belting nonetheless asserts his belief in the "usefulness of historical narrative" for his purpose, and he bases his inquiry on the conviction that "[Holy Images] reveal their meaning best by their use."

Third, he uses revered Roman panels, mostly of the Virgin and Child, as vehicles for arguing aspects of the points mentioned above, and this is clearly one of the special contributions of his discussion. He has taken maximum advantage of the recent art historical research done—by him and by others- -on major devotional images in Rome. Five of these holy images were the focus of an important exhibition in the Marian Year of 1988 in Rome for which there was a catalogue by P. Amato, De Vera Effigie Mariae: Antiche Icone Romane. To these images of the Virgin and Child he has added the Christ Image from the Sancta Sanctorum and St. John Lateran (fig. 18, p. 66), and the Mandylion in the Capella S. Matilda of the Vatican (fig. 15, p. 54). These images are of the greatest importance because of their antiquity, their origins as "not made by human hands" (a- cheiro-poieton) or painted by St. Luke, and their unique character in each case, despite their problematic physical condition. With certain conspicuous exceptions, these images— and others like them in Venice, Genoa, Tuscany, etc.—have been little studied art historically, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their continuing religious, that is, cultic significance. Belting's approach integrates them into the discourse, indeed centralizes them as living witnesses.

Belting presents his historical narrative in three parts: I. (chapters 2-8) the period when Christians adopted the cult of images from the pagans, and started to develop their own practices for using and their own thinking about holy images, II. (chapters 9-18) the medieval period in which holy images were used as icons and altarpieces, i.e., the period of historical change and development in the function of the holy image, and III. (chapters 19-20) the end of the medieval era when the holy image evolved into a work of art. Along with the notes, a valuable appendix of translated "Texts on the History and Use of Images and Relics" provides the documentation. A surprising aspect of the appendix is the paucity of texts from ca. 1225-1311, a period that Belting finds critical in his analysis of holy images.

In casting his net so broadly, Belting is impressive and his work can be read on several levels. Furthermore he makes perceptive and original observations about each stage of the historical developments that he covers. In particular he offers an original overview of these developments as rooted in the process of making icons and panel paintings, and in their function and meaning. Out of this approach arises a uniformly new point of view in regard to various issues in the history of medieval art, as well as original ideas about and interpretations of the individual works of art, with sometimes debatable but always challenging results.

Likeness and Presence is carefully balanced in its consideration of holy images East and West and their interrelationships. Nonetheless there are certain points of emphasis, two of which we would like to comment on here, among many others that could be discussed. Our observations are stimulated by the following considerations drawn from Belting's argumentation: According to Belting, although Eastern icons were imported to the West at all times, "their influence on panel painting culminated in the thirteenth century, above all in Italy." (p. 330) Imported icons were valued and seen as authoritative because of their perceived antiquity and from the origin of their archetypes close to the land of the Bible; they themselves were identified as transmitting authentic archetypes for western images. Nonetheless, these imported icons were "more important as an idea ... than as a fact." (p. 332) Thus, Western products could be imbued with the authority of Eastern icons if their Western provenances were kept hidden so that they were believed to have come from the East. Finally, the authority and prestige of Eastern icons were conferred to their Western owners so that icons played significant roles in self- representation. Indeed, in the overall conception of this book, certain Italian holy images are given special consideration and the thirteenth century—extended up to 1311—is pivotal.

Consider the following observations:

1. Belting directs special attention to the thirteenth century and to Tuscany in assessing and explaining the transition of the Holy Image from East to West. "The painting of panel crosses, altarpieces, and devotional images emerged in Italy in the thirteenth century with the violence of an explosion... . Tuscany with its expanding towns was at the forefront of the movement." (p. 349) In his attempt to discuss and explain this phenomenon, Belting challenges the conventional idea of Eastern norm and Western freedom. In doing this he reinterprets the idea of Byzantine icons as "living painting" 1000-1200 (chapter 13— one of the longest in the book), and reassesses the relationship of Italian painting to Eastern icons. In seeing Eastern painting as new and different at this time, Belting finds it impressive to the Italian patrons because it was not only a mature tradition but also offered attractive examples of what he calls the "speaking image." In discussing this and analyzing the process of artistic influence and transfer, Belting favors the idea of direct Italian experience of Byzantine art, Byzantine-inspired art, and even Byzantine artists, based on the evidence he cites. He does not by contrast see much importance in the mediated experience of returning "Crusaders"—meaning actual people on the Crusades of 1204, 1248, 1270, etc., or pilgrims to the holy land, or Italian merchants in the Crusader States—or their artists and the art they may have brought back with them. Furthermore Belting seems to have almost abandoned the idea of an artistic "lingua franca" as the thirteenth century Mediterranean-based venue for these artistic interchanges, a notion which he himself introduced but does not attempt to articulate or incorporate in this discussion. What he does emphasize however is something else, which is partly encapsulated in the following quote: "We must always remember that painters were not free to invent the details of images but dealt with archetypes that, more often than not, were models locally available that had become famous, for reasons obvious at the time but unknown today. Painters may have ignored the Eastern icons, which we today know to have been the true archetypes, and intermediary models may have gained more importance for the commission of a picture. In its inquiring about the authorship of surviving pictures, art history has neglected this type of research and has therefore tended to overestimate the personal contribution of individual painters and to underestimate the role of given types, which artists reproduced rather than invented." (p. 352) In light of this and in light of his stated interest in the patronage and function of these works, it is surprising to read what Belting has to say about Duccio.

2. Belting singles out Duccio because he sees him as a pivotal artist who is responsible for a reformation of the maniera greca. The reform involves, among other things, an introduction of increased emotional content and Belting links this with contemporary love poetry written in the dolce stil nuovo. As a reformer, Belting says that Duccio "creates a need for explanations." Unfortunately, the explanations that Belting provides are not always fully adequate. According to Belting, the changes in the maniera greca can be seen in a work such as the Crevole Madonna (ca. 1290) where Duccio has newly and personally interpreted a conventional Byzantine image. The composition of his Madonna and Child has as its archetype an image of the Eastern Hodegetria, but Duccio has made certain changes: the Child no longer holds a scroll in his left hand while blessing with his right, but in a gesture which suggests a more intimate and loving relationship between Mother and Child, he reaches up to touch Mary's coif with his hand. This is however not so much "playful behavior" (p. 370), but a more serious and deliberate act by the Child because his raised hand contains part of his own mantle, transforming this gesture into a premonition of one his mother will make to care for him when he is hanging on the cross. Belting apparently believes that Duccio's "improvement" of Byzantine painting is the result of an artistic genius coming into direct contact with an itinerant Greek artist with whom he empathized aesthetically.

Belting's lapse into biographical art history is puzzling, even though his discussion is a tantalizing corrective to Vasari's assessment of Duccio's artistic contribution. In any case, up to this point in Likeness and Presence (chapter 17), he has successfully argued that a history of medieval holy images can and should be written without referring to individual artistic styles. Belting himself expects that his readers will be surprised by his treatment of Duccio, which, he admits, "seems to fall outside the framework of a study not primarily concerned with artistic questions." However Belting believes that Duccio's aesthetic reform marks an important historical period of exchange between East and West which apparently warrants this exception to his own art-historical method.

But Belting's previous chapters have shown us that the style of an Italian religious image is a complex issue in the thirteenth century: style was not simply linked to aesthetics, but to perceived sacred power. If works in the new style of Duccio were commissioned over strictly byzantinizing works, it is because they were seen as more religiously powerful. Belting's focus on Duccio as an artist hinders him from looking further to explain why, at some historical point in the latter part of the thirteenth century in Italy, Byzantine holy images lost some of their potency.

In conclusion, we should observe that Belting has taken on a truly gargantuan task in writing a history of the holy image in the Middle Ages. In doing so, it appears to us that he has accomplished several major things. Not only has he written a profound and wide ranging prolegomenon to further study on the holy image in the middle ages, but also he has achieved nothing less than the conceptualization, formulation and application of an independent historical method for dealing with the medieval holy image on its own terms. It is a method uniquely appropriate for this material in contrast to Vasari's biographical, stylistically-based historical method focussed on the history of artists and artistic theory for art history in the era of art. Belting, despite his discussion of Duccio, bids to be for medieval holy images what Vasari has been for the era of art. As such, Likeness and Presence seems to us to be a truly significant achievement, and because of this and much else that its readers will find between its covers, it is a very important book that deserves to be read, discussed, and reread.