Norbert Schnitzler

title.none: Merback, The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel (Schnitzler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0008.001 00.08.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Norbert Schnitzler, Universitat Chemnitz,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Merback, Mitchell. The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999. Pp. iv, 352. $42.00. ISBN: 0-226-52015-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.08.01

Merback, Mitchell. The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999. Pp. iv, 352. $42.00. ISBN: 0-226-52015-3.

Reviewed by:

Norbert Schnitzler
Universitat Chemnitz

Some twenty years ago, the Austrian legal historian Gernot Kocher published a programmatic article entitled "Passionsdarstellungen und rechtliche Volkskunde" in which he called for a renewal of the discipline of Legal History. Kocher reclaimed methodological alterations by shifting the focus of research from written documents onto visual and archaeological sources. In the aftermath a number of books and articles were published which shed new light on juridical aspects of medieval Christian imagery, especially on representations of the Last Judgement frequently to be found in medieval city halls and court rooms, as well as on the meaning of certain 'realia' within the cycle of Passion-imagery like instruments of punishment or specific gestures commonly used by judges or by charged criminals respectively. Merback's book marks a substantial contribution to this growing field of historical research, but simultaneously it offers a challenge to its disciplinary matrix of history, grasping rather different approaches from criminal, religious, social as well as from art history.

At first sight seemingly a thorough study concerning a rather marginal motif from the Passion-narrative (i.e. the two thieves crucified together with Christ at Calvary) it becomes swiftly clear that the author's intention reaches far beyond the traditional boundaries of art historical research. His goal is to get access to an almost inaccessible past--the mentalite of ordinary people watching the rituals of medieval penal law. His approach is based on the assumption that the perception of juridical procedures is shaped by religious beliefs and contemporary norms of pious behaviour, a view substantiated by previous studies done by historians like Esther Cohen, Richard van Dulmen, Wolfgang Schild, and others. Merback, however, takes us one step further by asking for the state of contemporary 'visual experience': What did medieval onlookers think (and feel) when they were confronted with images of pain and suffering, especially when they were watching the archetypical scene of suffering--Calvaria? Besides the well known didactic goals of religious imagery articulated by medieval scholastics (i.e. compassio), were those images recalled in the minds of spectators confronted with real spectacles of suffering? Furthermore, do we have evidence for the assumption that in the mind of medieval people a 'reciprocal logic' was at work "embedded in medieval visuality, that made art and spectacle dialectical halves of the same experiential mode"? (129)

Answering those questions bears rather difficult methodological implications, of which Merback is of course aware. The self- restrictions of traditional 'judicial iconography' to merely denotative meanings of judicial symbols and themes ("a shortfall of interpretation", 29) must be overcome, he states, if one wants to achieve a "dialectical understanding of the interrelatedness of art and spectacle." (32) Historians therefore have to reconstruct different contexts of meaning: besides the textual tradition enclosed in a vast number of devotional writings for the laity, like gospel-collections or vernacular sermons, they must consider carefully the hidden symbolism of contemporary rituals of public execution, as for instance the antithetical concept of honor and shame but also the particular yearning of medieval popular culture for a bodily experience of the Holy as expressed though the touching of relics by hand and mouth, or through visually 'incorporating' the 'Body of Christ' during elevation. Historians are capable of getting access to mentalities of medieval contemporaries so far as they manage to elucidate interrelations and amalgamations between those different cultural manifestations.

Merback's investigation starts with an 'archaeological' review of Calvary since it became one of the central motifs of medieval European art. During its flourishing years at the end of the fifteenth century, monumental representations of the Crucifixion at Calvary--so-called sacri monti--were to be found in most capitals of Christian Europe. The pivotal scene of the Passion-narrative adorned with most ordinary details had become so popular because "an experiential continuum existed" between different--painted or carved--forms of the Calvary-Motif: "both furnished a literalized space for the imagination's deployment". (47) Merback gives three main reasons for this rise of Calvary: in the wake of the conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, Europe was swamped by a vast amount of icons and relics from the East, which in consequence altered the traditional motifs of Passion- iconography. Consequently new forms of religious behaviour evoked in the emerging centers of lay devotion furnished with carved reliefs and frescoes by the hands of artists like Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Pietro Lorenzetti, and the like. Their visual narratives of Christ's Passion stimulated the imagination of pious beholders and at the same time brought the holy places closer to the mind's eye: "Geopolitically, Calvary was coming closer again".(58) These virtual pilgrimages were all the more needed when, in 1453, two centuries and a half after the crusaders' triumph, Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. The shock of the Saracen 'invasion' inspired Franciscan friars like the Italian Bernardo Caimi to conceive lifesize sacri monti designed for the didactic goal of the order as it was formulated in its spiritual writings. Images of Calvary depicting Christ and the two thieves crucified, surrounded by biblical figures, should help "to bridge the gap between the rigors of secular life and the monastic ascetic ritual" for a growing urban audience. (67) The aesthetic skills of the artists corresponded exactly with the concept of imitatio as formulated by Franciscan theologians, since they could make their audience experience a 'real event' in which they partook as human beings.

In the two following chapters Merback concentrates on special features of the tormented bodies of the two thieves, Gestas and Dysmas. Since devotional literature of the late middle ages lacked explicit information about the torments of the thieves, the ideological field seems to have been opened for the projections and imaginations of contemporary painters and their audience. Focusing on the formal, i.e. technical, aspects of the crucifixions we can recognize four motifs that were treated in a peculiar way: these are the shape of the cross, the conformation of the bodies juxtaposed against the crosses, the technical means of fixing the bodies and the explicit depiction of the wounds. (72) Besides the explanation that such painstaking depictions should serve to clarify different sorts of punishment acted out against Christ and the two thieves respectively, Merback argues that their main task was to stimulate the visual skills of pious beholders. Thus the two thieves serve as exemplary figures designated to communicate the 'redemptive' experience of suffering through seeable signs and symbols, in other words: salvation through the eye. Dealing with the arguments of Elaine Scarry's study of torture (The Body in Pain, 1985) Merback states that for medieval people bodily pain not only conveyed a "world- destroying" impact, on the contrary, it could rather become "a powerful emblem of intersubjective experience; it actuated emphatic bonds between people". (20) Yet, he stresses her observation that the image of a weapon could adopt the function of a real weapon. By referring to a depiction of Calvary (Conrad of Soest, 1403), in which the instruments of execution had been placed right beside the hanging bodies of the crucified thieves, M. compares their symbolic value to the arma christi, the cherished instruments of Christ's Passion. Since the arma from the mid-thirteenth century onwards played an increasingly important part in popular devotion, their ongoing reproduction on painted or carved altar-pieces "ensured that the image of the weapon became something of a devotional fetish". (76) So far Merback's argument seems convincing, whereas it remains rather questionable if it was really through the laity's magical beliefs that the weapons became charged with special powers. Like the arma-symbols which derived redemptive effects from their symbolic value as pars pro toto of Christ's Passion in general, in this context the instruments of the hangman could gain a quasi-sacramental character as well.

A further elucidating observation is made by the author in studying a painting from a book of hours by Jean Pucelle, dated ca. 1325-8. The French painter shows the two thieves on the crosses with "hooked arms", a rather unusual feature which appears here as an early indication of the motif's trans-Alpine reception. From the midst of the 13th century onward, northern European artists made increasing use of the hooked arm type. Obviously they took it as an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to depict the body of an executed person as well as the 'anatomical-surgical' effects of the inflicted punishment, for instance the distorted flesh tied up under the ropes. This attitude towards realistic representation quickly disseminated into the regions of Bavaria, Austria and Bohemia. "From the point of view of a 'social iconography' of later medieval art, we might call this process the infiltration of the rhetorical by the real." (100) This is especially true if one carefully examines the meticulous, almost scientific depictions of the thieves' wounds, especially their most characteristic positions at the arms and legs. By the evidence of some outstanding examples of Calvary-paintings, Merback can show that the contemporary beholder must have recognized these lesions as symptoms of the execution by wheel, which counted as the most severe form of corporeal punishment in late medieval times, due to its obvious purpose of prolonging the pain of the perpetrator. Moreover the allusion to the wheel conveyed further meanings which lay on a symbolic level. It stimulated the cognitive capabilities of the beholder to charge his "historical" knowledge of the biblical narrative with current experiences and perceptions of corporeal punishment. This is exactly the model which Merback describes as underlying the painting Thief on the cross by Robert Campin, dated c. 1428-30. "What made this imagery so compelling for medieval viewers was precisely the way it served the workings of the imagination: its realism stimulated the viewer's own powers of visualization without supplanting them, and therefore presented itself as a model for the viewer's synthetic assimilation of past to present, sacred history to familiar reality." (125)

Throughout his investigation of the medieval idea of Calvary, Merback successively lays bare its rhetorical underpinnings, its occupations with opposites, models and anti-models. Thanks to their antithetical structure these images were able to offer two different 'readings' of physical pain: on the one hand the 'sweet' and 'useful' pain of the just thief mitigated by his struggle for repentance, on the other hand the tormenting, everlasting pain of the condemned one. According to Merback, both figures--archetypes of the 'good death' or correspondingly the 'sudden death'--had an enormous impact on the arrangement of public executions by the secular authorities and the perception of these events by contemporaries. They helped to render the gruesome spectacles of punishment a comforting appearance, which therefore became perceptible as acts of pious edification. One may feel inclined to discuss that, but I would rather like to point to another aspect, the so-called visual strategy of 'symbolic inversion' which was frequently used to characterize the 'bad thief'. Lucas Cranach the Elder made use of this visual pattern in a woodcut, dated 1510/12, representing Christ and the two thieves on the cross. What is remarkable here is the dreadfully twisted body of Gestas, the impenitent sinner, who lies head upside down with his back on the horizontal beam, hands fixed on to it with nails whereas his feet are fixed to the vertical. Furthermore the upper part of his body is dragged down by ropes which at the same time strangle him. Already half a century before, an early version of the 'inverted' thief on the cross had been painted by the so-called Master of the Hallstatt-altar.

Since this 'inverted' type and several similar versions were mainly found in the regions of Bavaria and Austria, Merback feels encouraged to make some far-reaching suggestions concerning the allegedly striking coincidence of regional forms of collective piety and anti-Semitic riots. (189 ssq.) These observations bring him to the conclusion that the 'bad thief' Gestas during the later middle ages figured as a formula for the punished Jew as such, inasmuch as it was a common practice to hang Jewish criminals upside down from the gallows (i.e. the so-called 'Jewish execution', 187). "Inversion on the gallows", he states, "and the identification of the malefactor with animal life therefore went hand in hand..." (188) Merback hereby approves of an argument which has already been formulated by Esther Cohen (The Crossroads of Justice, 1993). Her understanding of the late medieval penal law system relies on the chances of the authorities to visualize abstract social norms and values, let's say the idea of 'justice'. Efforts which render the corporeal punishments and executions a symbolical form as well as a suitable ritualized framework should be interpreted as concessions to current customs of popular culture. Within these multifold strategies of liminality, of integration and exclusion, the ritual of inversion played a prominent part, inasmuch as an archaic idea obviously penetrated the minds of the actors. "The inversion of the common, normative stance of the human body had the effect of dehumanizing the subject..." (Cohen) In other words we are confronted with a ritual which conveyed proto-racial attitudes. The evidence for these assumptions is rather small. All the more questionable seems Merback's attempt to transfer this allegedly archaic pattern of perception onto the attitudes of late medieval beholders towards the visual representation of the Passion-narrative, especially the Calvary-scene.

Yet, what seems unmistakably clear is the intermingling of the visual formula of "inversion" with Passion-iconography--or, should we say, with legal Iconography? In contrast to Merback, I would prefer to explain the 'inverted' type in terms of corresponding oppositions, for instance the body's physical appearance and its inner state, which was the usual strategy to 'stigmatize' members of marginalized groups. Keeping in mind the insights of medieval anthropology about the relationship of affectus corporis and affectus animi, it seems even more plausible to understand this visual strategy as an attempt to construct social characters and stereotypes. Thus we may recognize in the figure of Gestas the medieval formation of a model signifying the impenitent, stubborn (Jewish) outcast, instead of the racial 'other'.

In his last chapter the author raises the question of which changes may have taken place when approaching the "Era of Art". His very first observation is that--corresponding to the reformulation of the idea of "representation"--"the affective devotional 'horizon of expectations' .... was being slowly eroded". (269) The reasons are twofold: transformations of theological concepts as well as aesthetic innovations. The redefinition of the 'image' by Renaissance painters and humanists, like Alberti, weakened the interest in technical aspects of crucifying and its repercussions on the human body, which then became replaced by the struggle for a suitable disegno. This is demonstrated by a detailed examination of Andrea Mantegna's Calvary from the San Zeno altarpiece, which seems remarkable because of its outstanding mixture of archaeological precision and "antiquarian fantasy". (273 ssq.) The formerly ubiquitous expressive gestures and habits of the thieves' bodies at the cross have entirely vanished. "In a word, a distancing is set up between the visible source of pain in the image and the devotional viewer". Instead the painter constructs a different kind of spectacle, "first, by the painter's mediating invenzione, and second by the spatial rationality that channels all pictorial information towards a single point, the eye". (278)

In the trans-Alpine regions these aesthetic innovations were mediated through the discourse of protestant theology and its struggle for the renewal of religious imagery. In the eyes of Merback the iconoclastic riots of the sixteenth century marked a turning point, the invasion of a new visual culture which resembles the protestant primacy of the text over the image. Protestant reformers called for a new iconography: "This new anti-image demanded efforts of a new kind of beholder who reads and interprets rather than looks and feels." (298) The change of attitudes can be best illustrated if we take a look at the image-production of the above-mentioned Lucas Cranach in the aftermath of the Reformation Sturmjahre. Nothing of the Calvary-painting from 1538 reminds the viewer of the thieves' tormentous experience represented in the woodcut from 1510/12. Cranach also robbed the figure of the 'good thief', Dysmas, of his redeeming pain by replacing it with spiritual means, that is the protestant belief in predestination--a crucial aspect obviously omitted by Merback. The painting of Cranach provides no clue to catch the beholder's eye, instead the gaze is rejected by referring it to the words of the gospel written on its surface.

Did these dramatic changes in the world of art reflect corresponding transformations of the late medieval juridical system? Merback strongly approves of this assumption, referring to long-term processes in European history, especially to the rise of the early modern territorial state and its claim for public discipline and self-control. This development was accompanied by a steady secularisation of courthouse-rituals and of the stagings of public execution as well: "The sacral associations of punishments were gradually eroded". (271) It should be noted that the findings of Samuel Edgerton seem to prove just the opposite, that is to say, the popular belief in the magical power of the blood of executed persons gained in importance, even during the second half of the sixteenth century. However, Merback concludes his investigation with a clear statement: "In the Middle Ages experiences with images and spectacle could overlap and condition one another mutually. Now...Renaissance and Reformation art set the perceptual stage for their disengagement." (301) I would leave that an open question-- definitely the present book makes a remarkable step towards convincing solutions.