The Medieval Review 16.09.29


Decker, John R., and Mitzi Kirkland-Ives, eds. Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650. Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. pp. xiv, 264. $109.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-472-43367-1 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Robert Marcoux
Université Laval (Quebec City)
robert.marcoux@hst.ulaval.ca

This book brings together essays exploring the imagery of torture in late medieval and early modern Europe. Its purpose is made clear by co-editor John R. Decker in his introduction. Building upon the work of scholars such as Samuel Edgerton, Mitchel Merback, Elaine Scarry and Pieter Spierenburg, the book's contributors aim at widening the subject's traditional legal framework to further address social, political and devotional issues. According to Decker, extending inquiries on torture beyond questions of legal and moral practices is warranted by the "protean nature of pictorial and verbal disassemblies of the body" (3). He appreciates images of bodily desecration as creative works able to assume multiple functions by eliciting different responses from the viewer. Ranging between repulsion and attraction, their reception is thus conceived a space of tension in which the logic and sense of the visual narrative are to be negotiated. To illustrate this point, Decker uses two late fifteenth-century examples. The first is Dirc Bouts's Martyrdom of Erasmus in which the saint is depicted being eviscerated by a windlass. Decker argues that the choice of a cranking device as the implement of torture endowed the saint with a new protective power, that against maladies of the stomach. By focusing on the disembowelment of the saint's body, Bouts's image validates and informs the viewer of this "apotropaic covenant" (7). The second image is Gerard David's Justice of Cambyses which shows the flaying of the corrupt judge Sisamnes. Here, Decker explains, perhaps less convincingly, that the level of detail with which the body's destruction is depicted reinforces the narrative's moral message: "Sisamnes corrupts the system from the inside out; his destruction from the outside in corrects that corruption" (10). In addition to illustrating how one may locate "artistic, social and philosophical creation within acts of bodily destruction" (2), the two examples serve to establish the conceptual structure of the book, which is divided into two parts, that of "holy violence, the creation of martyrs" and that of "social violence, the creation of civic identities".

The first part begins with an essay by Assaf Pinkus on Guido da Siena's reliquary shutters from the Sienese monastery of St. Clare. Displaying the stigmatization of St. Francis, the story of St. Clare defeating the Saracens, the flaying of St. Bartholomew and the episode of St. Catherine on the wheel, the panels are a perfect example of devotional art in which Franciscan piety, the local cult of saints and philopassionism (empathic suffering) all converge. But by carefully considering both theological and juridical discourses on violence from Augustine to late-medieval reports of legal punishments, Pinkus also sees in Guido's work an artistic embodiment of the four different modes of medieval violence: reflective, reflexive, physical and imagined. Though his analysis of the panels is focused (despite inverting the shutters at one point early in the text), the nature and specificity of the modes are insufficiently explained by the author to fully appreciate some of his reasoning. Consequently, the proposed reading may sometimes appear arbitrary. However, Pinkus never suggests that the scenes were rigorously composed to express each of the four modes of medieval violence. What he does is demonstrate that the displayed brutality may be read in numerous ways. Rather than strictly following Caroline Bynum's concept of positive violence and viewing the scenes solely through the "lens of...devotional cathartic inversion" (28), Pinkus argues that the violence perpetrated against St. Bartholomew and St. Catherine can be experienced negatively as something "highly threatening for the contemporary viewer" (26). This idea that medieval violence can be viewed beyond the notion of redemptive suffering and understood in terms of physical and moral brutality is an important contribution to the book.

In the following chapter, co-editor Mitzi Kirkland-Ives considers the reception of images of the Passion in the context of "concrete devotional practice" (37) of the fifteenth- and sixteenth- century. Although she begins with a lengthy description of Hans Memling's famous Imago pietatis, her main focus is on the representation of the arma Christi (instruments of the Passion) in late medieval and early modern prayers books from the Netherlands. Kirkland-Ives first establishes the context of viewership by calling forth a selection of religious texts that encourage an empathic response to the Passion narrative through a visualization of its key moments. She then moves to manuscript illuminations and woodcuts displaying the arma Christi motif which she describes and succinctly analyses in relation to their adjoining prayers. This leads her to conclude that the arma Christi and other violent depictions of the Passion act as "flexible mnemonic images" (47) assisting the viewers in "a variety of extended devotional exercises that involve time and process" (49). Although no one would dispute this conclusion, Kirkland-Ives's essay does lack the theoretical framework necessary to make her arguments more persuasive. Highly descriptive, it neglects some of the important scholarship on memory and late medieval devotional images.

In the next chapter, Soetkin Vanhauwaert delivers a strong essay on the Johannesschüssel, an iconographical motif which depicts the decapitated head of John the Baptist on a plate. She first offers an overview of how, from text to image and by way of the cult of relics, the head of the Precursor became inseparable from the plate in the visual culture of the late Middle Ages. After arguing that most representations of the Johannesschüssel were used for private devotion, Vanhauwaert goes on to reveal the motif's deep Eucharistic symbolism by concentrating on Jan Mostaert's painting of The Head of Saint John Baptist on a Plate Surrounded by Angels (c. 1525-1550). Taking into consideration the well-established typological link between the death of the Baptist and the Passion of Christ, she demonstrates how different details of Mostaert's work, such as the presence of angels, the shape of the platter, the puncture wound and tears on the Baptist's face, may refer to the Eucharistic body. Explicitly supported by a few liturgical sources, the proposed link between the Johannesschüssel and the sacrifice of Christ is hard to deny, as is Vanhauwaert's contention that the motif could thus have served as a "meditation aid" (67) for the viewer wishing to earn salvation through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Given the compelling demonstration, the author's closing remarks on the production context of Mostaert's painting are however unnecessary as they add nothing to the arguments nor do they provide any conclusive information.

Jumping many years ahead, the following chapter deals with the revival of martyrdom iconography in the post-Tridentine context. According to Kelley Magill, the rediscovery of the Roman catacombs, and especially that of the Via Salaria which prompted an influential anonymous description in 1578, provided the Catholic Church with solid arguments to defend some of the practices decried by Protestants. Using Jerome and Prudentius as primary references, Catholic reformers believed that catacombs served as places of worship where relics and images of martyrs were venerated. As such, they were valued as "compelling models for the restoration and revival of Rome's early Christian churches" (92). After presenting a few Jesuit examples (mainly S. Stefano Rotondo), Magill further illustrates the tendency by focusing on the Roman Church of SS. Nereo and Achilleo. She demonstrates how Cardinal Cesare Baronio's restoration of the church, "by combining martyrdom scenes, historical narratives, saints' portraits, and emblems of the martyrs' triumph...created a liturgical setting that was reminiscent of what sixteenth-century Catholics imagined worship would have been like in the catacombs" (106). Combined with the highly symbolic translation of the saints' relics which completed the restoration, the decoration thus promoted the ideal of continuity with the tradition of the early Church as well as the victory of the Christian faith over "the power and legacy of Imperial Rome" (107). The relation to the book's main themes is a bit more tenuous than previous contributions and the medieval iconography of martyrs is largely ignored, but the article is a sound contribution to the study of post-Tridentine ideology and its use of early Christian tradition, both real and imagined.

The first part of the book ends with a chapter on martyrdom narratives in post-Reform England. Although not dealing with "visual culture" per se, Natalia Khomenko directly addresses the problematics raised by Decker in his introduction by investigating the creative potential of the disarticulated body. Going against Elaine Scarry's contention that emphasis on torture confines the victims to their bodies and thus deprives them of a voice, Khomenko argues that John Bale's commentaries on Anne Askew's torments did just the opposite. Rather than following traditional scholarship and opposing Ball's interpolations to Askew's first person account, she considers the former Carmelite monk as the Protestant Englishwoman's hagiographer. Using the medieval narratives of martyrdom, Bale intensifies their features in order to underscore Askew's spiritual superiority. This he does by first discrediting some Catholics saints whose deaths he describes as quick and meaningless, then by depicting Askew's interrogators as bloodthirsty and borderline insane. Putting Askew's "disordered female body" (128) in the center of Bale's narratives, the exaggerated scenes of torture complete the "'packaging' [of] her martyrdom for public consumption" (120). Thus, by using and superseding traditional Catholic passiones, Bale's commentaries were "intended not to drown out Askew's pronouncements of the article of faith but to place her firmly at the apex of martyrdom" (121) where she could serve as a model for sixteenth-century defenders of the reformed faith. This creative force of torture by which a woman is recognized spiritual agency and authority would however disappear later with John Foxe's 1570 account of the events where all details of violence are expunged and the active role is transferred to a male rescuer.

Dealing with social violence, the second part of the book begins with Renzo Baldasso's study of Rubens's The Death of Decius Mus (c. 1617), an important painting which the author reads as a bold visual exploration of the moments of death and killing. Departing from Livy's historical narrative which idealizes Decius's demise as a noble and almost immaculate sacrifice for the sake of the Roman Republic, Rubens places the event inside the vortex of a realistic battlefield. Through a minute (if somewhat subjective) description of the composition, Baldasso demonstrates how this decision brings into juxtaposition the heroic and stoic death of the Roman consul with the fury and terror of the anonymous fighters. Insisting upon a shocking and evocative strangulation scene, he argues that Rubens's work not only reveals the brutality of combat, but engages with art history and critical discourse by challenging the visual tradition of battle and martyrdom paintings.

In chapter 7, Heather Madar considers the rhetoric of impalement in early modern Germany. Following an historical overview of the practice, she examines its representation in images which emerged from Nuremberg's printing industry in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century. Viewing the images against the backdrop of the Turkish threat against Christianity, Madar shows how the method of impalement was then deeply associated with the Ottomans in Western European culture. Be it through juxtaposition with texts concerning the Turks or by conflation between Christian narratives such as the Martyrdom of the 10,000 or the Massacre of the Innocents and the reports of Turkish atrocities perpetrated in Otranto, Vienna and Negroponte, the impalement is systematically depicted as a characteristic of Oriental cruelty. Well-known for his brutality, the famous Vlad Dracula is also considered in terms of otherness. Like the Ottomans, who he paradoxically fought, his image is equally that of a cruel man whose penchant for impalement makes him "ambivalent, not wholly Western."

Allie Terry-Fritsch's chapter concerns punishment effigies used in the performative context of late-medieval and early modern systems of penal justice. These images are no longer extant as they were meant to act as substitutes for the body of missing criminals and were entirely destroyed by flames at the end of the trial. Thus mainly relying on descriptions of their use, Terry-Fritsch interrogates the performative value of the effigies by drawing upon the important scholarship on the interaction between images and their beholders. Using the cinematic concept of "visual spectacularism" and W.J.T. Mitchell's claim that iconoclast rituals are characterized by "theatrical excess", she argues that the identification of the criminal by mimetic realism and/or inscriptions, as well as the destructibility of the material were key elements to the performative efficacy of the effigies. According to her, it is through the "sensorial activation" of their destruction that punishment effigies create a spectacular "image of justice" around which a community gathers and through which it can renew itself.

In the final chapter of the book, Maureen Warren deals also with rituals of justice by examining Claes Jansz. Visscher's prints illustrating the execution of the conspirators of the "Arminian treason", a foiled plot to assassinate the military commander of the Dutch Republic in 1623. To better understand the "compositional choices" and the "propagandistic function" of Visscher's images, Warren first places their subject within the context of honor in seventeenth-century Dutch society. Understood as "a legitimate claim" to social standing and deference, honor is what the prints intend to deny the condemned men by depicting them as fools and by insisting on the shameful treatment of their bodies. Indeed, far from being crude images answering to the public's "short-lived desire for information" (211), Warren shows that Visscher's prints were carefully thought out both aesthetically and ideologically. Discarding certain details of the events, they systematically focus on those that portray the conspirators in a ridiculous light (like wearing peasant's clothing) or that show in great detail the brutality of their execution (like their bodily fragmentation). In short, designed "to make both propaganda and profit" (225), the prints visually exploit the practices of early modern Dutch political and judiciary system to perpetuate the condemned men's humiliation and continually deny them their social existence within the community.

As a conclusion, co-editor John R. Decker offers a few brief thoughts. Along with the usual call to extend inquiries to other periods and non-western cultures, he renders on the book a humble but quite lucid judgment with which we are in full agreement. Compilations rarely provide a satisfying overview of a subject and this book is no exception. Not only are the paths trodden by the contributors not "terra incognita" (232), but they often fail to address the paradox of creation and destruction that could have served as the book's theoretical paradigm. In fact, given its complex and subversive subject, the theoretical contribution of the book is altogether slim. If some authors directly engage with theory on death, violence and visual culture, most of them prefer to concentrate on their material than debate concepts. This does make for interesting contributions on often original subjects but it prevents the exploration of some of Decker's more stimulating ideas. As a result of this, the division of the contributions between holy and secular violence seems more practical than conceptual. Although firmly established in the introduction, its relevance appears less convincing as many of the chapters show that the secular and the holy are extremely porous categories. This is especially true in the case of martyrdom which relates to both religious and civic identities. Unfortunately, like the paradox of creation and destruction, the dialectic between the profane and the sacred as it pertains to violence and its depiction is rarely addressed. The relative lack of conceptual analysis aside, the book remains a worthwhile read. The studies are generally well-documented and represent solid inquiries into their respective field of research. Together, they demonstrate how a subject "that many still find uncomfortable" (232) can be interrogated in different ways by a wide scholarship. The absence of color plates and the presence of a few typos, although frustrating, do not undermine the overall quality of the book.



Copyright (c) 2016 Robert Marcoux



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