Conference volumes devoted to big themes in cultural history offer three kinds of opportunities for creating coherence. They may seek, like German Beiträge, to add important new case studies, unexplored topics, or newly applied methods; they can cautiously question or shift the old paradigm, exposing limits of interpretation or hidden biases, thus suggesting more fruitful pathways for exploration; or they can radically redefine and challenge the old. Death, Torture, and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650, edited by John Decker and Mitzi Kirkland-Ives, redeems none of these opportunities especially well, despite its urgent theme and colorful array of topics. Nine papers (first delivered at the Renaissance Society of America’s 2012 meeting), framed by an introduction and a concluding reflection (both by Decker), take us on yet another harrowing tour through European art’s chamber of horrors, stopping at sights both familiar (late medieval Passion images, Ottoman impalements, bleeding heads on platters) and unexpected (a flaming effigy at a Sri Lankan funeral, body-snatchers on the outskirts of The Hague). Unlike a thematically related Ashgate volume from 2012, which used reception theory for its unifying focus (Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Allie Terry-Fritsch and Erin Felicia Labbie), the book under review does not align itself with a particular methodological trend.
The title advertises three things, each problematic in its own way. Deaths are indeed present – deaths abject and glorious, repulsive and fascinating, didactic and devotional. Yet death – ubiquitous in European art – quickly reveals itself as an abstraction, and the cultural historian will rightly ask whether death appears as an existential state or a philosophical notion, as a biological event or a process, as ritual, symbol, image, or experience. That essential problem goes unaddressed here. Torture, too, is present, but torture in the formal and historical sense – a technique of forensic questioning, a brutality unprescribed by law – plays little part in the outlook here. Strictly speaking, torture figures in only one essay, Nathalia Khomenko’s perspicacious study of the interrogation narratives (c. 1546) of the English poet and Protestant martyr Anne Askew. (This is also the one essay in the volume that does not deal with visual art.) Perhaps the verbal image of “the broken body” holds the key? Understood by the editors, broken stands for the full array of violations that war, criminal justice, martyrdom, social violence, and asceticism have historically inflicted upon the body. In his introductory statement John Decker, speaking of these myriad violences, and the totality of their effects, alternates between a clinical, vaguely Foucauldian language – “the disassembled body” is his favored phrase – and a quasi-religious view of the body’s “desecration” by violence. Interestingly, this tension enfolds two competing paradigms for writing the cultural history of the body; yet no such genealogy emerges from a book short on historiography. So we look elsewhere for organizing principles.
Decker usefully calls attention to the spectacular nature of the broken body’s appearances across media and genres, and he highlights the artist’s charge in the body’s virtual dismantling. Past scholarship, he charges, has largely neglected the disturbing connections between creativity and brutality. Yet the cohort called upon to represent the “standard models of torture and violence” is oddly limited to Samuel Edgerton, Elaine Scarry, Pieter Spierenburg, and myself; the resulting strawman is labeled the “socio-historical approach” and accused of searching for neat correspondences between representation and reality. Opposing this tendency, Decker attempts to uncover “the creative work of re-presenting and re-imagining torture” (2) and to explore “the protean nature of pictorial and verbal disassemblies of the body” (3). This approach would include a more nuanced account of affective responses to images of grotesque disfigurement, which Decker terms the “spectacular unmaking” of the body, and also offer a better framework for analyzing meanings and functions. But when Decker links Gerard David’s Justice of Cambyses diptych in Bruges (1498) to the silent remaking of the social or moral order, despite the admirable Durkheimian conviction, a properly functionalist framework for understanding the broken body as spectacle eludes him.
More than any other term, violence would have made a compelling Stichwort for the volume, which is divided into two parts: first, the “holy violence” that produces martyrs and suffering stigmatics; and second, the “social violence” that disrupts human order in one instance, upholds and reinforces communal identity in another. While each of the book’s nine essays finds a place in this scheme, violence receives neither critical theorization (as a totalizing category) nor sustained historicizing (as a collection of situated practices and effects). Assaf Pinkus attempts to discern four “modes” of violence in the hagiographic vignettes of Guido da Siena’s reliquary shutters in Siena (c. 1260). Despite the author’s confidence in having isolated what he calls “the late medieval visual discourse on violence” (19; cf. 27), he falls far short of providing this kind of theorization. With its arbitrary, one-to-one correlation of four abstract qualities (“reflexive, reflective, physical, and imaginative” – 28) to Guido’s four scenes, Pinkus’s essay reveals the dangers of anachronism inherent in any effort to explain “violence per se . . . as a subject of artistic speculations” (19), at least in pre-modern art.
Nevertheless, the volume is full of encouraging signs that a critical approach to violence in art is possible. Especially promising is Renzo Baldasso’s essay on The Death of Decius Mus, one of six large canvases Rubens painted for a Genoese patron in 1616. Arguing against earlier interpretations of the climactic scene of the hero’s fall as a form of stoic pseudo-martyrdom, Baldasso replaces a static notion of violence with a dynamic interlace of “moments of killing and dying” (137). Heroic death finds its abject and unredemptive counterpart in a macabre embrace that Rubens painted into the picture’s lower corner: as one fallen soldier slowly, silently, strangulates another, we witness “not a death but an actual killing in the making” (157). Such motifs terrorize the beholder through an inverted reflexive address that deserves further study (thematized here by the gleaming surface of a metal helmet that has been cast to the side, a motif that Baldasso overlooks).
Familiarity with classical rhetorical theory spurred ambitious painters like Rubens to focus their efforts on the visible forms of energynecessary for violent effects, a crucial observation that Baldasso buries in a footnote (162, n36). Eager to assume his place among Europe’s greatest painters – and specifically trying to outdo Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari – Rubens successfully evaded painting’s reputed inability to picture “death” per se, capitalizing instead on its capacity to simulate visible movements of the body and to stimulate invisible movements of the soul. If the painter’s charge was to invent forms adequate for expressing dynamic energy, the quality of “violence” that scholarship seeks to locate “in” art would have to consist in its visual evidence, in what was made compellingly present to the eyes (demonstratio ad oculos); thus the beholder must always be part of the equation. This embrace of the affective power unleashed by descriptions of brutality’s mise-en-scène informed the work of many Greek and Latin rhetoricians, as well as Christian poets such as Prudentius. This theme emerges, albeit subtly, in Kelly Magill’s fine analysis of the frescoes commissioned by Cardinal Cesare Baronio for the renewal of SS. Nereo e Achilleo (1597-97) in Rome. Eager to secure an ancient pedigree for martyrdom imagery in their churches, post-Tridentine Catholic antiquarians like Baronio discovered in Prudentius’s ekphrasis – this one describing a painting over the tomb of St. Hippolytus – an unimpeachable model of devotional vividness.
Maureen Warren traces the escalating brutality of a group of elaborate execution broadsheets produced by Claes Jansz. Visscher in 1623, revealing the printmaker’s complicity in an elaborate campaign of political revenge (the convicts, all members and associates of the Oldenbarnevelt family, were implicated in a failed conspiracy to murder Prince Maurits of Orange). Allie Terry-Fritsch reopens the case on the vanished genre of punishment effigies, three-dimensional figures that served as mimetic, indexical stand-ins for convicts who ducked the machinery of justice, thus satisfying a communal need for restitution by becoming the victims of a ritual iconoclasm. Despite some vague documentation and an avoidance of the German literature on effigy magic (in particular Wolfgang Brückner’s Bildnis und Brauch, Berlin, 1966), Terry-Fritsch advances a crucial insight, namely, that effigies “worked” by virtue of collective perceptions of their use, especially when ritual prescriptions were satisfied (200). Mitzi Kirkland-Ives remaps the familiar territory of visual mnemonics in Netherlandish devotional imagery, and Soetkin Vanhauwaert offers a well-informed but inconclusive analysis of the eucharistic associations informing Jan Mostaert’s two surviving versions of John the Baptist’s Head on a Charger (Brussels and London).
Few methods of execution produce a bodily image more unholy than impaling, as Heather Madar reveals by tracing the history of associations that Europeans drew between that technique and the looming Ottoman menace. Turbaned tyrants see to the impalement of Christian martyrs in Albrecht Dürer’s early woodcut, the Martyrdom of the Five Thousand (c. 1495) and his 1508 painting of the same subject (Vienna); but propaganda prints by contemporaries such as Erhard Schön proved more efficient in making impalement a “key signifier of Turkish atrocities” (175). Sealing the association were the psychopathic excesses of Vlad III of Wallachia, better known as Vlad Dracula on account of his father’s induction into Emperor Sigismund’s Order of the Dragon (Madar notes that Vlad owed his political fortunes to the Ottomans, after being installed as a vassal ruler by Mehmet II). Is Madar’s lucid account an historical case study of “holy violence,” “social violence,” or something outside this polarity?
As this review was being prepared, the difficulty of that question had already been renewed by events, stirring old fears about the terrorizing of Christian populations by Muslim conquerors. Across villages of northern Syria, militants of the so-called “Islamic State” began crucifying captive enemy fighters, spies, and apostates. Staging their atrocities before cameras, they now update an old image of “absolute cruelty and absolute otherness” (185) for worldwide consumption.
The Johns Hopkins University