For anyone who has stood before Rogier van der Weyden’s Depositionin the Prado, the notion that the painting – with its hyper-realistic details and emotional intensity – is inherently iconoclastic might seem not only counter-intuitive but also downright absurd. Yet this is the core argument of this ambitious and provocative book by Amy Knight Powell, who sets out to explore the Prado painting, along with several other paintings that respond to Rogier’s work, in terms of the liturgy of Passion week and the deep-seated discomfort with images that percolated throughout the Middle Ages. Especially adventurous is Powell’s decision to couch her essentially historical argument in a purposefully ahistorical methodology that juxtaposes fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century artworks and liturgical practices with twentieth- and early twenty-first-century conceptual art.
The book is divided into two parts. The first, “The Deposition Rite,” explores one of the most dramatic late medieval uses of images: the paraliturgical Good Friday ritual of taking down the crucifix or the sculpted body of Christ and interring it within a sepulcher, where it remained hidden until Easter morning. A related practice was the veiling of sculptures and paintings during the forty days of Lent. As she does throughout the book, Powell interprets these practices from the retrospective point of view of Protestant reformers and iconoclasts, who see such rituals as proof of a “bad conscience about images” (67). Yet, in order to highlight acts of veiling and hiding as “ritualized hostility” (45), the author chooses to deemphasize the subsequent moments of unveiling. In the original ritual context, this was certainly the climactic moment, and as such, it celebrated images, along with their role in revelatory vision. In a similar vein, Powell focuses on the late thirteenth-century invention of crucifixes with movable limbs. For her, the hinged arms and legs only make clear the statue’s lack of mobility, its “lack of life” (95). However, we know that such sculptures could communicate the exact opposite; they hinted at potential animation and physical interaction, including embraces from the cross and other tactile visionary encounters. But for the Lollards, Hussites, and other iconoclasts that interest Powell, such objects could only be seen as “lifeless blocks of wood and stone,” or as Calvin characterized them, as “dead images of the dead” (104).
The book’s second part, “Paintings of the Deposition,” extends the exploration of ritual Deposition reenactments to images of the scene, beginning with Rogier’s famous c. 1435 painting in Madrid. Powell’s analysis of the work’s formal structure is especially nuanced and perceptive. Moving beyond the well-known rhyming bodies of the swooning Virgin and her son, Powell identifies another rhyme: the crossbow shape of Christ’s body which matches the tiny crossbows in the painted tracery (references to the work’s patrons: a crossbowmen’s guild). As the author demonstrates, the crossbow was also a trope in some descriptions of the crucified Christ. In the words of Heinrich von Neustadt: “They laid him on the Cross. Then his pure limbs and veins were drawn like the string on a bow” (149). Yet, Powell ultimately sees these rhymes as a “proliferation of peripheral, strange, and errant images” condemned by reformers and thus evidence that “no single image is adequate to the task of representing God” (157). This characterization depends on the recognition of an emptiness at the composition’s center. As the bodies of the Virgin and Christ are carried off, left and right, this “hole in the center” expands, and as such, it is “part of the iconoclasm that structures Rogier’s composition” (158). Powell then traces the reception of this structural iconoclasm in several later paintings by the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altar, Jan Mostaert, and others. In these images, the artists go beyond the empty center and begin to dismantle the body of Christ through fragmentation, as well as exaggeration and artificiality. In Mostaert’s Deposition Triptych of c. 1520, Christ’s body is echoed by an expansive white cloth that dominates the central panel’s bottom half. It is through this “blank shroud,” Powell argues, that the artist “pictures the invisibility toward which Christ is being lowered” (211). In her conclusion, with its discussion of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dead Christ in the Tomb, the author summarizes her goals more explicitly. In these paintings of the Deposition, as well as the paraliturgical rites of the book’s first part, she sees “pre-figurations of the epic disposition of the image that would occur during the Protestant Reformation” (235).
Each of the book’s chapters ends with a “vignette” featuring the work of a modern or contemporary artist, including Marcel Duchamp, Hans Bellmer, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, and Thomas Demand. (Odd man out is Sigmund Freud, although his description of a child’s game is perfectly in line with the conceptual nature of the artists discussed.) The correlation of past and present artworks is motivated by the author’s use of “controlled anachronism” (as Joseph Leo Koerner puts it in a jacket blurb) and “pseudomorphosis,” that is, the recognition of formal similarities between objects that otherwise have nothing in common. Although such connections are usually dismissed by art historians, Powell suggests that we give in to them, embracing the “promiscuity” of images and their lives well beyond original contexts or intentions (14). By doing so, the author fights against entrenched periodization in order to reveal continuities across time and place. The implications are clear, as the overarching narrative of medieval discontent with images as inadequate substitutes for God becomes the foundation or anticipation of the post-modern critique of the art object and the artist. Read as a kind of poetic art history or art criticism, the chapter-vignette structure suggests some compelling links, especially the discussion of the uncanny fragmentation and artifice of Bellmer’s dolls of the mid-1930s; the framing of emptiness as substance in Hesse’s 1960s sculptural works; and LeWitt’s ritualistic, perhaps even iconoclastic, burial of art in his Buried Cube of 1968.
Of course, for many readers Powell’s anachronistic methodology will inspire an instant, predictably negative reaction. Even for those who are sympathetic to such expansive and theoretical approaches, it is hard to avoid that certain questions of context and meaning are left unexplored and unresolved. This is particularly problematic since the author is ultimately crafting a historical argument about the transition from the late Middle Ages to the Reformation. It is in this part of her book – and not the post-modern frame – that her method seems flawed. Indicative are several instances in which sixteenth-century (and even later) attitudes and texts are loosely read backwards onto fifteenth-century artworks and liturgical practices. The result is an art history that seems less innovative than old-fashioned in its embrace of a teleological structure and its desire to characterize yet another Zeitgeist. Yet, as made explicit in Powell’s postscript, her book is meant as a critique of current art history. In this regard, her book’s compelling meta-narrative is presented as an alternative to the many micro-histories characteristic of recent scholarship, especially those that attempt to “enliven” images that never had life. For her, this “anthropomorphism” of artworks is the intellectual mistake to be avoided. As she asserts, “By enlivening its objects, the discipline tries to forget that its objects never in fact belonged to their original contexts, that they have always exceeded those contexts precisely because they are lifeless things, which neither live nor die along with the people who make them” (261). This seems a willful misreading of the work of many art historians, whose aims are less about empowering or enlivening images than about reception and the role of the audience in bringing images to life. This is the alternate narrative that Powell suppresses, the one about an inherent need for images during the late Middle Ages and beyond, even when faced with their limitations. Although images are “lifeless things,” they have also proven to be essential and necessary extensions of our humanity and our deep-seated drive to find fullness even in the seemingly empty and completely artificial world of art.
David S. Areford
University of Massachusetts Boston