Seaman’s closely argued study addresses two entwined issues, the limits of Ter Brugghen’s Caravaggism and the significance of “archaisms” – echoes of pre-Reformation Northern imagery – discernable in certain religious paintings by the Utrecht master. Abandoning the prevailing view of Ter Brugghen as Caravaggio’s uncritical dependent, Seaman envisions the Reformed Dutch painter as having engaged dynamically with models provided by his Italian Catholic colleague, a process that led to the production of religious pictures that oppose, both in terms of theology and art theory, those of Caravaggio. The noted archaisms, she posits, play a key role in realizing Ter Brugghen’s critical agenda.
Seaman’s argument turns upon the issue of “materiality,” the degree to which the works of art under discussion call attention to their existence as images versus their existence as physical objects. By way of their radical illusionism, Caravaggio’s religious altarpieces move the attention of the viewer away from the painting as object or icon – they “deny their materiality” (4). Consequently, these pictures found legitimacy within the Counter-Reformation Church, which, in an effort to avoid accusations of promoting idol worship, distanced itself from works of art that emphasize physical presence and iconic function. In contrast, Ter Brugghen’s archaistic religious pictures “assertively reject … dematerialization.” (4) Their blending of Caravaggist elements with features derived from the artistic culture of the pre-Reformation North both critique Post-Tridentine image theory and affirm opposing religious values.
The author lays out her thesis in several brief but densely packed chapters that offer fascinating historical analyses of Caravaggism, archaism, and the cultural and religious environment of Utrecht. She then tests it on four of Ter Brugghen’s most Caravaggesque and most archaistic pictures. Seaman’s close readings all attempt to demonstrate the role of anachronistic formations in asserting the paintings’ materiality and, by extension, in both recalling and upending Counter Reformation principles.
Ter Brugghen’s Crucifixion of 1625 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the author’s first main object of attention, has long mystified observers owing to its overtly archaizing depiction of Christ. Previous efforts have gone to pinning down the painter’s pre-Reformation artistic sources. Seaman focuses instead upon the rivulets of blood emanating from Christ’s open wounds. As the author has it, the gore appears to pour down upon the surface of the canvas rather than upon the body or objects within the illusory space of the picture. She sees this feature as a deliberate ploy that “overtly calls attention to the materiality of the canvas and paint that made the illusion, not just illusion itself.” (76) The openly Caravaggesque style and elements of modern dress introduced in the flanking depictions of Mary and John bring the object-ness of the archaistic Christ figure into high relief. By these means and others, the canvas declares itself “incompatible with the ideals of Tridentine sacred image theory.” (94) Seaman suggests interestingly that the Crucifixion might have hung in the private home of a Catholic out of sympathy with Tridentine reforms, or someone who wanted to celebrate “not only the power of past devotions, but also past devotional art.” (94)
The author makes a comparable argument about Ter Brugghen’s Christ Crowned with Thorns of 1620 (National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen), although in this case, she admits, the emphasis upon materiality is less pronounced. Somewhat in the manner of a period Bildtabernakel, the Crowning encases imagery redolent of sixteenth-century German and Netherlandish art in an up-to-date – Caravaggesque, in this case – visual framework. By employing these means, the artist “invites consideration and contemplation of the recent history of religious art and attempts a re-enchantment of the object that admits yet equivocates the role of materiality in the creation of powerful and iconic images.” (114)
Seaman regards Ter Brugghen’s Calling of Matthew (1621; Centraal Museum, Utrecht) and Doubting Thomas (c. 1622; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), her two other main objects of analysis, as “appear[ing] to have been produced with one another in mind” (120) and thus best understood in tandem. The first work, deeply inspired by Caravaggio’s picture of the same subject in San Luigi dei Francesi, upholds Protestant principles by incorporating archaic Northern figural types and compositional arrangements that call attention to the object’s iconic properties, and by replacing Saint Peter, the papal apostle, with another whom she identifies as the Protestant-friendly Saint John. The second picture, even more dependent upon Caravaggio with respect to composition, reverses the positive interpretation of Thomas favored by Catholic theologians by incorporating sixteenth-century Northern types expressive of the apostle’s spiritual blindness and by introducing praying holy figures exemplifying the faithfulness that Thomas lacks. “The pairing,” Seaman concludes, “can be seen as a discourse on confessional differences between Calvinism and Catholicism…[that] contrasts Protestant and Catholic notions of faith and the role of images through the emphasis on or rejection of their materiality.” (120)
There are aspects of Seaman’s thesis over which one might take issue, and some lacunae. The book’s conclusion, that the Utrecht master’s archaizing works uphold theological positions opposed to those of Caravaggio, does not square with older judgments that Ter Brugghen’s religious paintings display an unmatched sensitivity toward the Italian painter’s spiritual message. That discrepancy calls attention to the fragility of the book’s governing premise. To be sure, Caravaggio was a master illusionist and Ter Brugghen was less of one, but to construe their approaches as oppositional around the issue of materiality is, in my view, not entirely persuasive. After all, both masters made use of illusionistic elements in their paintings, and both referenced models provided by the pre-Reform Northern past. Arguably, Caravaggio’s paintings attain their power and mystery through the paradoxical enmeshing of materializing and dematerializing elements. The same might be said of Ter Brugghen’s religious pictures.
Whatever controversies it may engender, The Religious Paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen is a most welcome contribution to the field. A glowingly intelligent and original piece of scholarship, it is the first book to treat the two defining elements of Ter Brugghen’s art, Caravaggism and archaism with the seriousness that they require, and one that goes a long way to making sense of them.
David A. Levine
Southern Connecticut State University