The beauty of Alfred Acres’s book is that it takes themes, or better, ideas that are so familiar – those intimations of the Passion or of evil in scenes of Christ’s Infancy – and shows how dense with meaning they are, how inventive they are, and how fully they contribute to the meaning of the art works in which they appear. Acres does not see his study as “iconographic” because the ideas he studies are not strictly based on literary sources, nor are they specific subject matters like, for example, the Annunciation or the Epiphany. But I see the book as an exemplary demonstration of the “new iconography”, that is, of the study of content within art works that goes beyond literary sources and symbolic decoding. This new iconography – for which James Marrow’s “Symbol and Meaning in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance” (Simiolus 16, 1986) issued the clarion call – opens up wider ways of understanding what meanings are found in art, while also examining how these meanings are generated. For quite some time, the critiques of Panofsky have made iconography a fraught area of study within Northern Renaissance art (while making “disguised symbolism” into a term-that-shall-not-be-mentioned). Acres’s impressive volume is sure to help turn this methodological tide.
After a brief introduction, which lays out the parameters of the project, Acres’s first chapter addresses the concept of the term “subject matter.” Here Acres examines scholarly traditions about the nature of subject matter and argues that subjects are more permeable than we generally think. He notes that the central ideas studied in the book – the references to the Passion in the Infancy (which he terms the “proleptic Passion”) and the presence of evil around the infant Christ – are never named in compilations of subject matters, but are deeply important, not peripheral elements of works. Their meanings arise out of relationships within the representations and function like stage whispers to attract the viewer’s attention.
Chapter 2, which at over 120 pages comprises the bulk of the book, addresses the proleptic Passion, a theme Acres has considered in some of his earlier publications. He begins by noting that this theme turns on “anticipations” and “premonitions” and thereby generates within the viewer a greater awareness of temporality. When turning to specific examples, Acres chooses not to arrange them by subject, medium, place or date – the art works span a variety of media from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, produced in both Northern Europe and Italy – but instead groups them by similar tactics for allowing the Passion to intrude upon the Infancy. Among the tactics treated are: conjunctions (e.g., the pairing of Infancy and Passion in diptychs, although carved altarpieces that combine Infancy and Passion cycles also merit consideration here); various objects (e.g., crosses, the arma Christi, and symbolic plants); Eucharistic symbolism and tomb imagery; and postures (notably those suggesting sleep/death or Crucifixion). This section is distinguished by a very interesting variety of examples, some well-known, some less familiar, nuanced and convincing argumentation, and by an uncanny ability to notice – and interrogate – small details within art works that are easily overlooked but important not to; often I found myself kicking myself for not having noticed that myself! The section on “contingent vision,” however, would have benefitted from a fuller explication of terminology and of how the works included here manifest this particular representational strategy.
In Chapter 3, the author turns to the theme of evil in Infancy scenes. He notes that this idea was less frequent than the proleptic Passion – and drew less from theological sources and more from legend, literature and theater. Particularly strong here is Acres’s analysis of Bosch’s Prado Epiphany triptych, which considers not only the Anti-Christ-like figure in the stable, but also how Bosch places protectors around the sacred foreground of the work. In this section Acres also provides very stimulating analyses of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity and Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece. The chapter goes on to consider various stand-ins for demons, such as monkeys, cats, bugs and wasps. In a final section, titled “Menace,” the author considers how references to protection from evil form signs of the presence of evil. These include coral, protective plants, and the famous Mérode Triptych mousetraps (and its blown-out candle). At some points Acres could have considered additional interpretive lines: the garden gate behind Botticelli’s Virgin and Child tondo in the National Gallery could be read as a porta coeli, not just as an allusion to the gate of the Garden of Gethsemane, and the collapsing stables of many Nativity scenes carry not only menace, but also references to humility.
In a final chapter, called “Motives,” Acres addresses the question of why these references to the Passion and to evil are so frequently found in Renaissance images of the Infancy. He rightly acknowledges the difficulty of inferring intent, while (also quite correctly) affirming the integral role of intention for the interpretation of art, even if intention can only be partially understood. He then takes on the very ambitious task of showing how the ideas he treats relate to three central ideas of Renaissance art: engagement of the viewer, realism, and the rising status and self-consciousness of the artist. While not always convincing and occasionally veering toward overgeneralization, this final chapter is rich with insights, notably, that the “haunting” of the Infancy involves the viewer more intensely and stimulates devotion – and that the spatial unity of Renaissance art enhances the relevance of the temporal issues intrinsic to the haunted Infancy. However, in light of increasing questioning about “originality,” Acres’s claim that these hauntings offered opportunities for artistic invention (an issue highlighted in the book’s title), warrants fuller examination within the context of medieval precedents and of the role of tradition and copying in the Renaissance.
University of Arkansas