The very cover of this impressive new anthology sends out a contradiction: its images feature details of the Washington Jan van Eyck Annunciation shutter, yet its editors are noted specialists in Italian painting, and they put “Renaissance” in their title. Their unfamiliar term, “metapainting,” inspired by Leo Steinberg’s “Other Criteria,” refers to how artworks self-consciously or critically reveal their own fictiveness, here especially located during an early modern moment of religious art. One is immediately reminded of the slightly later episode, brilliantly analyzed a quarter-century ago in Victor Stoichita’s Self-Aware Image (Cambridge, 1997). But it also conjures up the concluding historical chapter by Hans Belting in his Likeness and Presence (Chicago, 1994), his chapter on “Religion and Art: The Crisis of the Image at the Beginning of the Modern Age.” Both Stoichita and Belting are invoked in the volume’s thoughtful introduction. In effect, the following essays, which include mural and manuscript painting as well as conventional works on panel, should settle snugly into that intervening period of early modern transition, already explored by Nagel in his influential books on religious art in Cinquecento Italy.
But therein lies the surprise. Taken together, this distinguished roster of contributors – including valuable earlier studies by André Chastel, Klaus Krüger, and Wolfgang Kemp, but why was there a need to translate essays now decades old? – interrogates the mimetic turn of the fifteenth century and the rise of artistic self-assertion (including signatures) on both sides of the Alps. Brief mention of intermedial cross-pollination, such as the paragone, appears in the introduction but seldom emerges in the essays. Ultimately, the point of this volume returns, reflexively, to that familiar early modern shift in status of painting itself.
But in search of a critical vocabulary to discuss that watershed, a vestigial Vasarian perspective still looms: Giotto and the Trecento (Bokody’s specialty) still occupy a significant portion of the first section as a point of origin point in essays by Krüger, Bokody, and Robert Brennan. Yet late medieval specialists of French manuscripts (bas de pages in particular), let alone Europe’s leading thirteenth-century sculpture, albeit anonymous, might readily contest the traditional primacy accorded to Italy in that larger mimetic or reflexive development. Thus, the bias of this volume toward Italy and monumental painting potentially skews the historical, even the analytical usefulness of the entire first section in a book with claims as sweeping as this one, seemingly adding sophisticated theoretical gloss to a highly traditional outlook of the discipline.
Indeed, for an HNA audience, the relative lack of Northern imagery here is truly disappointing. Think of the sophisticated Northern fifteenth-century use of grisaille and its “degrees of reality” (Paul Philippot’s term; cf. Sven Sandström’s “levels of unreality” for Italy), already seen in Van Eyck’s early paragone explorations (as explicated by Rudolf Preimesberger), followed by Hans Memling with great sophistication. Or Van der Weyden’s own innovative “arch motif” (Karl Birkmeyer); or painted visions in fifteenth-century Northern art, debated by Craig Harbison and Barbara Lane (but addressed in Nagel’s – reprinted – essay from his own 2012 book about archaism in the service of depicted visions in Leonardo, Raphael, and Fra Bartolommeo); or plays with Gothic and Renaissance pictorial settings. Not to mention paintings-in-paintings (important for the concluding essay by Chastel, which goes past the seventeenth century to Gauguin); or inserted mirrors, plus the updates of Byzantine icon models, translated into mimetic illusion, as addressed by Maryan Ainsworth (in Helen Evans, ed., Byzantium. Faith and Power, 1261–1557, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004). There are so many major opportunities missed here that one could think of compiling a companion volume – one devoted exclusively to Northern metapainting of the period. Perhaps a third editor might have helped.
Even the first essay about Northern art, by Erik Eising, like Panofsky in 1953, chiefly finds models for Van Eyck and Van der Weyden in Trecento precedents, as it focuses on pictures-within-pictures. Kemp’s essay also discusses pictures-within-pictures in both Van Eyck and Mantegna. Especially useful is a sophisticated essay by Nicholas Herman, a highlight of this volume, which examines later fifteenth-century manuscripts, ignored by Panofsky’s great survey. Their play with margins and scripts and their playful interaction of ornament and framing in dialogue with main images fulfills the ambitions of the volume as a whole and partially redresses the discipline’s usual omission of important, non-painted material, even extremely reflexive late book illuminations, especially in the era of print. For those who are interested, the great reference resource is Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, eds., Illuminating the Renaissance. The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Getty Museum, 2003), plus (closer to Herman’s beloved Jean Bourdichon) François Avril and Nicole Reynaud, Les manuscrits à peintures en France 1440-1520 (Bibliothèque nationale, 2003).
For Northern art historians, two other essays stand out, and their potential interactions could be instructive, since both focus on traditional devotional images. First, Beate Fricke interrogates Dürer’s Man of Sorrows (Karlsruhe), even including its marbleized reverse, recalling Didi-Huberman’s study of non-painting in Fra Angelico and Castagno (1990). Focusing on the illusion in paint of fresh blood on Christ’s body, Fricke interprets the ambition of this small devotional work as a meditation on thresholds: between life and death; between specific narrative moment and timelessness; even between the marble tomb edge and viewer space, unsettled by the steady, direct outward gaze of the Man of Sorrows. Within an early virtuoso display piece by the ambitious young artist, she notes tensions concerning representation – Dürer’s pursuit of mimesis clashes with his choice of traditional framing, an incised gold surface (intermediality?), at what Fricke calls the “verge of visibility” (p. 229), along with a cave-like darkness behind the figure. In seeking out these dualities, Fricke notes how they exemplify the dual nature of Christ himself. This probing case study makes a major contribution to the volume.
For another case study of a Northern devotional image, Shira Brisman contemplates Gossart’s Madonna and Child (Chicago) as “Immaculate art.” She considers how modifying an icon into a new corporeal reality can evoke theology, how self-conscious making as a process contributes further to traditional meaning. Brisman probably sees more metapictorial elements – veils, for example, even haloes – in the work than this reviewer can, but she does underscore the Incarnational emphasis of all that flesh in Gossart (underscored, one might add, by the pale white purity of the Virgin’s skin). Brisman also notes Gossart’s dependence on Dürer’s Maria in sole, especially through prints. But she neglects to consider his continuing dependence on the German’s corporeality (especially after Dürer’s visit to the Low Countries in 1520–21, the subject of this year’s major exhibition in London and Aachen) as decisive for Gossart’s own re-formulation of artistic assertion and reflexivity (among other influences, in monogram plaquettes and in print production, including both a Man of Sorrows and a Madonna and Child). She also speculates on the missing frame and its possible associated prayer, based on other Gossart works, which adds a reflexive note. In the end, still focusing on corporeality, Brisman opts to emphasize the Virgin herself as the “ur-image of Christian art.” (p. 292)
Chastel’s concluding essay from 1967[!], focusing on pictures-within-pictures as well as windows and mirrors (think Las Meninas) shows at once how much this volume produces variations on a well-established theme. While its set of perceptive individual studies remains consistent in period and region (mostly Renaissance Italy), the overall contribution of Renaissance Metapainting thus remains precisely limited to the sum of its parts.
Incidentally, amid all the sophisticated critical vocabulary (parergon, dissemblance, mediality), reflexivity suffices as a term on its own; no need to use “self-reflexivity.” The book also lacks almost all apparatus (acknowledgments, list of contributors, index), though it has a composite bibliography. So, again, its value lies chiefly in its individual essays alone.
University of Pennsylvania