Made up of an established core and a changing array of international contributors, Frühe Neuzeit Interdisziplinär gathers every three years. Scholars present new research on early modern Germany, and from multiple disciplines they always deal with variations on one theme.
The theme of the 2012 meeting, chosen by FNI’s then-president, Jeffrey Chipps Smith, editor of this volume, was “visual acuity.” Smith meant the intensely visual nature of early modern German culture. The theme appealed to Smith as an art historian, and many essays in the volume are by FNI participants in that field. Other essays demonstrate that historians and scholars of music or literature also have much to gain – and to add – by engaging with visual images and considering the act of seeing.
The book opens with Smith’s introduction, a meditation on the visual in German culture of the time period and a claim that seeing was an activity about which people thought and spoke and wrote. The seen image was the read image, and sometimes it accompanied words that also demanded reading. Yet often, as in Cranach’s Passional Christi und Antichristi, an image made a text unnecessary. In other cases, words expanded the meaning of an image or even competed with it, as in the debate about how best to teach people about plants. Not just as scientific illustrations or maps, prints in particular held a peculiar relationship to reality, claiming to reproduce it in authentic views.
Smith has arranged the essays in roughly chronological order from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth century. Although each essay deals with seeing in one form or another, subthemes construct subtle ties between essays and lead the reader onward. For example, the first two essays concern metalwork and metal. Admittedly, the pieces that Allison Stielau studies are only depicted metal, the prints of metalwork that she calls “object engravings” (23). The best-known object engraving is the Censer by Schongauer, which Stielau approaches through understanding metalwork as well as theory. A liturgical object is also the topic of Bridget Heal’s essay, which centers on a silver crucifix from the mining town of Freiberg in Saxony. Heal emphasizes the deep piety in worship of Christ among the Lutheran miners, who appeared flanking him on the so-called Bergschöffenkreuz and gave him pride of place in other images that accompanied them in life and death.
Words and reading form the subtheme linking the next three essays. Susanne Meurer writes about Johann Neudörffer the Elder, a professional scribe and writing master, famous in his day for exquisite calligraphy in which the word was literally the image. As a Vasari avant la lettre, Meurer argues, Neudörffer’s lost autograph manuscript on Nuremberg artists and craftsmen was also valued for the beauty of his handwriting. The writing on Jonas Silber’s Universe Cup, subject of Andrew Morrall’s essay, is by contrast tiny and practically illegible. Looking at Silber’s written and visual sources, Morrall emphasizes the goldsmith’s contribution to a Kunstkammer piece, which presents the viewer with the challenge of reading it as an object. Words that describe a painter’s technique feature in the essay by Ruth Slenczka about a printed funerary sermon for Lucas Cranach the Younger. The author, Georg Mylius, was a self-proclaimed connoisseur, and the sermon discussed how Mylius read the deceased painter’s work in terms of color, perspective, and idealized bodies. For Slenczka, the sermon indicates how Lutherans viewed even religious paintings primarily as works of art.
Seeing and performance emerge as subthemes in the next essays. Alexander Fisher argues that Hans Reichle’s monumental bronze Crucifixion in SS. Ulrich and Afra, Augsburg, may have inspired the church organist, Gregor Aichinger, to compose music for a dialogue in which the Virgin and St. John lament Christ’s death. Although such musical laments are common, Aichinger’s piece was aimed at the same audience as the sculpture and was meant to evoke similar sentiments. Both music and sculpture suggest a desire for synesthesia, listening inseparable from viewing. A religious message about seeing, Anthony Mahler argues, overwhelmed the original audience of the Jesuit play Cenodoxus. This play provided guidance to right – prudent, Godly – seeing, using stage effects and a text that repeatedly turned to the concept of sight to call up internal images in the viewer familiar with Jesuit spiritual exercises.
Like Mahler and Fisher, Arne Spohr’s topic touches upon performance, and his essay builds a bridge to the next subthemes, royalty and the invisible. Spohr’s topic is music at the Danish court of Christian IV, which he discusses in the contexts of particular paintings and architectural spaces. Music was an “instrument of power” (159), and Spohr draws a parallel between music, sometimes heard only through sound conduits, and another source of amazement and delight, the Wunderkammer. The wonderful also enters into Volker Bauer’s essay on attempts to lend visual form to complicated, invisible dynastic relationships. Bauer sketches the history of the family tree before introducing genealogical exotic plants. The many-trunked banyan represented the dynasty, while dynastic ideals were expressed in the biblical cedar and palm.
A long but not royal family tree characterized the newly-crowned Friedrich III of Prussia, and the essay by Kristoffer Neville outlines his search for visual imagery to make his royalty visible. Friedrich chose architecture, and Neville argues that what interested him was not the Italianate, but rather architects who had worked for other kings, learning how to build in a style that signaled royalty.
A book of essays from an interdisciplinary conference often has little internal cohesion. But Visual Acuity implicitly acknowledges that an overarching theme and many specific topics cannot be examined from within the confines of one discipline.
Miriam Hall Kirch
University of North Alabama