Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

by Christopher Wood

The essay begins:

Romance is a plot driven by interaction among willful, desiring persons within constraining envelopes of social conventions and natural laws. In romance, both the desire-shaping resistance to will and the acquiescence of the world in human ambitions are concretized in things, naturalia and artifacts alike, endowed with unexpected powers. Characters acquire, exchange, hide, and converse with rings, swords, articles of clothing, trees, birds, and the like. According to Italo Calvino, “The magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events.” Such tokens function as protagonists in medieval legends and sagas, chivalric romances, the neochivalric epics of Ariosto or Spenser, and the modern novel. “Around the object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself.” The thing arrests and then restarts the plot. Interactions with things or animals substitute for interpersonal, psychological relations when the literary means to represent such relations are lacking. The bundle of shifting desires and emotions that is a person can more easily “settle” on a jewel or a horse than on another unstable person.

In the romance, the thing provides a background against which personhood is profiled. The thing shares some qualities with persons but lacks other crucial attributes such as will, voice, or conscience. The effects of agency granted to things within the fiction intensify awareness of the nonhuman qualities of such things outside the fiction, in reality. The gem or the ribbon comes into focus as a thing, as the reduced double of a person, inside a narrative. The thing is a precipitate of story that arrives to assist the story. The thing decenters personhood and is at the same time anthropomorphic, in the sense that it stands in for something that is prior to or outside the human, but is customized by the story for human apprehension. The anthropomorphism of animal or artifact in romance is uncanny because partial.

In the last several decades the device of partial anthropomorphism, or attribution of some human qualities to nonhuman entities, has been favored within critical and historical writing across several disciplines. The project signaled by the phrase “Images at Work,” title of the conference from which the present special issue arises, is a good example. Someone who writes or speaks about what images “want,” the “life” of things, or “things that talk” would seem to be making a claim, against common sense, about reality. I am personally unconvinced that pictures desire anything, or that images think, or that things live. Awaiting better demonstrations of such unlikelihoods, I can only speculate about what people really mean when they speak this way.

In the literary mode of romance, partial anthropomorphization signals not only an awareness of the limits of narrative to convey the whole of personhood but also an awareness of the limits of a person’s ability to control his or her own destiny. Similarly, the modern critical trope of anthropomorphization signals a recognition of, perhaps even a resignation to, the limits of personhood. To speak about nonsentient things as if they were almost persons is to ironize the concept of the person. It is a way of speaking that calls attention to the way persons win unearned prestige by inserting themselves in advantageous positions within sentences. Sentences create subjects by associating substantives with predicates, including verbs. The subject is the source of the movement produced by the predicates. Grammar invites anthropomorphism, for inside a sentence or a plot you can simply replace “she” with “it,” and the verb does the rest. Sentences and plots threaten to expose the human subject as an artifact of grammar. The trope of misanthropic anthropomorphism is basically contending that people are things that have been activated by grammar. The trope is antifictional, discrediting modern stories—not just romances, but any story that exaggerates the autonomy of the person. The trope is antihumanist, if humanism is defined as the attribution of too much humanity to people. Writing reveals that from a standpoint outside writing, things would look more like persons and persons would look more like things. To redescribe reality as a series of interactions among persons and things is to replace the hierarchy of animate and inanimate entities with a nonhierarchical network.

The discourses of the “life of things,” actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology restore credence to pre- or nonmodern anthropomorphisms and animistic psychological habits. The tactical, calculated anthropomorphisms of modern scholarly discourse overturn the modern common sense that rejects animism as superstition, undoing invidious hierarchies of enlightened and unenlightened, Western and non-Western, modern and unmodern. Enlightened thought dismissed belief in an animated cosmos as a fiction permitting people to imagine that they participate in an external world greater than they are. Enlightenment was an assault on anthropomorphism, dedicated to replacing comfortable human-shaped fictions such as “God” with the impersonal laws of physics. The modern critical discourse of animism exposes hidden anthropocentrisms within enlightened thought that support an “imperialism” of people over animals, the earth, or things. The deepest aim of the new, counter-Enlightenment animism may not be so remote from those of traditional animisms, namely, to persuade each other that we participate in something greater than ourselves: if not a cosmos, then an ecology or a system.

The visual arts are well suited to this project, even better suited than the literary arts, because images, anyway, have limited means of reproducing the words or gestures that carry interpersonal relations. A simple, effective way of reducing the person is to deprive  him or her of speech. The image or picture delivers a partial person, outside grammar. Within a picture, the leveling of people and things is already half-accomplished. “In iconic communication,” according to Gregory Bateson, “there is no tense, no simple negative, no modal marker.” Modality, or open-endedness, is a key to any ambitious model of the person as emergent, contingent, and unlimited. Because art has difficulty reproducing emergence, intersubjectivity reappears within art as misrecognition and misunderstanding, as if people all along, each time they try to communicate, have been mistaking things for people. The pictorial arts, where persons and things share a mutism, give the cue to the recent critical discourses—materialist, antihumanist, and antihierarchical—that redistribute agency across a spectrum of entities. It is especially in art history, art criticism, and art theory that the anthropomorphizing discourses of the thing have taken hold. Continue reading …

This paper argues that the “anthropomorphizing” discourses that attribute agency to images and things, stressing their efficacy and power, are motivated by a perception of a lack in the artwork, or in art itself.

CHRISTOPHER S. WOOD is Professor in the Department of German at New York University. He is the author of Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (1993, reissued with new afterword, 2014).

Enigma at Nishapur

Animal, Vegetal, and Mineral: Ambiguity and Efficacy in the Nishapur Wall Paintings

by Finbarr B. Flood

The essay begins:

Between 1935 and 1947 excavations led by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Nishapur, one of the four great medieval cities of the eastern province of Khurasan, brought to light some of the earliest extant wall paintings of the Islamic period from Iran. These included a remarkable series of painted plaster dadoes found in a rectangular room measuring almost thirty square meters within a large complex identified by the excavators as an administrative or palatial structure, located in a western suburb of Nishapur known as Tepe Madrasa. The iconography of the paintings, which can be dated to the ninth or tenth centuries, is unique; although some antecedent traditions can be identified, the bizarre congeries of leaves, limbs, and scales evoked in the medium of paint at Nishapur is without any immediate parallel in Islamic art. The absence of contemporary epigraphic or textual materials that might shed light upon the idiosyncratic imagery of the paintings compels one to fall back on analogical reasoning, which suggests that the paintings were invested with apotropaic or talismanic properties directly relevant to their strange appearance. Given the lack of any related contextual data, any attempt to analyze the paintings with respect to their proposed apotropaic imagery must necessarily be speculative. Nevertheless, even such a tentative approach to the paintings may be useful in highlighting aspects of the relation between materiality and representation relevant to the efficacious functioning of apotropaiac and talismanic imagery in general. In particular, the unusual conjunction of anthropomorphic, lithic, and vegetal imagery in the Nishapur paintings raises interesting questions about efficacy, ontology, and the apotropaic image, questions underlined by the metaquality of the Nishapur images as painted abstractions of natural forms and media. Continue reading …

A series of enigmatic ninth- or tenth-century wall paintings from Nishapur in eastern Iran seems to have been imbued with amuletic, apotropaic, or talismanic properties. Recapitulating while exaggerating some of the properties of marble, the paintings also include anthropomorphic and vegetal imagery. Their idiosyncratic iconography seems to highlight a tension between physis and technē that may be relevant to the ambiguous ontology of efficacious images in general.

FINBARR B. FLOOD is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University. His publications include Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (2009), which was awarded the 2011 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. He is currently completing a major book project, provisionally entitled Islam and Image: Polemics, Theology, and Modernity. Other projects include a collaborative project entitled Object Histories: Flotsam as Early Globalism, for which he and Professor Beate Fricke, of UC Berkeley, have just been awarded an ACLS Collaborative Grant.

Renaissance Aesthetics and Medical Talismans

Life from Within: Physiology and Talismanic Efficacy in Marsilio Ficino’s De vita (1498)

by Tanja Klemm

The essay begins:

Marsilio Ficino’s De vita, published in 1489 in Florence, is exclusively dedicated to the physical well-being of the sensible living organism—or the corpus animatum, as it had been called since late medieval times. In the proem to the work, Ficino makes it clear that in De vita he writes not as a philosopher, theologian, or priest but as a doctor, a scholar of medicine—of medicina theorica and of medicina practica. And indeed, with its focus on the regimen of intellectuals, of litterati, all three books of the treatise are deeply rooted in contemporary medical knowledge. In this sense, in De vita everything revolves around human physiology, which in that period was understood as the doctrine of nature (physis) dedicated to the understanding of natural processes in living organisms and the constitution of life. In the third book, entitled De vita coelitus comparanda (On Obtaining Life from the Heavens) this physiology is amplified into a cosmological doctrine of life and living matter: throughout the text it is connected to astrology—to the macrocosm and to the living stars and planets. To modern eyes, Ficino in De vita coelitus comparanda leaves the realm of physiology and, contrary to his statement in the proem, enters philosophy—or better, natural philosophy. But in premodern times philosophy was part of the medical curriculum, and thus medicine and astrology were tightly linked.

Pseudo-Augustine, Libellus de anima et spiritu, early thirteenth century. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS 0.7.16, 47r. © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Pseudo-Augustine, Libellus de anima et spiritu, early thirteenth century. Trinity College, Cambridge, MS 0.7.16, 47r. © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

In the following pages, I would like to focus on the fact that within this cosmological physiology De vita coelitus comparanda develops a consistent phenomenology of imagines efficaces (efficient images). One could also call these imagines “medical talismans,” because, according to Ficino, they act on the spirit, body, and soul of a person—as does medicine, prescribed in the right way. Further, they can absorb powers from the heavens— as can medicine. Thus, in De vita coelitus comparanda, both imagines and medicine are embedded in an astrological framework—and this makes them both talismanic.

Ficino however does not use the term “talisman” in his treatise. Instead, he speaks throughout of imagines (sometimes effigies) or figurae. Imagines, per Ficino, refer to artifacts “made out of metals or stones by astrologers,” that is, to three-dimensional artifacts produced by specialists. He also goes on to specify their production, this time with assistance by “ancients” like Ptolemy, Haly Abbas, Platonist thinkers, and the Egyptians. In order to be useful (utilis), he explains, imagines can be formed according to the planetary constellation or the “celestial aspect” (vultus coelestis) whose healing power one wishes to attract. Figurae, on the other hand, do not designate three-dimensional artifacts in Ficino’s terminology. They refer instead to the figures and signs incised in imagines.

And De vita coelitus comparanda goes even further: it tells us how the forces of imagines—with or without figurae—are connected to both the human organism and the realm of the heavens. Within this framework, it provides a model of perception based on embodiment, immanent embeddedness, and participation rather than on visuality and observation. It focuses on how imagines or medical talismans worked and how the efficacy of these artifacts was conceived, perceived, and experienced. It explains the belief that talismanic powers had to be mingled with the forces—the spiritūs and virtutes—of the human organism in order to be felt or to lead to any kind of psychophysical metamorphosis, be it the cure of disharmonies of the corporeal humors or the refinement of the corporeal spiritus required to perform intellectual work or to enhance the proper generative (that is, procreative) forces. In short, De vita coelitus comparanda gives us an idea about how efficient images were perceived in the Renaissance. It is this consistent historical phenomenology of efficacy that makes Ficino’s text so original. Continue reading …

In his medical treatise De vita (1498), Marsilio Ficino describes the force of medical talismans and their efficacy on humans against the background of a cosmological physiology. This article focuses on the question of how—according to Ficino—the powers of medical talismans were experienced by humans, by the living, sensible body (corpus animatum). Discussion of this question also leads to theoretical considerations about the efficacy of artifacts in the Renaissance.

TANJA KLEMM is an art historian currently working as research assistant at the Morphomata Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Cologne. She is the author of Bildphysiologie. Körper und Wahrnehmung in Mittelalter und Renaissance (2013) and co-editor of Sind alle Denker traurig? Fallstudien zum melancholischen Grund des Schöpferischen in Asien und Europa (2015). Currently she is preparing, with Stephanie Dieckvoss, a monographic issue for Kunstforum International on the formation of artists in a global perspective.

Talking to a Chinese Jar on Two Human Feet

Image, Object, Art: Talking to a Chinese Jar on Two Human Feet

by Gerhard Wolf

from the special issue Images at Work, Representations 133

Through “conversation” with a more than four thousand-year-old Chinese vessel, this essay engages with some of the fundamental principles of the discipline of art history espoused in recent decades. In particular, it situates Bildwissenschaft and thing theory and the material turn within ongoing debates on art and artifacts and delineates a more fluid approach to the study of image, object, art (Bild, Ding, Kunst).

The essay begins:

Jar on two human feet, earthenware (China, Gansu or Qinghai Province, perhaps Qijia Culture, 2nd millennium BC). Permanent Loan, Meiyintang Foundation, Inv. MYT 2095, Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

Jar on two human feet, earthenware (China, Gansu or Qinghai Province, perhaps Qijia Culture, 2nd millennium BC). Permanent Loan, Meiyintang Foundation, Inv. MYT 2095, Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

It is hard to say why I stopped in front of you so much longer than before your neighbors, while walking through the collection of Chinese ceramics at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich recently. Is it because the base of your body has the somewhat simplified shape of two human feet? They carry a smoothly protruding “belly,” which contracts upwards into a neck that widens, in turn, into a collar, the whole (some 25 cm high) formed in brownish clay, with vertical scratched lines ornamenting the body and a kind of rhythmic incision at the upper circular edges that defines the border between inside and outside. Perhaps there are some remains of color, but I am not sure about this. If there were no vitrine separating us, one could handle you, have a closer look, and, while talking to you, perhaps my voice would resonate through the cavity of your “belly.” Must speak with your curator. The label reveals that your exact provenance (Gansu or Qinghai, Qijia culture?) is as uncertain as the date of your production, which is roughly the second millennium BCE. No way to write your biography, to know about your dwelling in the nearly four thousand years of your existence; most probably you were excavated in the twentieth century and sold by an art dealer to a collector, who loaned you on a permanent basis to the museum. I am intrigued by your feet, not because they give you an anthropomorphic dimension; to my eyes, it rather works the other way round, in the sense of giving feet to a thing: in fact, I would not describe your overall body in either human or animal terms, even if I have already used such terminology for reasons of convenience and convention. There is an owl-shaped jug on your left side, and it is quite different. Your feet remind me of Bertrand Russell’s rather rhetorical question concerning how we can know that things do not disappear once we turn our back to them. I read this early in life, a time when one sometimes wonders if the tables and chairs might not walk away only to return the next morning. Well, in your “case” you would need to escape from the glass that enshrines you, a container in a container, and your steps would be short and shuffling. Even if you do not do this, your (relatively small) feet on the one hand indicate a polarity of stability and potential movement, and on the other they give your self-sufficient thingness a directionality resulting in a front, profile, and back view, thus “orienting” you in space. One cannot avoid considering them when one wants to “place” you somewhere. The feet thus have an effect similar to a handle; however, they don’t seem to be attached to you, as handles often are (as animals climbing up a vessel or hanging on its side, for example). I imagine that your feet are hollow inside, taking part in shaping the volume that the layer of clay circumscribes, becoming the jar you are, to be filled with wine or water or another liquid.

I wonder if you may be called a kind of Heideggerian thing, and what this would mean. Heidegger is concerned not with the shape or making of jars and jugs, but rather with the jugness of jugs and the thingness of things; this self-referential nature of things (as predicates of themselves) he strongly distinguishes from the “objecthood” of “objects”: the “thingness” of “things.” He mentions the handle and spout once en passant, and insists on the German verb schenken in the double sense of “pour” and “give.” However, he doesn’t work out the resulting directionality intrinsic to the dynamics of such a potential flow; he rather privileges the gathering in roundness, the thing as a ring. He may not have liked your feet either, insofar as they suggest the object standing in front of me (as Gegenstand = object), or he would not have cared about them at all. But I do, for what fascinates me about you, as my remarks suggest, is this hybrid but “unified” combination of a part of the human body with a body that does not represent a living being, animal or human, iconizing with these parts a function proper to them, for which they “stand,” and that vessel and human body share—the function, in fact, of standing, emphasizing further the nonhuman nature of your overall shape. As a historian I cannot be content with my own intuitive approach or bodily experience; I must ask what images and concepts of living bodies were current at the time of your production. A quick look around that rich collection does not offer me clear hints. As for the elegant tripods next to you, they look to me like communicating organs, standing on three points and thus easily set on a fireplace. There are Chinese ceremonial bronze food vessels, called Ding from the second millennium onwards, very rarely decorated with a human face; they usually carried dragon ornaments. Heidegger may have liked them, for they apparently correspond more to his concept of Vierung, the fourfold gathering of heaven and earth, mortals and immortals, than you do, an “innocent” jar standing in your vitrine on your feet, so to speak. Even if I like the originality of your shape, I won’t call you a work of art, but rather an artifact. However, this is not my major concern. Over the last years, I have named my research department at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence “Image, Object, Art,” or in German Bild, Ding, Kunst, not because I think these terms form an inextricably fatal triangle, but rather because they can open to a rich semantic field, in a variety of constellations: as a triangle within a complex system of lines, as overlapping circles or pluri-dimensionally entangled universes. I understand “image,” “object,” and “art” as cumulative terms in a nonessentialist way, for example, embracing image and picture, object and thing, art and aesthetics. My interest is precisely to experiment with them in working out open conceptual tools for descriptive as well as analytical purposes as a way of reworking and refining the research process itself. In this way, you might be addressed as an artifact with an iconic aspect, meaning that your objecthood, if not thingness (despite Heidegger, I do not see a need for a sharp differentiation here), can be understood in aesthetic as well as anthropological categories. In fact, more generally, the techniques, practices, and aesthetics of containment are among the elementary interactions of humans and the environment, in the form of interference in, or interruption of, “flux” and other natural processes. This can happen by means of gathering and collecting; by transport, storage, and conservation of liquids or solids. Containment is thus one of the major conditions of the existence of “things”: containers or vessels are not only things in themselves; they can guarantee a relative stability of their content over time and space as well. Yet they can also be the site of metamorphoses or transubstantiation, as in the case of cooking pots. Containers can be understood as shells, constituting an inside and an outside. There is an aesthetics and poetics of containment in relation to function, transcultural agency, and biographies of objects, as well as the (not only) aesthetic practices that surround them: tea rituals, symposia or other rites of communality, pouring and drinking in religious ceremonies, measuring liquids and solids, the display and handling of drugs, packing suitcases, opening carton boxes in the archive, unloading ships, cooking pasta, or playing a violin. For the world of vessels and boxes is multisensorial, beyond the visual it involves touch, smell, taste, and, last but not least, acoustics: one thinks of musical instruments, often enshrining a volume that is essential for their production of sound, or beyond that, of the sheltering of objects by means of cases, often lined with textiles. According to Aristotle, a place (topos) is a sort of perfectly tight case enshrining or encapsulating things.

Turning to the three terms “image,” “object,” and “art,” I see the danger of fetishizing them or, rather, of following certain traditions and current practices of doing so. If art in the narrow sense of the European tradition is set as an absolute, universalist category, “image” and “thing” are easily drawn into the game, which then tends to become a fatal triangulation. My suggestion, however, is not to renounce speaking about “art” (a term with a kind of global success), but rather to try to free it from the connotations of the early modern “system” as it was established in Europe, to abandon the traditional hierarchies of artwork and artifact and to rediscover the notion of aesthetics as an open category well suited for transcultural research. If I see it correctly, there is at present a tendency toward just this in various parts of the world. Continue reading …

GERHARD WOLF is Director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut, and Honorary Professor at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His current research topics are Mediterranean and global art histories, sacred topographies in an interreligious perspective, theories of the image in religion and art, and the interrelations between artistic and scientific worldviews. His many 2015 publications include Littoral and Liminal Spaces: The Early Modern Mediterranean and Beyond (co-edited with Hannah Baader), Bild, Ding, Kunst (co-edited with Kathrin Müller), and Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400–1700 (co-edited with Alessandra Russo and Diana Fane).

The Efficacy of Images

Images at Work: On Efficacy and Historical Interpretation

an introduction to the special issue Images at Work, by Hannah Baader and Ittai Weinryb

The introduction begins with the example of a magical fly:

In an early thirteenth-century letter, the newly appointed general emissary to Puglia and the imperial chancellor Conrad of Querfurt (ca. 1160–1202), educator of the German emperor Henry VI and later bishop of Hildesheim, recollected one of the many legends associated with the city of Naples:

In the same city is a gate of the greatest strength, built like a castle, possessing doors of bronze which now the emperor’s troops control, on which Virgil had placed a fly of bronze. As long as it remained whole, not even one fly could enter the city.

imagesConrad here unravels unique relations between animals, men, and objects. Placed upon the walls of the medieval city of Naples, above the bronze gates, is a manmade object, produced in bronze in the shape of a fly, whose function is to prevent other, living, flies from entering the city. That object is more than just a physical presence on the exterior of the walls of medieval Naples and more than just a depiction. The bronze fly of Virgil is an image that “works,” so to speak. It is described as having a certain influence on the natural world. The object has a function; it is supposed to operate, to effect change. At the heart of the story is the manufacturer of the object, Virgil, the classical Latin author who, in medieval text and imagination, had been characterized as a sorcerer. The legendary qualities ascribed to Virgil and the legendary qualities ascribed to the object are played out in the natural world.

Such consideration of operational qualities forms the essence of the collection of essays in this special issue, with its notion that images and artifacts have an ability to “act.” To consider how the bronze fly worked is to consider how images operate within various times, spaces, regions, religions, and frameworks as well as or according to various disciplines, subfields of study, and different investigatory modes. It is to study how images operate, and to reflect on the sheer qualities of objects in a broader sense. They may attract or, in the case of the bronze fly, repel living organisms. The mechanism for images that repel is known as apotropeia, from the Greek verb “to avert.” The bronze fly was considered to have a practical effect or function—to keep other flies at bay. As such, the small fly is part of a larger ensemble, the large gate and bronze doors, built “like a castle,” protecting the city by their strength. From Conrad’s letter, we know that the fly hanging above the city gate was found above the now-lost bronze doors that formed a threshold at the same gate. In this way we can understand the bronze fly as part of a wider environment of crafted objects made out of the same materials (bronze or other copper-based alloy) and according to the same technique (lost-wax casting). The bronze doors thus formed part of a created world of similar material objects—demarcating the threshold of the city—a world that included a bronze fly with a specific purpose or effect.

The bronze fly is also a story of fabrication. In the Middle Ages, Virgil was associated in legend with various artisanal and mechanical capabilities, but rather than being described in such tales as a scientist, he was rendered as a sorcerer or magician. His ability to influence the natural world was understood not as a product of discovery and rediscovery of certain techniques (like bronze casting), but rather as an indecipherable practice with supernatural results. The bronze fly of Virgil is triggered by acts of secret knowing and making. It is immersed in tradition, ideas about antiquity, and the miraculous. Continue reading (full text of this introduction free online) …


In recent years, art history has seen a shift in the historical understanding of the material object, drawing further attention to historical experience and potential historical efficacy as a means of historical interpretation. Anthropologists and art historians alike have established viable interpretive schemes for the exploration of material objects. This introduction to the special issue Images at Work outlines the various problems encountered in articulating notions about the historical efficacy of an object.


HANNAH BAADER is Permanent Senior Research Scholar at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut.

ITTAI WEINRYB is Assistant Professor of Medieval Art and Material Culture at Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

From Death Mask to Portrait Bust

A Case of Corporate Identity: The Multiplied Face of Saint Antonino of Florence

by Urte Krass

The essay begins:

Strolling through an Italian diocesan museum or an exhibition on the art of the Italian Renaissance, a visitor will inevitably encounter many images of saints, alone or in groups, presenting themselves and their attributes to viewers inside and outside the picture within which they are framed. After a while, any reasonably observant viewer will notice that there is one face that stands out from the crowd of painted saints: that of Saint Bernardino of Siena, the Franciscan preacher and vicar general who died in 1444 and was canonized only six years later. One of the innumerable examples of this uniquely recognizable face is Antonio Colantonio’s Saint Francis Giving the Rule to His Disciples in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples (fig. 1). In the group of men on the left, the saints have been given individual faces by the careful artist. But Bernardino’s face seems markedly different; it seems to stem from our own world, whereas the individualization of the neighboring saints reminds us more of faces in the medieval sample books used in workshops. The beholder’s gaze is compelled by Bernardino’s authentic, emaciated, recognizable features, which are in stark contrast to the other saints’ obviously fictive faces.


Figure 1

Bernardino of Siena is the first saint whose face, that is, its recognizable physiognomy, is his most important attribute, and the first saint who, thus, can always be recognized even without other identifying characteristics. This is explained mainly by the fact that he was the first Christian saint whose death mask left its traces in further representations of him. Painters and sculptors would copy this mask when they wanted to represent the venerated mendicant friar. As a result, in fifteenth-century Italy, a new visual medium was invented for representing the saints: the veristic saint’s portrait bust, modeled after—or even directly from—the death mask. Continue reading …

This article focuses on the development of portrait busts of saints beginning in the early Renaissance. The category of the portrait bust, which emerged slightly before 1440, is characterized by its reference to—and at times even integration of—the death mask of the recently deceased saint. As such, these images must be seen in close relation to traditional head and bust reliquaries. The particular group of busts showing the features of the Florentine archbishop Antonino Pierozzi is here analyzed through hitherto obscure written sources, and the proliferation of Pierozzi’s bust is then related to that of other saints.

URTE KRASS works as Assistant Professor at the Institute for Art History of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich. Her research focuses on saints’ images from icon to photography, on early artistic theory in the Italian novelle of the fourteenth century, and, more recently, on the political use of images in Portugal and its overseas empire in the early modern period.


Temptations of the Viewer: Looking at St. Anthony

Presence Through Absence: Thresholds and Mimesis in Painting

by Beate Fricke

The essay begins:

An aged and venerable man in a black habit is sitting in the country with a book in his hands. Slightly confused about whom this might be, but intrigued by the idyll, the viewer leans in to take a closer look at the label on the wall of the museum in Brussels where the painting hangs.  FrickeFig2Next to this exquisite painting he reads its attribution to the southern Flemish school of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and its subject: “La tentation de saint Antoine” and on the line below that, “De bekoring van de heilige Antonius.” Still unsure whether the French “temptation” is in fact the same as the Flemish “enchantment,” the modern view returns his gaze to the painting. Analogies to other paintings that clearly depict Saint Anthony sweep away his initial doubt about whom the painting shows—it is Saint Anthony (and not another prophet or saint, for example, Job).

In the foreground, Anthony sits atop a small hill in a kind of garden with a variety of plants. Placed next to him are a shiny jar and a plate, probably both made of brass. Behind him a bright hillside undulates with lighter colored grass; at the bottom of the hill lies a body of water, possibly a pond or small creek. The bridge on the right side of the panel leads through a roofed gate; a herald is stepping through it. Through the opening of the gate and above the flowering hedge on either side of it we see an enclosed strip of lawn. Two trees, browsing animals, and the front side of a house at the edge of the forest all enclose the area against the darker background. An old picket fence leads the beholder to assume that a kitchen garden is located to the right side of the house. In the shadowed semidarkness to the left of the house a path leads into the forest.

What we see at first glance—this peaceful landscape and the silence of the reading or meditating hermit—appears on further inspection rather uncanny. Continue reading …

In this essay, through a close reading of a little-known painting of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, Beate Fricke proposes that every convening of images inspired by the viewing of a picture is a unique “event,” a transformation that occurs during the act of perception, in which various images can be seen as an assemblage generated by one picture. The analysis of such assemblages provides insight into the making and reception of the image, as well as the potential variance between the artist’s making and viewer’s reception. Further, such analysis reveals a structure of “thresholds” within the picture, a structure that refers to inherent principles of representation and mimesis.

BEATE FRICKE is Associate Professor of Medieval Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Fallen Idols, Risen Saints and co-editor of Bilder und Gemeinschaften, Studien zur Konvergenz von Politik und Ästhetik in Kunst, Literatur und Theorie, a volume on the contribution of images to the formation of communities from late antiquity to the twenty-first century, and The Public in the Picture, essays on the beholder in antique, Islamic, Byzantine, and Western medieval and Renaissance art. Currently she is preparing a monograph called Beautiful Genesis: Creation and Procreation in Medieval Art.

Monumental Legacy: Robert and Michael Heizer

Monumentality as Method: Archaeology and Land Art in the Cold War

by Robert J. Kett

The work of a father and son—archaeologist Robert Heizer and land artist Michael Heizer—is the subject of Robert Kett’s analysis of cross-generational practices of knowing and making. While the elder Heizer is known as a methodological and technological innovator in Cold War archaeological practice, his son is a prominent figure in an art movement highly critical of modern forms of knowledge and experience. Looking past this apparent disjuncture, this article examines the unexpected continuities in both men’s methods, as evidenced in Robert Heizer’s study of the Olmec site of La Venta in the 1960s and Michael Heizer’s massive late twentieth-century earthworks inspired by ancient societies. Olmec-head-6-88x88

The essay begins:

In February 2012, a 340-ton boulder made an eleven-day journey from its source in a Riverside quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The huge stone had been hand selected by land artist Michael Heizer for use in his work Levitated Mass. A massive rerealization of a piece first conceived in the late 1960s and completed on a smaller scale in 1982, the work would suspend the boulder atop a concrete trench in LACMA’s “backyard,” inviting reflections on not only the work’s monumentality but also its relation to the Los Angeles urban context against which it was placed. Power lines and traffic signals had to be temporarily disassembled to make room for the almost 300-foot rig as it delivered its massive cargo. Streets were lined with spectators, news crews, and public utility employees all along its more than 100-mile route. The sheer size of Heizer’s intervention and the infrastructural interruptions it required led to a degree of public attention rare for other works of art. Levitated Mass, now completed and in place, has become famous and can be found in newspaper articles and blog entries, YouTube videos, and endless photos where subjects hold the massive rock in the palms of their hands through tricks of perspective.

Two years earlier, Heizer’s work was also evident in another monumental event at LACMA. The exhibition Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico brought ceramics, carved jades, and monumental statuary from archaeological sites in southern Mexico to Los Angeles. Two colossal basalt heads included in the exhibition had been set on angular, patinaed steel supports designed by Heizer. The supports continued a dialogue between the ancient works of the Olmec and the contemporary art world that began as soon as the Olmec were rediscovered in the early twentieth century. Heizer had been asked to build these supports as part of a larger effort to promote synergies across the museum’s modern and ancient offerings, but more importantly as a means of acknowledging a peculiar coincidence of lineage. His father, Robert Heizer, was an archaeologist who investigated the Olmec site of La Venta for two decades. Read more

Michael Heizer’s show “Altars” is on view at Gagosian Gallery, New York, through July 2.

ROBERT J. KETT is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine, and currently works in the Getty Research Institute’s Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art. Beginning in the fall of 2015, he will be a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Caravaggio’s Pitiful Relics

New from Representations editorial board member Todd Olson:

Caravaggio’s Pitiful Relics

Yale University Press, May 2014

Beginning with his early works, the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571–1610) was intensely engaged with the physical world. He not only interrogated appearances but also experimented with the paint’s material nature. Caravaggio’s Pitiful Relics explores how the artist’s commitment to materiality served and ultimately challenged the Counter- Reformation church’s interests. 9780300190137

In addition to Caravaggio’s Pitiful RelicsTodd Olson is the author of Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism and the Politics of Style (Yale University Press, 2002). Other recent publications include “Markers: Le Moyne de Morgues in Sixteenth-Century Florida,” in Seeing Across Cultures in the Early Modern Period, ed. Dana Leibsohn and Jeanette F. Peterson (Ashgate, 2012) and “Reproductive Horror: Sixteenth-Century Mexican Pictures in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Oxford Art Journal). He is Associate Professor in the History of Art Department at UC Berkeley.