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The Thief the Cross and the Whee: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe & Images and Relics: Theological Perceptions and Visual Images in Sixteenth-Century Europe.

Mitchell B. Merback, The Thief the Cross and the Whee: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and London: Redaktion Books, 1999. 352 pp. n.p.

ISBN: 0-22-52015-3.

John Dillenberger, Images and Relics: Theological Perceptions and Visual Images in Sixteenth-Century Europe

(Oxford Studies in Historical Theology.) New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xii + 248 pp. $45. ISBN: 0-19-512172-4.

The seventeenth-century painter Nicholas Poussin advised his not always content patron-friend Freart de Chantelou that he should learn to read his paintings, and understand them through Scripture. This was, and is, not easy. Both these studies raise important issues and problems about how images were seen or read in the past, and how they should be read now. While Dillenberger argues that we need to overcome the effects of the reformations, and come to terms with the role of seeing (191), Merback takes a long look at the narrow topic of the way the Two Thieves were depicted with Christ, through to the mid-sixteenth century. Dillenberger interconnects with him in considering some artists in Hans Belting's "crisis of the image" period from the early 1520s. Both authors are primarily concerned with Germanic paintings and prints; Dillenberger's excursion into Italy and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel work is happier, I find, than Merback's Italian forays, as with his discussion of some Mantegna works. Merback's in teresting points about the Varallo sacri monti, notably the multi-dimensional Calvary scene, could have been more helpfully fitted in historical sequence into the evolution of the northern depictions.

Merback is interested in how painters faced the challenge of depicting the executions of the Good and Bad Thieves (known sometimes as Dysmas and Gestas respectively). From the fourth century crucifixion had ceased to be a method of execution; while artists remained guided by conventions for showing Christ's own Crucifixion, they had freer rein for revealing the torturing and slow death of the Thieves. Merback speculates on how artists might have been influenced by contemporary judicial punishments, by the spectacle of execution scenes, and on how audiences used to watching gruesome executions would have reacted to altarpieces and later prints showing the Calvary scene. He shows and describes the increasingly realistic depictions of mistreated bodies, their broken bones and gaping wounds, as they are tied or nailed in grotesque postures onto crosses, trees, or wheels; the Bad Thief is "pretzeled" (124) to his cross by the Master of the Regler Altar, circa 1450-1455 in Karlsruhe (illus. 52). Merback speculates that the Flemish Robert Campin's almost photographic images reflect long contemplation of gallows spectacles and the anatomy of corpses. Some of the nastier scenes of Gestas' fate are seen as influenced by south German attacks on Jews alleged to have desecrated the Host in the fifteenth century. Breaking of the condemned by and on the wheel, as in Bohemia, provided other variations for the Calvary scene. Artists, while influenced and challenged by real punishments, were adding realism to the rhetoric to inspire the spectator's imagination of the Passion (100). While the Good Thief's body was often also twisted, ways were found to indicate that his repentance led to the happy salvation of his soul, as carried off by a little angel; other criminals might be so inspired to confess and repent. One wishes Merback had said more about Franciscan use of the Good Thief example in comforting the condemned in northern Europe, as confraternities so did in Italian cities. Northern realism in depicting bodily cruelty was modified by Italian humanist attitudes, then by reformation iconoclasm, or a simplification of visual imagery. There is some interesting discussion of Lucas Cranach the Elder's varying approaches to the Crucifixion, which interconnect with Dillenberger's wider study of both Cranachs.

Dillenberger looks at a number of artists, mainly German, who reacted in various ways to the theological debates of the 1500s to 1560s, and to the threats of iconoclasm; he discusses the often ambivalent and ambiguous attitudes of theologians and civic reform leaders towards images -- changing as the reformations unfolded -- and how the visual might be used to enhance or explain the Word. He has illuminating comments on the connections between Durer and Melanchthon, and the Cranachs and Luther, on the Cranach works on the Law and Gospel, on Grunewald's approaches to old and new ideas, seen especially in a number of varied Crucifixions, and the full Isenheim Altarpiece. A specialist in northern Protestant theology and art, Dillenberger also valuably provides a quick, understanding guide to a complex Italian reform scene that influenced Michelangelo's work at different stages, and to various interpretations of the Sistine Chapel. Combining ideas from a number of Michelangelo specialists he produces an interest ing argument that Michelangelo eventually provided a sense of unity between the ceiling and the "Last Judgment" (or Resurrection of the Body) on the altar wall, in terms of creation and destiny.

Merback argues that the audiences for the Calvary scenes were highly attentive to the minutiae of body appearances. He might be accused of wallowing in gruesome detail. Less prolix verbal descriptions might have left room for further speculations on why northern artists seem more punishing of the Thieves than southern; or an examination of the relative frequency of bloody executions actually carried our as spectacles; or wider comment on aspects of some fascinating paintings, probably obscure to most readers, besides the contorted victims. His publishers have provided thirty-one lavish color reproductions, and mostly clear black and while illustrations (even if some are too small on the page for easy reading). In contrast Dillenberger is only served by black and white illustrations, with many too murky and hardly readable. He is allowed many fewer words, and his discussions of antisemitic Altdorfer, Holbein (escaping into portraiture), misogynist Baldung Grien and the sexuality of Michelangelo's Saints Peter and Paul, or his Florentine Pieta and Nicodemism, are disappointingly cryptic. A final part on Iconoclasm is helpful on the views of reformers like Luther, Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Calvin, if brief or misleading as a survey of iconoclastic activity across Europe. While one might note the absence of reference to some recent useful work on Holbein, on Baldung Grien and German attitudes to witches, or Italian works on Michelangelo's environment, one should record with great sympathy that the author lost virtually all his relevant written and visual material in a fire in 1991, with much to redo.

Dillenberger's book, despite my frustration over what is not fully elaborated, I have found helpful and stimulating for a consideration of a crisis period for artistic imagery, and personally involved artists, through the early reformations. It should serve students of the reformations and of art history well and help us to read better the visual, Poussin-like. Merback's colorful volume is more complex and confusing. The very precise concern with details of punishment (with a fear of a return to punishment as public spectacle in the US), somewhat obscures more general and interesting issues about medieval and renaissance "spectacle," and a reading of depictions of the Passion that may frustrate the art and church historians, but attract some medics, while an interesting contribution to the history of punishment really requires more depth in chronicles or court records to satisfy social historians.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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