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August 23, 2005

David Freedberg

Excerpts from chapter 4 of David Freedberg's The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, "Verisimilitude and Resemblance"

In the first chapel at Varallo, Adam and Eve stand amid an Edenic assemblage of animals in front of a rather unluxuriant tree; the nineteenth-century frescoes in the background are so bland and wooden that to most of us now the scene will not seem especially involving. But this is only a beginning. When we get to the charming scenes of the Dream of Saint Joseph nearby, and the Procession of the Magi, with their stuffed horses and matted coifs, the cumulative spell of the polychrome sculptures, which begin to merge with the painting of the background and sides, sets to work. With the chapel of the Massacre of the Innocents, the effect is irresistible. The figure of Herod may be wholy unconvincing, but we soon forget him as we perceive the horror of the rest of the scene. Here is a terrified mother with real hair and everyday beads: she sheds mucid tears as she exposes her fractured nipple beside the cruel and scarred executioner. The other grief-stricken mothers strain their heads back in anguish; while the vivid but violated bodies of the massacred babes relentlessly insist on the living grimness of the moment. This pitch of involvement is maintained in scenes like Giovanni d'Enrico's Crowning with Thorns and his and Morazzone's Ecce Homo. Such is the raw power of Christ's bloodied body, the poignancy of his downcast gaze, and his clotted hair, such is our shock at the cruel executioners with their bulging veins and terrifying goitered necks, that the perception of living presence extends to the painted figures in the background as well. By the time we come upon the final scenes of the Passion and the Burial, we grieve with the Marys and the Josephs, the John the Evangelist and the Nicodemus; they are sentient beings like ourselves; their pain is our own. And always the grilles prevent the ultimate verification of their fleshiness: but the suspension of final proof and the urge to verify makes the perception of the body as real still more acute.
No other class of Western imagery—except perhaps the large-scale waxworks which we will discuss below and sculptures such as those by Kienholz—offers the same deployment of every conceivable device to particularize, familiarize, and make vivid as do the sculptures of the sacri monti; few others have been so continuously and extensively preserved in settings of such unparalleled evocativeness; none provide such constant evidence of a function that has change little over five centuries.
...The striving for verisimilitude that is the subject of this chapter is nowhere seen as clearly as in the sacri monti, nor on so grand a sale. The statues are all painted in full color, with attention not only to the realism of clothing, as one might expect, but to the eyes and to other physiognomic features. Often, though by no means always, the hair was not just painted, it was real (or of a similarly fibrous substance). Faces grimace with exaggerated expressions; wounds and blood are vividly shown. The aim, of course, was to engage the spectator in a directly empathetic relation with the scene; and this is just what these shrines—which are devoid of relics or other such attractions—continue to do, as they always have for those who flocked to them. (196)

* * *

Everything about the tableaux in this and other sacri monti encourage this mode of involvement, to such a degree that even the two-dimensional paintings in the background acquire a presence that we perceive and respond to as living. We see the tender eight-year-old Christ surrounded by the hateful Pharisees, and the Massacre of the Innocents, again, where we spontaneously draw back from the bloodied bodies of the infants, and where the pain that registers on the faces of the distraught mothers becomes, perhaps only momentarily, the pain we feel ourselves. The distancing that results in aesthesis gives way to immersion in the plight of these others. Such empathy was the goal of meditation with the aid of images, but the scenes of the sacri monti, so explicitly bodied forth, are infinitely suggestive of the possibility of such response. Perhaps it is only skilled practitioners, only the most faithful, who may feel this way with (for example) engravings of the Crucifixion; but we do not have to be especially pious to be horrified at the puncturing of flesh that yields and bursts like our own.
The journey to the last of the chapels and the sanctuary in the little town at the summit of the mountain becomes increasingly compelling, the views ever more ravishing; and by the end every possible emotion has been engaged in the course of our participation in what, on the face of it, may seem mere representation. It might be argued that it is the natural beauty of all these sites that in the first place inclines the mind to contemplation, and prepares it for the kind of attention described here. But one should not mistake a necessary preliminary stage for that which actually produces the effect. While the splendor and isolation of the sites plays an undoubted role in inducing the receptive mind to pious response, it is the images themselves and their verisimilitude that actually channels attention and activates emotional engagement. The effects, of course, are cumulative, but they are directly the consequence of the sustained and continuing realism of the individual scenes. Only the most intellectual of people will have attempted to resist the automatic transition from seeing to empathy and involvement—and they will have resisted and attempted to deny some of the most fundamentally spontaneous elements of the relations between feeling and perception. (200–1)

* * *

Justin Martyr insisted that Christ was not at all beautiful or good looking. This he held to be in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy such as that of Isaiah 52:14 and 53:2–3: "His visage was marked more than any man . . . he hath no form or comeliness . . . and when we see him there is no beauty that we should desire him." Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, and several other Church fathers all insist on this aspect of the way Christ looked, in other words, on his putative ugliness. But why?
Aside from the constant but here unconscious fear of desire, the clearest reason is articulated by Clement of Alexandria: admiration for Christ's looks would detract from his words. This is neither the first nor the last time that we find the valuation of spoken word over visual from, nor the fear that visual pleasure might somehow displace spiritual content. But there is another reason for the insistence on the unattractiveness of Christ's visage. It is to differentiate his representation from the frank beauty of Greco-Roman imagery and mutatis mutandis, of the classical gods. This is why Theodore the Lector could hold that the type of Christ with short, frizzy hair was more authentic than the long-haired one, which looked like Zeus (which might in any case, according to Theodore, seem to be more in keeping with Jesus' Jewish origins). One could hardly wish for a more trenchant example of the tension between authenticity and idealization. (211–2)

* * *

The Western locus classicus for the making of wax images occurs in Pliny the Elder. According to him, Lysistratus of Sicyon
was the first to obtain portraits by making a plaster mould of the actual features, and introduced the practice of taking from the plaster a wax cast on which he made the final corrections. He also first rendered likenesses with exactitude, for previous artists had only tried to make them as beautiful as possible.
In the explicit opposition between exactitude and beauty may be seen the origins of that attitude which, in the end, led to the denigration of the aesthetic quality of exact images in wax. But more common in Pliny's time was the allegation that however exact an image, it could never render the real personality of the sitter. Yet verisimilitude remained an imperative because only by means of it could an image substitute for the living and the dead. Although Pliny does not mention the funerary context, a host of other antique sources do. One of the fullest accounts is Appian's description of the exequies of Julius Caesar. A wax statue which could be turned to all sides ek mechanes showed the twenty-three wounds of the deceased emperor on all parts of his body, including his face. The crowd was so moved by this sight that they wailed loudly and burned down the Senate. (215–6)

* * *

In describing Piero Tacca's life-size wax bust of Archduke Cosimo (d. 1621), with its natural hair and eyes of crystal, Baldinucci recorded that it was so deceptively naturalistic that when the duke's bereaved mother came to see in it [sic] Tacca's studio she was unable to bear the sight of it and had to leave. It may be that this is little more than a retrospective eulogy on the skillful naturalism of the bust, and it might be argued that the response can be sufficiently understood in terms of the emotions of a mother at the reminder of her departed son; but this kind of response is compounded of other factors as well. the first has to do with the eyes: these are the features that are most capable of eliciting emotion in us. This is why the images that trouble us most are those in which the gaze of the represented most actively engages our attention. One has only to consider, for example, those arresting woodcuts of Christ's face where the gaze is so powerfully directed at us that we seem unable to evade it. I claim no more than empirical status for this observation, but it does seem to be borne out by experience. Most beholders of classical statuary will admit to being more than expectedly disturbed by statues in which they eyes are still painted in, or in which they are represented by flickering inserts of metal or crystal—although the peculiarly realistic waxwork without eyes may be just as deeply troubling as the statues with colored or crystalline eyes, precisely because where we fully expect eyes to be, they are awfully absent.
While this factor may account for the strength of our response to wax images such as the eighteenth-century busts illustrated in figs. 119 and 120, works like these suggest a disturbance that may well occur on a deeper cognitive level. We suspect the inertia of the material of which the image is made, but we cannot discard the impression of liveliness that it makes. The tension implicit in such a perception may, at the very least, cause anxiety; at the most it may cause a terror that is not assuaged by the consciousness of the manmade status of the image or object. Of course we may marvel at the skill of the maker, at mechanical contrivance, and the artistry that makes objects seem real; but at the same time, fear of the lifelike haunts the warring perceptions of the image as reflection and the image as reality. That tension may reach its peak in images of Christ, where his very representation is predicated on his Incarnation; but it is also engaged when we enter the wax museum. Indeed, it is here where we may most easily test all these empirical observations, for in such places we are now accustomed—as we are not always—to suspend aesthetic judgment or to discard it altogther; and thus we remove the restraints of detachment demanded by the a priori assessment of an object as art. In the realism of the waxworks we are still made to confront our fear of the lifelike. (220–1)

More: A small index of (more or less) related textual excerpts...

"David Freedberg"
Posted by Dan at 01:18 AM

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Referenced in this post:

Amazon: The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response—David Freedberg
Iconoduel: Never shake thy gory locks at me (a compendium)