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August 23, 2005

Joseph Koerner

Excerpts from "The Icon as Iconoclash" by Joseph Koerner (published in Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art)

Protestant iconoclasts took a special relish in breaking crucifixes.

Certainly, they smashed other church pictures with zeal. They vented great fury on effigies of the Virgin and the saints. Held to be invested with miraculous powers, and venerated in special cults, these exemplified for iconophobes both the idolatrous belief in pictures and an erroneous faith in intercessors: both as images and as personage, that is, the Virgin and the saints were an affront to the one unrespresentable God. The cult of the so-called Beautiful Maria of Regensburg stands advertised (documented?) by a large woodcut by Michael Ostendorfer. Ecstatic pilgrims crowd into a temporary wooden church containing an icon that, in 1519, was believed to have healed a man injured while demolishing the synagogue of the city's violently evicted Jews. Note the ruined building in the right background, remnants of a Jewish house of worship. The impression displayed in the present exhibition bears an indignant inscription by its original collector, the artist Albrecht Dürer, who laments the disgrace to God that such idolatry represents.

In the public performances of church cleansing, however, it was the removal, degradation, and destruction of crucifixes that held pride of place. Perhaps this was because the crucifix seemed to instance idolatry in its most primary form, as the worship of the image instead of God. Yet never is the ambivalence of iconoclasm more evident than when it strikes the image of Christ on the cross. (167–8)

* * *

In the rites of violence they improvised, iconoclasts seemed to relish their role as scoundrels. During carnival celebrations in Hildesheim in 1543, members if the tailors' guild hauled a much-venerated Christ statue from the church of St. Andreas into their drinking hall, where they ordered it to drink. Playing off its non-response, they began to taunt the effigy with words like those spoken by Christ's tormentors in Passion plays of the time: "Now how's he supposed to drink? Can't you see? He's been whipped, his blood is squirting out of him and he's holy and impotent, so he just can't do it." Then, after a pause that made muteness audible, the statue was "forced" to drink, and a cup was rudely tossed in its face. More rude still was the gesture of a burgher in Ulm in 1534, who shat into the mouth of a christ-effigy pulled from Our Lady's Gate. From a protest lodged against the tailors by the Bishop of Hildesheim we know that the "misused" Christ was a statue "which, for the remembrance of the bitter suffering he endured, showed [Christ] scourged, bloodily crowned, and with the cross on his shoulder." In other words, it was the sort of statue—grimly detailed, sometimes life-sized, sometimes with movable limbs—that might be used in staging Passion plays, and that became a special target of iconoclastic fury.

Perhaps the tailors were good at playing the bully because bullying is what men in drinking halls generally do best. Perhaps, though, they knew their roles because the had acted them already in church, in paraliturgical dramas, where the evil characters often got the best lines...

How, then, did Hildesheim's tailors understand the likeness between their iconoclastic acts and the crimes pinned upon the Jews. If such rites aimed to punish Christ's false image, if they fit a pattern of associating papal religion with renewing Christ's torment, why did they model retribution so overtly on the scandal of all scandals, Christ's murder by his own people? And might the effigy's inertness, configured as inaction by means of the mocking command "save yourself," have resembled Christ's stoic endurance? What a risky demonstration, behaving like villains and allowing the effigy to act like Christ! "By mocking and jeering his effigy," observed a Lutheran preacher in 1596 denouncing contemporary iconoclasm in Anhalt, "you tear open the holy wounds of Christ the Lord again and crucify him anew." (170–4)

* * *

At the center of the great machinery of Christian images stood the paradox of the cross: what to the rest of the world was the ultimate punishment—crucifiction as the most painful, public, and humiliating of deaths reserved for criminals, traitors, and slaves, as the "most crude and horrendous torure" (Cicero), the unspeakable "sign of shame" (Hebrews 12:2)—was for Christians the emblem of their God. There survives some evidence of how this paradox was received by non-Christians. On the walls of the Palatine in Rome, in the former barracks, someone scratched a crude caricature of a donkey-headed man crucified on the cross; below, a mocking inscription probably targets some Christians in the graffitist's midst: "Alexamene worships his god."

Augustine, seeking to reconcile the low literary style of the gospel texts (especially the Vulgate) to their divine content, argued that humble expression not only spoke to all men, but fitted Christ's incarnation as man. The humility of Christ's birth and life among the poor, and more so, his cruel death, formed a sermo humilis that ought to be preached in a humble way. The Bible's aesthetics are of the ugly not the beautiful. And its ontology of the image is based as much in dissimilarity as in resemblence [sic]: likeness and difference of man, of Satan, of christ, to God. Created in God's image ("resemblance in humility"), but tempted by Satan to be God's equal ("resemblance in equivalence"), man fell into sin ("resemblance in conflict"), was expelled into a world of dissimilarity (the world as "regio dissimilitudinis"), there to remain until one man, Christ (true "resemblence [sic] in equivalence"), through his crucifixion (which makes him dissimilar again), regains our blissful seat. The aesthetics of the ugly, whether Christian or modern, are a provisional, deceptive stage in a larger movement at the end of which truth, beauty, and power stand revealed. (190–1)

* * *

At the eve of Protestant iconoclasm, people reveled in grisly depictions of Christ's abject body, in which every bit of necrotic flesh stood artfully portrayed. Ubiquitous paintings and woodcuts of Christ's wounds and of the "arms" of his Passion, wounded images, even, of those wounds, in which the image of the cut is printed, painted over in red, and then physically slashed, give collections of fifteenth century prints the character of a chamber of horrors.

Karlsruhe's most famous artistic possession is such a thing: the large Crucifixion from Tauberbischofsheim by the painter who now goes by the disputed name Mathias Grünewald.

Everything that Christ became—hands and feet wrenched and dislocated by the nails; loin-cloth hyperbolically shredded; skin darkened by filth, gangrene, and congealed blood and bristling with thorns, each causing a specific infection; rib-cage collapsed in the suffocation that, were it not for the centurion's lance, would have killed Christ that much more painfully—becomes hyperbolically visible within the deprived visibility of a nighttime setting. For Christians of Grünewald's time, this spectacle would have aided their piety. The practice of religion consisted primarily in meditating on Christ's death by imaginative recollecting (on the basis of stories, pictures, or improvised fancy) its minute particulars. (193–6)

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

"Joseph Koerner"
Posted by Dan at 01:19 AM

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Referenced in this post:

Amazon: ICONOCLASH: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art—Bruno Latour (Editor), Peter Weibel (Editor)
Iconoduel: Never shake thy gory locks at me (a compendium)