Unreal Nature

October 22, 2012

Images Start

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

…  there are moments, even in a wordy culture like ours, when images start from no preformed program to become primary texts. Treated as illustrations of what is already scripted, they withhold their secrets.

This is from The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd edition, by Leo Steinberg (1983, 1996):

… Surprisingly constant is the gesture of the self-touch in many-figures scenes of Entombment or Lamentation. That the lay of the hand in these instances is a “gesture” indeed seems to me undeniable, since no motion of limbs in Christ’s body, whether doing or suffering, can be other than willed. This much at least the divine nature in the Incarnation ensures. As the incarnate Word deigned to gestate in a virgin womb and exited without giving injury; as Christ ascended the cross and there spread his arms in worldwide embrace; as in his death, laid on his mother’s lap, he gently fingers a fold of her garment, and, being entombed, repels corruption, so also his disposition of hands, even in death, is at all times volitional and ostensive. Medieval and Renaissance artists understood that the hands of the dead Christ will not plunge where the living divinity would refrain. Yet in their images of the aftermath of the Passion, Christ’s hand falls again and again on the genitals — in small-scale illuminations, in painted altarpieces, in monumental sculptural groups.

Zebrák Lamentation (Bohemian), Lamentation, c. 1510

… The gesture is too pointed and too oft-repeated to disregard, or to dismiss as a verastic portrayal of what dying men are said to do in their throes.

Whether normal or not in actual death situations, a dead man’s hand cupping his genitals forms no part of standard iconographic traditions. We find no such posture in the Dying Gauls of Pergamene sculpture; nothing like it among the felled combatants of Baroque battle scenes; or in Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs; nor in the thousands of actors and extras who feign death in the movies. Civilian corpses, from plague victims to heroes, likewise avoid the gesture — except only certain tomb figures housed in sanctified spaces. And these are of a date well past the invention of the motif. The gesture in its origin shortly before the mid-14th century is proper only to representations of Christ, and for some sixty years to none other. Only by the end of the 14th century do we see it adapted to representations of Adam, and to high-dying princes and prelates whose tomb effigies rehearse Christ’s own posture.

German Pilon Shop, Entombment, c. 1540-54

To me it now seems that the dead Christ touching his groin is visualized in the totality of a promise fulfilled. His Passion completed, he points back to its beginning, much as his blood runs from the last wound back to the first — as if to say, consummatum est. In the joining of first and last, the Passion is brought to perfection.

And we need look for no other meeting when we encounter the gesture of Northern Pietà groups of the 15th century. In rare instances, it is the Madonna’s hand that rests on the loincloth — in reminiscence perhaps of Mary’s role as protectress of Jesus’ infancy. But whether the act is performed by the mother or by the living godhead in the corpse of the Son, or jointly by both, its sign character is apparent.

Illumination from the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, Entombment, c. 1380-85

A sign it remains in a 15th-century Flemish subgroup of the type known as the Trinity, or Throne of Grace. Normally, in these visionary images, the Second Person is posed upright, indicating with the right hand the last wound received. But the works I have in mind differ from the more common type in directing the Father’s left hand to the Son’s groin. Like the symbolic “blood hyphen,” the two pointing hands span the Alpha and Omega of the Passion, the ostentatio genitalium complementing the requisite ostentatio vulnerum. We are shown once more that the incarnate Word died in a full-fraught man, triumphant over both sin and death; his sexuality vanquished by chastity, his mortality by Resurrection.

Swabian, Throne of Grace with Saints, c. 1510

[ … ]

… The field that I have tried to enter is unmapped, and unsafe, and more far-reaching than appears from my present vantage. [ … ] I have risked hypothetical interpretations chiefly to show that, whether one looks with the eye of faith or with a mytholographer’s cool, the full content of the icons discussed bears looking at without shying. And perhaps from one further motive: to remind the literate among us that there are moments, even in a wordy culture like ours, when images start from no preformed program to become primary texts. Treated as illustrations of what is already scripted, they withhold their secrets.

My most recent previous post from Steinberg’s book is here.



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