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Touched by an Angel | The Nation

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Touched by an Angel

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An image, Albrecht Dürer said, is "no more responsible for superstitious abuse than a weapon is responsible for a murder." It is somewhat startling to find, in the controversy over the power of images in the early years of the Reformation in Germany, the familiar argumentation of the National Rifle Association.

About the Author

Arthur C. Danto
Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army...

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Admittedly, Dürer had the same vested interest as a purveyor of images that a manufacturer of handguns has in arguing that the point is not to control weapons but to re-educate their users. The analogy nevertheless stands as evidence for the felt danger of images in Dürer's world. Indeed, the image would be far more dangerous than a mere weapon, since it exposes worshipers to the danger of eternal punishment in case they find themselves, as often happened, worshiping the image instead of whatever the image represents. Better to rid the churches of images altogether than to trust the pious not to believe that Jesus or Mary, or a particularly well-disposed saint, was mysteriously present in their effigies. The power of the image was in effect the power of the being that occupied it--which struck the enemies of the image as idolatry, or the worship of finite things. This had the consequence of driving images underground, in the form of doll-sized objects of private adoration. Even today, after all, lovers kiss the snapshots of their beloveds, as though the relationship between the two were metaphysically intimate. Iconoclasm did not always entail that images (read: "idols") should be burned like heretics. They could be shrouded or stored in cellars or otherwise quarantined. But image control was the order of the day under militant Lutheranism--not least of all because the church issued indulgences to those who prayed to particularly powerful images, like the Virgin of the Apocalypse, or the Virgin of the Rosary. Protestants could do little better to register doctrinal difference than to purge their churches of likenesses. Catholicism retaliated by crowding its churches with images for the benefit of those who sought the concrete presence of the beings they worshiped. Aesthetic contemplation was not really a concept in the sixteenth century. Churches were not museums of fine art.

It is ironic that iconoclasm should have erupted with such virulence in the golden age of German sculpture, bringing it in effect to an end. The great achievement of the so-called limewood sculptors of the late Gothic period was the elaborate altarpiece, or retable, which served to render visible the object of devotions enacted on the altar just below. It was very much as if the saint conferred upon her celebrants the immense benefit of her virtual presence in the charged space where masses were performed. The architecture of the retable contributed to the awe in which the image was held. It was, for example, equipped with doors, which would be opened only on auspicious religious occasions but otherwise were kept closed. It had to have been a pretty powerful experience to behold one's special saint under candlelight, as the priests in elaborate robes intoned indispensable prayers in a language farmers and merchants no longer understood (conducting services in the vernacular belonged to the same agenda as iconoclasm). The space of the retable was a space within the space of the church, and when the doors stood open, an extraordinary bond united the persons within and without that encapsulated space. It would have been difficult to believe with Dürer that the images were merely neutral. Everything in the setting cried out against such a reduction.

The Franconian sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider was the great master of the pre-Reformation retable. There is an astonishingly complete altarpiece in the Jacobskirche in Rothenburg, executed around 1502, which must have seemed miraculous in its own right because of the skill with which it was carved. It is known as the Holy Blood Altarpiece, containing what was believed to be Christ's very blood as a relic. My own view is that images were felt more or less to have the status of relics, and one's relationship to them was entirely parallel to that with such awesome things as pieces of the true cross, or drops of the Virgin's milk, or whatever. There is a large photograph of the Holy Blood Altarpiece in the exhibition devoted to Riemenschneider at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 14), and it is worth a moment's examination if one wishes to get a sense of the context for which so much of the artist's work was designed. The retable consists of three zones. In the lowest zone, which in effect is the altarpiece's predella, angels on either side of the crucified Christ display some of the emblems of his redemptive suffering--the whipping post on one side, the cross on the other. The topmost zone is a flamboyant superstructure, as intricate and lacelike as a Gothic spire, which gives the sense of being made of the thorned branches with which Christ was flogged and crowned. This shrine holds the relic that refers to and is explained through the suffering represented in the predella. The midzone shows Christ and his disciples taking their last meal together, the weight of the event inscribed in the seriousness of their expressions. The inner surfaces of the doors, visible only when they are opened, show scenes from the life of Christ, carved in an astonishingly low relief--Christ's fateful entry into Jerusalem on the altar's right, and on its left Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying not to have to undergo the tortures shown in the predella or spill the blood believed actually present at the apex of the tower. The whole piece is, as one of the specialists writes in the catalogue, "an intense reflection on the nature of representation."

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