2014 SCSC Annual Conference, New Orleans
IAS-Sponsored Session

Broken Bodies: Representing Pain in Early Modern Visual Art

ACP, Burgundy
Saturday, October 18, 2014, 3:30-5:00pm

Organizers and Chairs: Tiffany L. Hunt, Temple University, and Heather Graham, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Respondent : Tiffany L. Hunt, Temple University

Pain exemplifies an intersensorial phenomenon, one that utilizes all of the senses to articulate the physiological, mental, and emotional responses to stress and injury, both physical and psychological. Like pleasure, pain is an interior sensation whose external articulation can stimulate both sympathetic and empathetic reactions. Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists attempted to simulate those sensations by bridging the fissure between the internal experience of pain and its outward expressions. Contemporary interest in pain and its place in early modern culture has catalyzed a wide array of scholarly contributions. This panel seeks to bring together scholars exploring the phenomenon of pain in early modern culture and its representation – and repression – in visual art in a critical reassessment of the state of this topic in current scholarship. Together with Sensuous Suffering: the Early Modern Experience of Pain, a multi-disciplinary roundtable discussion examining the topic of pain in the Early Modern context, this series of papers will examine the body as a multisensory medium that was used in depictions of such phenomena as martyrdom, passion, and plague. How did artists use the body to communicate the intersensorial experience of pain? What is the relationship between suffering and theologies of the body? What is the function of bodily torment in early modern visual culture? How does the performance of pain relate to identity construction and what role did the visual arts play in this performance?


Peter Weller, UC, Los Angeles
"Pain and Pathos: Antonello’s Paintings of Ecce Homo"

Executed in the 1470s, Antonello da Messina’s paintings of Ecce homo mark an anomaly regarding the Renaissance depiction of Christ. Few works before, and certainly none in the following century, would equal the power of Antonello’s vivacious realism in the human countenance of Jesus in living agony. No documents confirm patronage of these paintings. From the mid-duecento, however, early Franciscans were the first in Italy to demand pathos from depictions of Christ in extreme pain. However, with Giotto’s 1312 painted crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, the portrayal of Christ’s torment had begun a conversion from degradation to the aesthetic beauty of the 1500s. Sixteenth-century Italy, tempering the imago of Franciscan pathos, searched for a tender Messiah, not a pitiless reminder of the humiliation of Christ in Jerusalem. Michelangelo, for example, would remove all blood and wounds, saying; “My eyes, eager for beautiful things, and my soul, no less eager for salvation, have no other means by which it may ascend to heaven;” consequently, his 1539 drawing for Vittoria Colonna transformed Christ’s suffering into radiant victory. In contrast to the preponderance of sixteenth-century works, on the other hand, Antonello’s Ecce homo paintings provoke the verisimilitude of Rome’s brutality. I argue that these pictures of pathos represent a last vestige of radical Franciscan iconography, and that, in comparison, no pictures, until Caravaggio in the opening decade of the 1600s would depict the face of Christ in a commensurate acuity of realistic pain

Itay Sapir, Université du Québec à Montréal
"Pain and Paint: Titian, Ribera and the Flaying of Marsyas"

Pain is primarily felt, not seen. Of the five senses, touch is the only one directly capable of experiencing pain. Painting’s capability to represent a painful experience is thus directly related to the pictorial “circumlocutions” by which the most visual of media cleverly addresses the beholder’s tactile sensibility.

It is perhaps not just a fortunate coincidence that in the early modern period, the most visual and the most haptic of painters, respectively Titian and Jusepe de Ribera, were both interested in the pictorial representation of pain. More specifically, both artists created excruciating depictions of what is possibly the most painful scene imaginable: flaying a person alive. Titian’s testamentary Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1575) and Ribera’s two versions of Apollo and Marsyas, created sixty years later, are sophisticated treatments of the visual appearance of physical suffering, of the tactile presence of paint and of the interrelation between texture, color and form in the depiction of painful bodies.

Touch and sight, however, are not the whole story: after all, Marsyas predicament is a direct consequent of a “hearing disorder”, responsible, in turn, for a more general loss of order and harmony. The musical contest to which the satyr foolishly challenged Apollo resulted, as is clear from Titian’s painting, in general chaos; while Ribera’s pagan martyr, deprived of the hope of redemption and confronted with Apollo’s vain, spectacular visuality, can only address our ears – although his silent scream on a painted canvas remains, of course, as desperately futile as are Ribera’s haptic surfaces from which concrete touch is forever excluded.

Grace Harpster, University of California, Berkeley
"Vernacular Violence: Popular Reception in Post-Tridentine Rome and the Martyrdom Cycle at S. Stefano Rotondo"

San Stefano Rotondo sits atop the Caelian Hill in Rome, its graceful late antique ambulatory filled with over thirty scenes of gruesome torture from the sixteenth century. The incongruity between tranquility and abjection occurs within the frescoes themselves: each image unapologetically depicts the gory deaths of early Christian martyrs, but with ordered layouts and an impassive didactic lettering system. In one balanced tripartite composition, for example, the female saint Martha stands in repose as her amputated hands hang from her neck, while her elegantly poised sons quietly endure metal hooks tearing into their flesh. The hilly landscape behind the stretched St. Marius is dotted with further horrors, including a heap of bloody corpses cursorily identified by the letter “D”.

These visual inconsistencies will be explored as a productive disjuncture between two competing post-Tridentine approaches to religious art, the emotive appeal of violence and the need for ordered didacticism. These dual functions will be explored specifically as tactics tailored to the uneducated pilgrims of Counter-Reformation Rome, a population underemphasized in previous interpretations of the S. Stefano Rotondo frescoes. The shocking violence of this cycle offers a way into early modern theories on the function of religious art. Yet when attention is shifted from the intent of the Jesuit patrons to popular reception, the depiction of torture in its most nauseating forms—the dismemberment, disembowelment, and boiling of Christian bodies—reveals its inherent instability, alluding to the broader problem of the gap between religious art in theory and in practice.

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