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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 3

Body and blood

Robert Nelson

Sigalit Landau’s Barbed hula is a video projection, presenting a female trunk gyrating slowly and blissfully by the beach. A hint of the performer’s chin appears to be cast backwards, as if in euphoria, as the woman rolls a hula hoop around her midriff. As the camera concentrates on the torso, the gaze becomes disturbingly clinical, for you notice that the hula hoop is made from barbed wire and etches nasty weals into the flesh. Landau, an Israeli artist, performs nakedly, with the display of crutch adding to the sexual rhythm of the hips as they maintain the hoop in its cruel orbit. As the symbolic seat of arousal, the principal orifice gently revolves in masochistic rapture, only to inscribe small orifices around the belly, a proliferation of wounds that record the perverse penetration of the wire spikes into the soft skin.

This gruesome ornament is watched in slo-mo progress in an almost hypnotic way, as the rhythms of the dance make the stomach alternately tense and relaxed, apparently always soft and passive at the moment the hoop comes around to inflict its gouges. Only a strong sexual urge on the part of the performer could maintain the muscular pulse in defiance of the reflexive expectation of regular pain. As a voyeur, you fixate upon the horny spectacle with uncontrollable waves of marvel and horror. The barbed wire may be a symbol of brutal social division, the stuff of aggressive fences and insecure authority. A barbed-wire fence threatens to make lesions in your flesh if you attempt to penetrate beyond the boundary. Such motifs of reciprocal damage for transgressions across unfortunate barriers abound in Israel.

But the work is not a simple political allegory. It also invokes another famously barbed hoop, the crown of thorns, a motif of pitiless scorn and sarcasm. As with the violence of Christ’s passion, there’s a suggestion of sacrifice, expiation, perhaps redemption. The spectacle is convulsively erotic but also bizarrely grand in its reference to archaic rituals of atonement. What are these rituals and why do they retain such power in the artistic imagination?

*     *     *

Christianity distinguishes itself from earlier religions by the strict theological definition of its sacraments. While ancient Greek worship remains uncertain and inaccessible—almost allegorized by the role of their temples, entered by no one but priests—the Church has scripted explicit terms of religious practice, addressed to an obedient participating audience, with a strong sense of authority. For centuries, various Councils attended to the details of creed and participation with passionate debate and occasional warfare; the outcome was dogma, to be passed down a canonical chain of command among clerics, and zealously disseminated to laity. We do not lack knowledge and need not make cautious conjectures, for though there is a paucity of rich discursive texts concerning the sacraments, the deficit simply signals general knowledge of a practical kind, too obvious to merit the record. By the later middle ages, the sacraments were standardized at seven. These are baptism, confirmation, penitence, communion, marriage, ordination and extreme unction.

Pre-eminent among these, according to all sources, is holy communion or the eucharist, which is usually understood as the sacrament par excellence. Worshippers eat a wafer and, depending on the sect, drink wine. The elements of bread and wine have already been consecrated with an invocation of the Holy Ghost. The communicating members of the congregation file past a priest to take the offering. On one level, the ceremony simply follows the touching lines at the last supper in which Christ asks his disciples to take the wine as his blood and the bread as his body: “do this in remembrance of me”.1 But the ritual before the altar is much more than a mechanical mnemonic process or a sentimental gesture of not forgetting Jesus. It is a form of participation in his sacrifice on the cross.

The spiritual power of the communion rite has an elaborate theological explanation proceeding from the Bible itself. St Paul’s famous letter to the Hebrews argues that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross must be understood in the context of early sacrifices in ancient Jewish religion. According to implied archaic principles in the indigenous religion of Israel, man is guilty of sin and must expiate those sins before God, a wrathful God whose anger can only be assuaged by both sacrifice and future obedience. The efficacy of the sacrifice is measured according to the worth of the victim placed on the altar. A small sacrifice does not express much contrition or gratitude and therefore scarcely registers before God as a great act of remorse or thankfulness. A significant sacrifice, such as killing a sheep, makes decent amends and helps to convince God that his trust in you is not misplaced. Onto this archaic system, Paul grafts his view of Christ. Jesus, as only son of God, constitutes the supreme victim, the lamb of God, whose sacrificial blood has infinite redemptive power. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross makes all other sacrificial justifications redundant, for the ultimate sacrifice has already been enacted on behalf of anyone anywhere. In order to share the efficacy of this sacrifice it is only necessary to believe in the divinity of Christ, and to perform such rites as confer the redemptive power of Christ’s crucifixion on the believer.2

In the ritual of holy communion, when the body and blood of Christ are offered to the congregation, the sacrificial killing of Jesus is figuratively restaged. Behind the abstract aesthetics of liturgy, the physical terms of sacrifice are emphatic: the altar, the body and the blood. To complete the ritual, of course, God is invoked; the killing (of God) is to assuage God, to have the power of expiating human abominations, provided that there is a genuine will for the participant to achieve grace in God’s eyes. In the eucharist (a Greek word, meaning literally ‘good grace’) the worshipper not only admiringly remembers Jesus but figuratively shares the taste of his blood. The ceremony has a corporal dimension which replicates on a solemn and decorous level the shedding of blood and the other bodily torments suffered by Christ. In various epochs the wine has been felt as real blood passing down the throat, in accordance with the believer’s heartfelt experience. The nails were driven into Christ’s hands, and his flank was pierced in an awfully physical ordeal. Such a physicality is returned as the imagined blood is ingested by the faithful, and this bodily intervention by the sacred permits the spiritual virtue of sacrifice to be absorbed and directed toward the person’s salvation.

In its tight theological argument of redemption through the sacrament of holy communion, Christianity might easily have developed into a religion with little need for visionary figurative art. Judaism, for example, had no great need of artistic inventions and, it might be argued, neither did the Eastern Orthodox Church. Indeed, in Eastern Christendom of the eighth and ninth centuries the case against religious images was moved with passion. Eventually the iconoclasts of Byzantium were defeated, but the suspicion over images had been incipient in Hebraic tradition; and an underlying mistrust remained for centuries. It flared up in the northern Renaissance, and some antipathy toward images still survives in certain Christian communities today. The reasons for this strike at the very core of Christian spirituality.

Although officially pronounced an anathema by the Orthodox Church, iconoclasm in many ways represents the sacramental character of Christianity at its most jealous. The argument did not concern the validity of pictures as such, but only their use in the context of religious practice. Unfortunately, owing to the violence by which the heresy was obliterated, the texts of the iconoclasts do not survive and their reasoning has to be conjectured from its ‘refutation’ by Orthodox writers.3 The iconoclasts did not object to image-making per se but to what they saw as the sanctioned abuse of image-making, namely the conceit that the image becomes a receptacle of holiness, that it enshrines some portion of the Holy Ghost. The iconoclasts were the first critics of the new spiritual promotion of art which had already evolved through the Church and was destined to continue in spectacular developments in the West. Iconoclasts could see that art was rising to a new authority, not merely in its material patronage—in the sense of so many illustrious walls and ceilings being plastered with handsome pictures—but in the assumed function of those pictures.4

In all the ‘refutations’ by iconophile Orthodox writers, images are described as holy images (hagiai eikones). Had images been conceived simply as earthly pictures of saintly figures, they might not have attracted such vehement challenge. But the title of holy images seemed absolutely to confer upon paintings, mosaics and sculptures the qualities which belong to the prototypes represented within them. For iconoclasts, Christ is holy but a picture of Christ is not holy, just a secular and fallible interpretation of divinity, absolutely not to be confused with the divine itself. Images made of earthly matter had deviously received the blessing of their subject matter. Thus, while a painting of a dog or a criminal is plainly not holy, a picture of a saint (though exactly the same in material terms) achieves the title uncritically and unreasonably. Mere matter cannot capriciously ascend to the realm of the spiritual. There must be a religious process for this to occur; the object so invested with the spiritual must be deeply sacramental. A priest cannot take the plank of wood with a picture upon it, wave a hand over it in a gesture of consecration, and assume that the Holy Ghost has infunded it, which is the unique privilege of God and God’s supreme sacrifice. There is no authority for such a benediction, no text, no biblical archetype. It is a falsehood, a pretentious temerity that worldly people can pre-empt the judgement of God and effectively declare what is full of the Holy Ghost and what is not. Sacraments must be instituted by God.5

Iconoclasts considered that an object made of earthly matter can only be given the title of holy if analogous to the eucharist. When the elements of bread and wine effectively become body and blood, they are sanctified by a great mystery. The elements transcend their materiality by the direct agency of God. Thus it seemed outrageous to claim that a similarly sacramental result is achieved in the appreciation of an artificially coloured plank as holy.

The most powerful argument against the iconoclasts involved a comparison between religious images and the cross. Whether held above the altar; above the Church building, or around one’s neck, the cross is a representation. It is not the real cross, the wood upon which Christ was crucified. For example, it might be made of metal or ivory. It is notional, just like a painting. But no Christian would ever deny the form of the cross the status of holiness. The cross is an image but is not a heresy. It directly participates in the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, and therefore the ‘rehearsal’ of the cross in the form of jewelry and architecture is liturgically legitimated. Iconoclasts would never have challenged the cross; undoubtedly they would have had their reasons along these lines: the cross, as chosen instrument of Christ’s sacrifice, was instituted by God and can legitimately enjoy all sacramental status. Nevertheless, invoking the cross remained a worthy and compelling point against the iconoclasts: a material object (for argument’s sake made of the same stuff as the metal that holds the dog’s collar at the buckle or keeps the criminal in gaol) transcends its substance and is very easily accorded holiness. Tradition has approved a symbolic order that permits such objects to be richly endowed with belief, granting them a powerful function in the most pious devotion.

Rightly or wrongly, images in the Church were hallowed. They were conceived as possessing supernatural properties—holiness, in short—and were adopted into the inner framework of reverence which included the mysteries of the altar. Not only did they share with the altar the charismatic qualities of consecration, but they physically occupied the same spaces, creating scenic backdrops for the altar and even finding their way onto chalices used for dispensing the eucharist. No holy object would repudiate the spiritual ornament of images. The whole Church, its furniture and liturgical accoutrements would visually chant in the festive colours and forms of image-making; and this optical psalmody would freely penetrate the consciousness of the congregation with almost that sacredness by which the eucharist would penetrate the worshipper’s body.

Christian images derive their primary power not from any stylistic grace but from a doctrinal function. This virtue is somehow axiomatic, analogous to the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice as rehearsed in holy communion. Regardless of its virtues by any other criteria, art achieves a religious value, a sublime credibility which is necessary in the liturgical context lest the context be devalued. Once art gets within the portals it must be worthy of the altar. It cannot lack spirituality; it must in principle live up to a divine mission, in order to enshrine the grace that is actively bestowed upon the congregation in holy communion.

To honor these high expectations, the styles of early Christian art maintained a rather severe adherence to traditional formulae. The Byzantine artist, for example, did not want to step outside a fairly narrow frame of reference for the drawing of figures. There were standardized methods, steadfastly turned away from the illusionism of antiquity, which made figures share a single emphasis, as if echoing one another in devout compliance with a single spirit. The sacramental character of image-making did not readily admit the idea of experiment with posture, anatomy or drapery, much less an enthusiastic appropriation of Hellenic pagan sophistication. There was no room to check the rightness of the schema for painting noses, for example, by comparing the noses as painted in the past with the noses on living people’s faces. This exercise would have served only to weaken a traditional dedication: dedication to following the inspired patterns in which all blessings were invested, lifting the work from the material into the sacred realms.

Byzantine art is not consciously distorted or mismanaged for expressive ends. The list of deviations from Graeco-Roman naturalism is extensive. The noses are too long and thin; they proceed from strange gullies around the forehead, many features are represented by inscribed lines rather than the logical spilling of light over forms; the attitudes are stock still, heads angled on tilting necks, often with an undifferentiated inflexion; certain bones are ill-proportioned, feet dangle with downward-pointing toes when they might rest flat on the ground, and so on. Because these characteristics are found throughout Byzantine art, they do not communicate the peculiar intensity of a mood or moment; they are generic and therefore seem somewhat inexpressive, for insofar as they have an expression, they all seem to express much the same thing. Byzantine schemata evoke an overall religiousness rather than psychological or dramatic qualities specific to certain situations, actions, people or feelings. The art of painting is not guided by optical, anatomical or theatrical incumbencies. Its inspiration is entirely religious: it is to facilitate the veneration of the holies and to be sacred. To introduce spatial and tonal sophistication—not to mention dramatic poses—would lessen the integrity of the image as a sacramental elevation of matter to spirit (transubstantiation), authorized by strict codes in old traditions.

However, in Italy with Cavallini, Giotto, Duccio and the sculptors Nicola and his son Giovanni Pisano, the hallowed stiffness yields to new spatial conquests: figures in art seem to own their own bulk; their draperies move according to their bodies; their volumes are registered in logical tonal shifts, and space is constructed in a more illusionistic fashion. Perhaps the greatest discovery of the period circa 1300 is to have seen that technical achievements did not have a corrosive effect on the religious integrity of the image: the spiritual calibre of the more optically sophisticated renditions did not suffer. A well-drawn Virgin Mary is just as spiritually compelling as a dogmatically cramped one. In fact, once the mind begins to demand a degree of conformity to illusion, the stilted depictions of the past appear to lack a degree of conviction, as if they were just repetitions of stylistic prejudices, without a personal inspiration in the enthusiasm of the individual artist.

Art historians are forever pointing out the impressive strides taken by artists circa 1300. Paying special attention to Giotto—thanks largely to Vasari’s systematic promotion of Florentines—art historians affirm parallels between visual art in Tuscany and the elegant new styles of verse (the dolce stil novo) in poets like Cavalcanti and Dante, which culminated in Dante’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy, where the writer appropriately acknowledges Giotto’s pre-eminence in painting. The volumes and spaces of the new painting are concerted, reasoned, innovative and, in their combination of clarity and ambition, point to the almost linear progress of Italian painting toward the Renaissance. All this is true, but perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the period was to redefine the holiness of the visual. Art historians sometimes leave the impression that the ‘breakthroughs’ of the proto-Renaissance point toward a renewed confidence in the intellect, and in the ascent of the critical spirit, the inquiring mind, the genius of logic and analysis at the expense of religious values based on firm belief, faith, acceptance and continuing profession of the systems of veneration of the past.6 This view also contains some truth, but is misleading in certain respects. Although there is increasing esteem for analytical observation and conformity to appearances, there was no concomitant lessening in the dominance of religious values. Sure, religious values did change and, in particular, the power of the artist’s original conception gained credibility relative to the received paradigms of the sacramental tradition.

In the past, a painting was holy because it dealt with holy subject matter and subscribed to a holy method. A style had been sanctioned by tradition, prescribing fairly tight formulae and imposing limits to licence. In their regularity and conformity, the visual formulae seemed to parallel the sacramental recitation of the mass which invoked the redemptive powers of sacrifice. Moreover, on the symbolic level of method, the rather unquestioning rehearsal of stylistic tropes in Byzantine art accords with the liturgical submission to repetitive rhythms of devotion. With the new generation, however, pious confidence would imperceptibly withdraw from this predictable submission. The imagination and skill of the artist would be charged with the challenge of finding or redefining sacred visions rather than enacting once again those mannerisms which had already been ratified as the correct means for expressing devotion.

The rapidity of the change should not be overstated. The new generation emerged very slowly and was probably not initially conscious of a radical departure from Byzantine tradition.7 Artists around 1300 did not conceive of themselves as revolutionaries and would not have understood the word avant garde, a retrospective honor which they can do without. Nevertheless, their painting and sculpture is significantly different from that of earlier Christian periods. It invites us to check the accuracy of things, where Byzantine art deflects this scrutiny in a kind of hallowed rhetoric of sombre elongation. The obsessive narrowing was for the sake of piety; it would have been almost a sacrilege to question it. Perhaps the new artists criticized this spiritually hermetic convention, perhaps not. They may have considered the older art stylistically lugubrious and actively rejected it, but perhaps not. They may simply have moved on to more adventurous reflections of the divine stories, as if moving on is the natural way to achieve distinction as a painter or sculptor, especially in a land nostalgic for classical antiquity. They were undoubtedly seduced by the promise of producing life-like images, representations so true to appearances that a person might mistake the painting for its prototype. This idea was proposed in the mid sixteenth century by Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects; and later historians also leave us with this understanding.

In all events, the artists had the encouragement of their religious milieu. By all means, do not paint in the old Byzantine fashion. Work out how to construct more convincing illusionistic tableaux. Improve the consistency of your light; register correctly the habit of the drapery responding to gravity, the overlap of figures, the proportions of members, and the representation of emotion through close observation of facial gesture. In short, exploit the art of drawing to make the figures take on a credible air in a credible space. An idea of visual credibility must have prompted the developments. Truth had a dual referent. There was holy truth, enshrined absolutely in scripture, preached weekly in Church and supported by holy offices. But there was also the truth of things seen by the artist, of which neither priest nor text knew a great deal, but which promised enormous and persuasive powers when successfully translated by artistic skill.

Art and design work very happily with two masters. There is no necessary contradiction between the two systems of truth (axiomatic faith and empirical reason); it is just that the single truth seems to be available from two different sources. The charm of the ‘Italian primitives’, as they used to be called, lies in the ingenuousness with which they reconcile a pious emphasis of saintly gestures with an unmistakable ambition to improve their perspectives, to include more orthogonals for suggesting recession, to supply the floor with a quaint architecture of parapets, porches and courts (often looking like little booths) to make the scenes more believable, even if they seem naive to us. The effort would often extend to sophisticated renderings of two-dimensional textures, such as the veined patches of marble. The artist’s imagination, sensibility and skill were on show. The ambition in vision and technique, over which artists competed for patronage and fame, were brought into the quest for sacred pictures. The art which did not demonstrate improvement in these qualities was consequently devalued.

What once had been the sign of reverent adherence to orthodoxy was now the sign of spiritual paralysis. What once would have seemed secular vanity was now recognized as congruent with the inspirational colour and brilliance of biblical narratives. After fulfilling a demand for the sacred through somewhat sclerotic formulae (however solemn and moving), art could become a kind of divine refreshment, a system of engagement of icons and narratives which would champion divinity through poetic sympathy, an artistic richness in illusionistic evocation of places, bodies and gestures. God was there, but in touching metaphors of inspiration. God no longer haunted the image in the sense of a sacramental repetition of holy refrains—echoing the invocations and transubstantive properties of body and blood—which best stood in pious stillness for veneration. The presence of God would rather be felt in the way in which the artist’s imagination could compel your own imagination to see or envisage a personage or scene with believable rapture.

In this, the artwork gains yet further prestige. It moves from the province of altar boy to that of priest or even prophet. The visionary talents of the artist are a route to piety. From this, the power of invention is interpreted as a kind of substitute for sacramental processes, an inspirational labor which already translates spirit into material—almost internalizing within the artist the agency of the holy Ghost—and yields a religious transport. It is the greatest irony: in becoming more materialistic, the artwork is credited with greater spiritual powers. As the artwork becomes more sophisticated on an illusionistic level and divorces itself in stylistic terms from the repetitious sacramental service of the liturgy, it paradoxically gains mystical properties. The artist only has material, simple reason, mere physical or spatial observation; but, in the context of evoking the divine, these intellectual faculties gain the power of the mystical.

It is common to interpret the liberties of the proto-Renaissance as the first light of secular values displacing theocratic dogma and prejudice; but the artwork does not gain this new prestige by becoming ‘autonomous’ from a religious context. The new investments only take place because the sacramental character of images is already assumed, an assumption akin to the deepest mysteries of the altar and demonstrated in the austere and solemn mannerisms of Byzantine painting. The new art relies on this archaic importance but in addition gains all the new imaginative glamour—as it were, the artist’s demonstrative intellectual and creative property—that the old art could never possess. Paradoxically, the new art only possesses this glamour by virtue of the old art forbearing from the claim to spiritual authorship. The old art creates all the expectations of a sacramental moment too great to be comprehended by lay consciousness; and, while assuming the grave backdrop of the more archaic art, the sweet new style seizes the holy powers that the old art discreetly left to liturgical traditions. The new art is then free to arrogate to its imaginative graces those powers of consecration which the old art left to the processes of holy tradition.

The transition from Byzantine to Italian proto-Renaissance can be compared to another signal step in the canonical histories of art, namely the art and architecture of the Middle Ages as they move into later Gothic. The transition is also gradual and should not be overstated.8 There was no single invention, no great stride forward but a stepwise development of traditions. Beginning in northern France, severe Romanesque churches yielded to nimble and lofty Gothic ones; the hefty pier is divided into subtle flutes; the bastion-like walls are succeeded by air-filled networks of masonry and light transmitted through brilliantly colored illusionistic glass paintings; the fortified towers are replaced by soaring spires advertising their height with multiple pinnacles.

These achievements are a triumph of engineering—albeit through trial and error—and testify to the genius of practical and reasonable men, building up their knowledge of materials and construction technology, to say nothing of what today would be called project management. But the technical achievements are also a triumph of symbolic coherence; they are an unforgettable manifestation of belief and heavenly aspiration. Indeed, in the common keenness to remove the bulk from building materials and ascend to ethereal heights, the spindly architectural members often have a febrile and neurotic tenuousness. As technically brilliant as they are, the Gothic cathedrals stand as a monument to the material stretched by the spiritual.9

The sculpture adorning the Gothic cathedrals moves away by degrees from the columnar figures of Romanesque tradition. In the west, there was nothing so traumatic for artists as iconoclasm; and because of the general acceptance of images embellishing churches, the justification for art based on a sacramental character did not receive such attention. But Romanesque sculpture is sometimes as stiff as Byzantine painting and, especially in the formal parts of the Church such as the portals (definitely not the capitals or furniture which display individual fantasy and brilliance), it bears witness to the same solemn ‘disclaimer’ of individual authorship. Romanesque sculpture can demonstrate the same compliance with superintending repetitious structures—as in the rhythms of incantation—that denies the sculpted image a spatial agency of its own, and consequently denies the faculty of imagination in the artist. Yet as the Gothic epoch progresses, the character of the sculpture loses some of that God-fearing stasis; it asserts the skill of the sculptor in determining the vigor and personality of the sacred personage.10

As with the transition from Byzantine convention to the liberties of early Italian painting, the change from Romanesque to later Gothic involves a paradoxical dependence of the new art upon the styles that it superseded. Centuries of devotion in churches containing and supporting strictly ‘disciplined’, stone-like, elongated figures with pronounced mannerisms (such as the floppy feet already noted in Byzantine painting and mosaic) had built into the very concept of sculptural embellishment a sacred awe. This seemed to justify future sculptural inventions as equally holy. The knowledge of hallowed precedents created a backdrop of austere reverence, a dour sense of archaic liturgical gravity, which vouched for the sacramental character of the genre. Later sculptors would be able to profit from the sternness of Romanesque, its stark and frontal formality, its obedience to a superintending regimen, and its lack of interest in the spatial freedom of figures. They would, by degrees, make their own constructions of holy figures and bestow upon them the magic of life-like illusion. They thereby imparted a new glamour which, however, carried all the archaic connotations of piety formerly belonging to the stiff art whose place it had inherited. Sculpture in the north of Europe gained the double prestige that painting did in the Mediterranean: it enters a scene already rich in sacramental connotations, and also sets about creating the prestige of new illusionism: a faculty rich in mystique, and in effect the blessed gift of bestowing life upon the stone in the evocation of heavenly majesty.11

Parallels with the contemporaneous ascent of illusionism in early Italian painting are tempting. As in ancient Greece the growth in sophistication—both technical and scenographic—rides high on a former religious discipline whose pious earnestness it subsumes. Further, as more and more of the decision-making behind the appearance and composition of the artwork occurs under the authorship of the artist—rather than following the givens of a sacramental tradition—extra religious magic accrues to the artistic process. Far from seeming a step in the direction of the secular (which in one sense it is), the novel developments are interpreted as having a peculiar spiritual pregnancy, requisitioning something sacred from the archaic sacramental order and installing it in the imaginative gifts of the artist. From this point, the spiritual fortunes of art are secure for many centuries, offering unprecedented worldliness, empirical excellence, and mystical powers.


1     See Luke 22:19–20; 1 Cor. 11: 24–26. Moorhead’s (1986, 1–18) discussion of change in the perception of images and their role in sixth-century Byzantium takes these lines as a point of departure.

2     Hebrews 9:15–10:22.

3     See the now classic discussion of the intellectual history of Orthodox discourse on images by Ladner (1953, 3–34). See also the article by Elsner (1988), which closely examines the discourse in terms of the iconographical theme of the Transfiguration of Christ. More recently, Barber (2002) conscientiously and very readably traces the trajectory of the theological debates prompted by iconoclasm.

4     Clearly shifts in the status of art were attended by shifts in the status of the artist. “In the course of almost 180 years of debate, Greek [iconophile] theologians produced a radical change in the language with which they framed the icon. In so doing, they raised the status of the work of art to that of theology and the status of the artist to that of the theologian” Barber (2002, 138).

5     Emphatic in Pesch (1908, 86): “Sacramenta, cum sint signa ad placitum et praeterea ipsa sua significatione effectus producant, qui illis signis nullo modo naturaliter causari possunt, institutore indigent, qui et eorum significationem determinet et cum significatione efficacitatem coniungat. Iam per se patet neminem posse ex innata sua potestate et ut causam principlaem physicam signa gratiae efficacia instituere nisi solum Deum”. [“Because they are signs in principle and above all produce an effect by their very meaning, which cannot be caused naturally by signs of themselves, sacraments are in need of one who institutes them, who determines their sense and connects their effectiveness to their meaning. Thus it is self-evident that no one but God alone can institute the effective signs of grace by his or her inborn powers or even be their main physical cause.”]

6     For a sustained critique of such ‘conventional scholarly wisdom’ about the Trecento, which traces the trajectory of this interpretive tradition to Giorgio Vasari (for example, through Bernard Berenson and Jacob Burckhardt), see Maginnis’ (1997) monograph on Tuscan Trecento painting, Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation.

7     See Belting (1994, 370–376): as part of an account of the relationship between Duccio’s painting and the dolce stil nuovo, Belting describes Duccio’s profound empathy with the aims of the Byzantine icon painters. For a broad background to Byzantine influence on the art of the Medieval Christian West, before, during and after the fall of Constantinople, see the lavishly illustrated catalogue essay by Wixom (1997, 435–507).

8     The monograph by White (1993) remains a valuable survey of these transitions in Italy. As White affirms with reference to painting, “Apart from the extent to which even the greatest innovators still remain within conventions handed down from the immediate past, the degree to which their fellow artists were unmoved by what they did is as notable as their often very partial borrowings. This great, slow-moving current of conservatism must not be forgotten” (288).

9     “The Middle Ages are the civilization of vision, where the cathedral is the great book in stone, and is indeed the advertisement, the TV screen, the mystic comic strip that must narrate and explain everything, the nations of the earth, the arts and crafts, the days of the year, the seasons of sowing and reaping, the mysteries of the faith, the episodes of sacred and profane history, and the lives of the saints…” This excess of narratives and significations relates to the cultural status of the cathedral as “a massive popular culture enterprise” (Eco 1986, 81–82). On the architectural development of the Gothic cathedral, see, for example, Wilson (1992).

10    See Williamson (1995), for a thoroughly documented survey and appraisal of monuments in Gothic sculpture throughout Europe.

11    On the especially sophisticated naturalism of sculpture under the patronage of the Burgundian court at Dijon at the turn of the fourteenth century, see Morand (1991).


Barber, C. 2002. Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Belting, H. 1994. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the era of Art, translated by Jephcott, Edmund. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eco, U. 1986. “Living in the New Middle Ages”. In Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, translated by Weaver, W. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 81–82.

Elsner, J. 1988. “Image and Iconoclasm in Byzantium”. Art History 11: 471–491

Ladner, G. 1953. “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy”. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 7. Dumbarton Oaks.

Maginnis, H. B. J. 1997. Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Moorhead, J. 1986. “Byzantine Iconoclasm as a Problem in Art History”. Parergon n.s. 4: 1–18.

Morand, K. 1991. Claus Sluter: Artist at the Court of Burgundy. London: Austin.

Pesch, C. 1908. De sacramentis, praelectiones dogmaticae. Freiburg: Herder & Co.

Vasari, G. 1979 edn. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. New York: Abrams.

White, J. 1993. Art and Architecture in Italy 1250–1400, 3rd ed. New Haven and London: Pelican History of Art.

Williamson, P. 1995. Gothic Sculpture 1140–1400. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wilson, C. 1992. The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church, 2nd edn. London: Thames & Hudson.

Wixom, W. D. “Byzantine Art and the Latin West”. In The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era A.D. 843–1261, edited by Evans, H. C.; Wixom, W. D. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 435–507.

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘Body and blood’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 3.13.10.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson