Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 23, 2011
Christine Göttler Last Things: Art and the Religious Imagination in the Age of Reform Proteus: Studies in Early Modern Identity Formation. Vol. 2. . Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010. 471 pp.; 25 color ills.; 156 b/w ills. Cloth €130.00 (9782503523972)

Last Things: Art and the Religious Imagination in the Age of Reform by Christine Göttler is an important contribution to the study of Jesuit-sponsored visual culture in the aftermath of the Council of Trent. The artistic style associated with the Counter-Reformation (or the Catholic Reform), usually called the Baroque, was long linked to the Jesuits, so much so that it was dubbed “the Jesuit style” in nineteenth-century German and French art history as a pejorative reference to its propagandistic character. Göttler investigates this issue of control in her study, specifically the question of who is in control of the viewing process: the artist, the theological advisor, or the viewer. In Göttler’s sensitive analysis, the question is not reduced to a black-and-white conflict between restraint and creativity but explored as a site of productive tension. Focusing on the themes of the four last things (the novissima) and Purgatory, Göttler examines a range of cultural products, paintings, emblem books, prints, wood and wax sculpture, and maps, which were either implicitly or explicitly concerned with eschatology and the efficacy of the image. In addition to tracing iconographies designed according to Jesuit principles in the decades following Trent, Göttler addresses a corpus of failed and satirical works that point up the ambition of the Jesuit project. The image, in this context, was tasked with the reform of the viewer’s soul.

The first chapter of Last Things acts as a prologue, illustrating the ways in which the eschatological program of the Jesuits was an extension of, and departure from, late medieval practice. In examining the popularity of indulgenced prints depicting the Mass of St. Gregory produced between 1470 and 1520, Göttler argues that these sorts of works set the stage for later “performative” images, which engage the viewer in the process of her or his own salvation. The prints offered reassurance to viewers/buyers by explicitly dictating the terms of their use, providing verbal and visual instructions on how to achieve salvation for beholders and other souls languishing in Purgatory. By 1530, however, this once popular theme had virtually disappeared from the art market, victim to the reformers’ intense animus against the practice of indulgence selling and Pope Gregory, the reputed inventor of Purgatory and image devotion.

The disputed doctrine of Purgatory was upheld at the Council of Trent, but with the proviso that bishops should prohibit those aspects of the doctrine that might cause scandal and arouse “a certain kind of curiosity and superstition” (75). The second chapter, “Sites for the Devout and Sites for the Curious: Limbo, Purgatory, and Hell at Varallo,” examines a project whose failure brings new post-Tridentine standards for devotion to the fore. Göttler argues that the architect Galezzo Alessi’s planned expansion of the Sacro Monte at Varallo, a complex of chapels containing life-size, highly realistic sculptural ensembles enacting scenes from sacred history, was rejected because it was too theatrical, too aestheticized. Alessi’s plan to build “grottoes” recreating Limbo, Purgatory, and Hell, developed in the 1560s, was perfectly in keeping with the meditational program outlined in Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and practiced by visitors to the mountain, such as Carlo Borromeo. Yet, the manner in which the grottoes were to be viewed, as self-contained stage-sets seen through a peephole, alienated the representations from the viewer and made their scenes of the Netherworld into objects of curiosity rather than devotion.

The third chapter broadens the frame of inquiry to include a wide range of contemporary visions, or “memories,” of Purgatory and the Last Things. The highlights of this survey are Göttler’s discussion of garden architecture and the grotesque, which provides a context for Alessi’s Varallo grottoes, and her presentation of a fantastical map and text, which depicts the kingdom of the Roman pope in a Hellmouth. Her analysis of the map, created by two Protestant refugees from Vincenza, brings the stakes of the debate about the afterlife into focus.

The fourth chapter, “Hearts, Mirrors, and Wheels: Last Things in Late-Sixteenth Century Northern Prints,” occupies a central place in the book’s investigation of the post-Tridentine viewing experience, describing the development of the iconography of the Last Things under the influence of Jesuit theology and meditational practice. Over the course of the sixteenth century, the standard depiction of the Last Things moved from small narrative medallions set into a larger composition to close-up pictures of exemplary souls. The most influential version of the theme, depicting souls in the experience of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven (in addition to a skeleton standing in for Death), was designed by the Jesuit author Jacob Bidermann and engraved by Raphael Sadeler in 1601–4. The Bidermann/Sadeler souls reappear in 1610 in the form of small wax busts, sculpted by Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino and displayed in ebony boxes with mirrored interiors. The busts and their identified owners, including Federico Borromeo, Carlo’s cousin, are featured prominently in chapter 5. Göttler argues that the elegance of their presentation, in addition to the mirroring on the interior of the boxes (in which the viewer would have seen her or his own likeness), generates an intimate, psychologized viewing experience in keeping with contemporary emphasis on the judgment of the individual soul upon death rather than the Last Judgment at the end of time.

The continued popularity of the busts, today best known from Bernini’s marble versions of the saved and damned souls (1619), can be explained by the psychologically gripping character of the viewing experience, which brings the beholder’s personal responsibility for her or his own salvation to bear. The last two chapters and epilogue of Last Things look at the anxiety, earnestly expressed in emblem books and playfully handled in the paintings of Jan Brueghel, that even this viewing experience is not focused enough. Chapter 6, “The Eye as Thief: Mental and Material Images in Meditation,” considers Jesuit devotional literature in the tradition of the Spiritual Exercises. Works like the Adnotationes et meditationes in evangelia (1595), written by Jerome Nadal and illustrated with engravings by the Wierix brothers, label the image with markers, annotations, and captions, encouraging the viewer to treat the image as a text. Within this rigid matrix, the possibly wandering attention of the viewer is held fast. In the same years, Brueghel began to paint what Karel van Mander called “poetic hells,” the topic of the seventh chapter. These diffuse compositions populated by tiny figures representing the descent of various mythological figures into the underworld provoked the opposite response: distraction, imaginative invention, recreational enjoyment. The epilogue focuses on Brueghel’s Allegory of Fire (1608), one of four allegorical elements painted for Federico Borromeo. In analyzing this and related paintings, Göttler considers Brueghel’s transformation of a topic that previously carried existential weight, namely Hell, into a showcase of aesthetic effects—flickering and glowing light, colored reflections—and its ambivalent reception by Borromeo, the epitome of the devout viewer.

Last Things is a triumph in the genre of visual culture, presenting a wide swath of material on the theme of early modern memory and eschatology. Göttler’s text also offers an impressive and detailed engagement with previous research. Much of the literature in this field may be new to an English-language audience whose familiarity with the topic might be limited to the recent work of Walter Melion (Walter S. Melion, The Meditative Art: Studies in the Northern Devotional Print, 1550–1625, Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2009 [click here for review]). Melion’s fine research on the Jesuit emblem book tradition is a useful reference point in assessing Göttler’s particular achievement; in contrast to Melion’s focused work on Nadal’s emblem books, Göttler demonstrates an ambition to explore all cultural manifestations of eschatology, from high to low, Jesuit to Protestant, painting to print to wax.

In its very prodigiousness lies the difficulty of the book. For Last Things, Göttler has brought together enough material for several in-depth studies. The transformation of the Sadeler print into the Azzolino wax sculptures and the Bernini marble busts (as well as paintings by Francisco Ribalta) is particularly compelling. Another fascinating strand that runs as a subtext through several chapters of the book is the network of producers, such as the engravers in the Sadeler and Wierix families, and consumers, such as the Borromeos, of Jesuit-influenced art. Göttler’s introductory section on the Gregory prints and the concluding section on the Brueghel paintings offer not only insights into the general theme of the book but so many other interesting observations that they could function as standalone projects in themselves. Even at 394 pages, all of this material is a tight fit, leaving little room to provide clarification for an audience who is not fully initiated into the discourse of early modern eschatology. Last Things is a must-read for scholars who have been following the ever-growing field of memory studies, but it is not a book for someone who has never heard of St. Gregory.

Jessica Buskirk
Postdoctoral Researcher, Collaborative Research Centre 804, Technical University Dresden