Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2013
Amy Knight Powell Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2012. 384 pp.; 8 color ills.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9781935408208)

In 1953 German art historian Otto von Simson, writing in the pages of The Art Bulletin, heralded Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition (ca. 1435) in the Prado as “the birth of tragedy in Christian art” (Otto G. von Simson, “Compassio and Co-Redemptio in Roger van der Weyden’s Descent From the Cross,” The Art Bulletin 35, no. 1 [March 1953]: 9–16). Well-timed to coincide with post-war philosophy’s Nietzsche revival, the claim was grounded in a conventional scholarly alignment of visual fact (the famous rhyme of Christ and Mary’s bodies) and prevailing currents of religious culture (in particular the cult of the Sorrowing Virgin). Now it is 2013, and Amy Knight Powell has declared Rogier’s painting to mark something else entirely: the birth of auto-iconoclasm in modern art. Whereas von Simson trained his gaze on the live qualities of Rogier’s bodies as they collapsed into pathetic helplessness, and treated the void between them as a dramatic interval, Powell peers deeply into the gap itself, seeing in it a space pregnant with dark energy and directed mysteriously toward the future. That gap she reads as the emblem of a latent hostility in late medieval religion toward sacred figuration, the vexed outcome of Christian culture’s failure to come to terms with the holy image. Standing for the “perpetual self-absenting” (35) and inherent “deadness” of the art object across all temporal divides, it serves as the leitmotif of her new book, Depositions.

As Powell explains it, hers is a contribution to the pre-history of Europe’s calamitous outbreaks of iconoclasm, and what she has organized are “small prefigurations of the epic deposition of the image” (235), anticipations of what sixteenth-century reformers would call the dead image. Eight main chapters, plus a concluding one, address: the liturgical rite of the depositio and its ecclesiastical accoutrements—folding altarpieces, Lenten cloths, shuttered sepulchers (ch. 1); crucifixes with movable arms (ch. 2); anti-image polemics by religious dissidents and evangelical reformers (ch. 3); Counter-Reformation host-exposition graves (ch. 4); the “empty center” of the Prado Deposition (ch. 5); the translation of Rogier’s motif by the Master of St. Bartholomew into a symbolic “wound” in the image (ch. 6); the puppet-like appearance of that same artist’s figure-style, viewed as a pictorial trope for idolatry and the iconoclast’s insistence on the materiality of effigies (ch. 7); Jan Mostaert’s references to achieropoieta and the trope of Christ’s body as veil in the burial shroud of his Deposition Triptych (ca. 1520) in Brussels (ch. 8); and finally Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) in Basel (Conclusion). Each of these nine chapters, interestingly, ends with a “vignette” (Powell’s word) devoted to a distinct episode in twentieth-century art or culture. It is on the basis of these time-bending comparisons that the book earns its evocative subtitle.

Resonant with the new art histories grappling with anachronism and untimely modernisms of all kinds in pre-modern art, Powell’s is an important and daring book, deftly choreographed, and not easily dismissed or embraced. It contains rich discussions and productive insights, and features an impressive supporting cast of minds, from Sigmund Freud to Georges Bataille, Walter Benjamin, and Paul de Man. Yet some basic problems of evidence and interpretation, small and large, undermine the integrity of the whole; argumentation can become strained, and a kind of over-assured rhetoric papers over fissures, casting the book’s scholarly results, if not its entire intellectual appeal, into doubt.

Powell offers several distinct arguments in support of an analytical method that brings together late medieval and modern art in a historical montage. First comes an appeal to what the author, trading on a strategy of surrealist parataxis, identifies as “pseudomorphic resemblance” (10), the idea of history-transgressing formal similarities that illuminate the unexpected kinship of things. Powell points specifically to what she calls an essential “promiscuity” of form, a radical thingness that detaches artworks from any proprietary relationship current, past, or future generations might hold them to. By proclaiming this mysterious potential of artworks to “knowingly foretell the process by which they will eventually find their way into the confines of the museum” (9), Powell signals her determination not to perpetuate the “historical deracination” (9) that turns artworks into static exhibits in a grand theater of signed and sealed intentionalities. Art objects slip from their own time and address themselves to the future, she argues, and to ignore this capacity amounts to relegating them “exclusively to the past” (38).

What this critique of historicism allows Powell to assert is that the “small” prefigurations she has identified all point forward to a massive cultural transformation called “Reformation iconoclasm” that in turn prefigures “the repeated ‘deaths’ of art since the invention of the camera” (10). Late medieval art is seen to harbor a prophetic moment, a redemptive potential, and a liberating achronicity. With its rather uncritical debt to Christian typological exegesis, this notion is used to link medieval liturgical and devotional arts to the dissident energies fueling resistance to Rome around 1500. Like many scholars before her, Powell wants to know who, or what, prepared the ground for iconoclasm’s activist forms, and her answer squares with an established line of scholarship, one that has discerned patterns of anti-image criticism in the new religious movements that challenged Roman hegemony from the twelfth century onward: Cathars, Waldensians, Lollards, and finally Hussites, whose radical wing, the Taborites, made forays into outright image-breaking. Anti-image sentiment among these groups, Powell reminds her readers, varied greatly, but the “shift in the Western image-debate” their disdain of clerical wealth collectively wrought was momentous (29). From here it is but a short step to the sixteenth-century reformers—not “magisterial” moderates like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, who denounced image-breaking as a threat to public order, but the so-called “radical” reformers, evangelical dissidents whose complex genealogy was first broken down by George Hunston Williams in his Radical Reformation of 1962 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press).

Thus both the heroes, and the anti-heroes, of late medieval Christian culture’s “latent aggression toward images” turn out to be the heretics, and Powell recounts with aplomb this fascinating chapter in the history of the image’s travails. How these dissident energies actually intersected with the lives of the artists she brings up for discussion, or the circumstances surrounding works that supposedly encode this aggression, is a question she never adequately addresses, however. Basic criteria of evidence form a serious stumbling block here. Nothing scholars presently know about Rogier’s career and his social world, neither his religious affiliations nor his imagery, and likewise nothing surrounding the altarpiece commissioned by the Leuven Crossbowman’s Guild, a lay association devoted to the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows, lends itself to the author’s interpretation. The spiritual orientation and outward religiosity artist and patrons shared was bourgeois, charitable, and civic-minded—kleinburgerlijk; it was theologically conservative and respectful of the clergy’s sacramental authority, hardly heretical. Whatever compunctions Rogier and his patrons might have felt, their patterns of production and consumption demonstrate an embrace of the image across the many different roles it was given to play: as instrument of devotion and meditation; as gift and endowment; as touchstone of memory; even as object of cult, prayer, and votive exchange, the scene where the image most resembled an idol. It is not simply that laying the “ambivalence” of bourgeois Flemings at the doorstep of heretics and dissidents is inconclusive detective-work. Powell does not seem to want to credit her historical subjects with a reflective awareness of the boundary lines custom and propriety had established between image and idol, boundaries it was the Christian’s ethical duty to uphold. Yet artists and patrons shared precisely this understanding throughout the pre-Reformation period. Art historians such as Michael Baxandall, Bernhard Decker, Jeffrey Hamburger, Klaus Krüger, Alexander Nagel, and Joseph Koerner have pointed to various distancing strategies, and signs of a preemptive reform, taking place across functional genres. Some of Powell’s arguments dovetail with the work of these scholars, yet she mostly confines their contributions to the notes, preferring to “point to something more agonistic” in late medieval culture’s distrust of the image (278, n. 20). (Meanwhile, those familiar with Koerner’s sweeping dictum, “Religious imagery has iconoclasm built into it” [Joseph Koerner, “The Icon as Iconoclash,” in Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, eds., Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002, 191], will recognize it as something like the operative hypothesis for Powell’s entire project.)

In reaching for the “iconoclastic implications” of Rogier’s pictorial gambit, in particular the Deposition‘s central “abyss,” Powell side-steps more mundane or contextual explanations—for example, the way late medieval painters anticipated the placement of altar crosses in front of their scenes by disposing figures around the area of eclipse. Likewise she ignores Rogier’s acknowledgment of the Renaissance discourse of enlivenment, signaled cleverly, even mischievously, in the form of Mary’s slack right arm as it gently arcs toward the ground—a canonical motif of lifelessness recommended by Alberti in Della pittura (1435) on the basis of Roman reliefs depicting Meleager’s funeral (Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, ed., Martin Kemp, trans., Cecil Grayson, London: Penguin, 1991, 73). That the Flemish master has demonstrated his own awareness, in advance of Italian art theory, that rendering the dead as unequivocally dead (or the swooning Virgin as visibly mortified) required the same artifice as endowing a living figure with liveliness finds no place in a discussion that reads the European tradition of living pictures against the grain. Cropping the tell-tale arm as an abstract composition for the book’s sumptuous jacket, the designers at Zone Books inadvertently underscored this disregard—they put it on the back cover.

Long before Rogier gave visual form to the icon’s self-absenting movement, Powell claims, Christians punctuated their festival calendar with an iconoclasm hiding in plain sight: in the para-liturgical rite of the depositio, in which the body of Christ is ritually laid in the sepulchrum domini. Powell’s overview in chapter 1 is lively and innovative, but compromised in the end by a tendentious psychologizing, an over-emphasis on sight as the ground of religious experience, and a rhetorical mode set on reading ritual in rather literal terms: “To read the Deposition rite as a (horrified) disavowal of the image is both to read it against the grain and to take its movements at face value. Nowhere does the medieval Church declare that the Deposition rite was intended to express hostility toward the image; it simply leaves it to the participants in the rite to act as if that were the case” (57; emphasis in original). In the Deposition rite, in other words, Christians buried the image and celebrated its temporary invisibility to express their perception that images were not worthy of being seen. That sacred ritual in this account begins to approach the conditions of collective repetition compulsion is something Powell asks readers to accept uncritically in the spirit of Sol Lewitt’s 1968 parody, Buried Cube: “the Deposition rite’s investment in an alternately seen and unseen but ceaselessly imagined crucifix flattens the mystery and pathos we expect from sacred ritual: what is mysterious, after all, about the predictable rhythms of the cuckoo clock?” (80)

Underlying the talk of ambivalences and oscillations—Powell has a penchant for mechanical metaphors in describing human symbolic behavior—are problematic claims about the Descent from the Cross as a biblical root paradigm (little attention is devoted to Mark 15, Matthew 27, Luke 23, and John 19) as well as its relevance to the challenge of picturing God’s visibility in Christ. As her reading of the responsory used by the Benedictines at Prüfening reveals, the Deposition rite and its antiphons developed a deep metaphorical richness for the forty hours of mourning they structured; Powell distills this richness of metaphor down to one essential collective perception: a “withdrawal from visibility” (54). At the core of the post-Crucifixion narrative, however, was a complex awareness that Jesus had died and was buried by Joseph of Arimathea and friends, not that he “disappeared”; that the Lord took his sabbath in the tomb after the great labor of redemption, before rising; that Jesus departed from this world as a prelude to his return. In contrast to this metaphorical depth Powell’s writing often effects a rhetorical flattening, portraying prophecy-laden experience as a kind of minimalist theater of primary actions. Instead of reexperiencing the Passion’s wrenching sorrow, late medieval Christians harbored a desire “to see the image put away” (26), or “to have done with images” (46); the Deposition rite “made a spectacle of the image’s wretched stillness and [then] put it away in a box” (95; cf., similar language on 235). Mirroring her attitude toward history-writing as montage, Powell’s own language oscillates between analytic rigor and aphoristic affectation, sometimes in one and the same sentence.

In legal parlance a deposition is both a sworn statement by a witness and the written record of that testimony, something “taken down” in a particular setting, a ritualized scene of disclosure. Readers sympathetic to the melancholic temperament on display in Depositions will recognize as primal, if not primary, the scene in Freud’s fort-da, where the once-cast-away reel reenters the child’s field of vision. For it is in that game that the object’s “alienating insignificance” is exposed, prompting the subject’s need to banish the thing yet again, to compulsively repeat the experience of death. (In a footnote Powell [327, n. 51] credits a footnote by Bernhard Decker in Das Ende des mittelalterlichen Kultbildes und die Plastik Hans Leinbergers [Bamberg: Lehrstuhl für Kunstgeschichte und Aufbaustudium Denkmalpflege an der Universität Bamberg, 1985] with first comparing the veiling of altarpieces with the game of fort-da.) Meanwhile, readers attuned to Powell’s utopianism are likely to find the truth ritually disclosed in these pages as something akin to Ad Reinhardt’s statement that painting cannot die, that it never could, because “there was nothing there to die in the first place” (114). In line with this abstractionist mantra Powell wants readers to remember that the idols, Christian as well as pagan, have always been dead, and that art lives most vibrantly in the spaces cleared by the negation of our grand fictions of enlivenment—especially those perpetrated by art history. The book’s closing self-deposition merges indictment and confession around this point: “I say, let sleeping dogs lie and dead paintings hang. The less their deathly stillness resembles my own quickly passing life, the better I like them” (263).

There is a salutary reminder here, if one was still needed, that proclamations of the “end of art” or the “end of art history” have become rituals destined to endless repetition in a post-ideological age. Pushing back again and again against the “dead object,” the historicism Powell opposes compulsively reanimates the artwork only to prepare it for its next funeral. It is this repetition that calls forth the liberating vocation of the heretic, the dissident, and the avant-gardist, arch-performers of the iconoclastic gesture historicism must, as a matter of professional duty, situate in time and thereby betray. As for Powell’s experiment with art-historical typology and simultaneity, like any good avant-garde practice it will gain from the resistance it gets. It may share more with those ritualized oscillations of art’s murder and resurrection than the author cares to admit, though. Both are equally symptomatic of an age in which, as Günter Grass once assayed, “Saturn has released his children from history.” It remains to be seen whether Depositions will topple any idols of historicist thought, or settle into an amiable coexistence with our era’s rampant anachronicities.

Mitchell Merback
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University