Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2003
Diane Wolfthal Images of Rape: The “Heroic” Tradition and Its Alternatives New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 286 pp.; 118 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (052158311X)
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Diane Wolfthal’s Images of Rape: The “Heroic” Tradition and Its Alternatives is a difficult and necessary book to read; indeed, this should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding the visual cultures of Western traditions. The author examines a vast body of work through a feminist lens to explore the realities of rape for women—as well as for men—in late medieval and early modern Europe. Informed by her own feminist convictions and a comprehensive knowledge of the material, Wolfthal aims “to recapture the muted or silenced voices of the rape victims, to see the violation from their point of view” (3). This goal is achieved through a consideration of more than a hundred different images within their particular historical, social, and visual contexts.

Wolfthal’s study is thematic instead of chronological and is organized around the discourses of war, law, biblical stories, and classical myths. This approach to the material presents the reader with numerous examples for comparative purposes, thereby creating a context for appreciating particular subjects and images. Even with this focus on themes rather than chronology, Wolfthal’s research indicates that societal responses to rape shifted between the late medieval and early modern periods, and that these shifts are evident in the visual arts. From the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, written accounts and visual representations of sexual violence frequently paralleled one another in their attitudes toward victims and rapists; in the early period, rape was condemned and the victim was presented sympathetically, while in later years, rape often became a narrative of seduction with blame placed on the victim.

A critique of canonical accounts of rape is the focus of chapter 1, which examines images of “heroic” rape, defined by Wolfthal (following Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975]) as “those myths and legends in which the rapist is a Greek or Roman god or hero” (5). Wolfthal investigates how these subjects functioned within the domestic sphere on cassone chests and spalliera paintings, objects associated with marriage and family life. These stories, including the rape and reconciliation of the Sabines, the rapes of Europa, Io, Leda, and Proserpina, and the attempted rape of Daphne, were designed to remind the bride and wife to guard her chastity, submit to her husband, anticipate sacrifice for her family, and work to maintain peace within that family. The lesson for the bride was the significance of the new family established under her husband’s rule, which early modern viewers might have read as a parallel to scenes of abduction. Further, images of rape may have served to reinforce feelings of political power through male viewers’ identification with the active god or hero.

In chapters 2 and 3 Wolfthal contrasts this “heroic” tradition with rape imagery of terror and despair. Wolfthal focuses on woman as victim in images depicting the story of the Levite’s wife in the mid-thirteenth-century Morgan Picture Bible (Morgan 638). In scenes representing the wife’s surrender and attack, she is depicted as distressed or grieving. Moreover, her clothing, hair, and seized wrist make clear to the early modern viewer that the Levite’s wife was taken against her will and raped. Wolfthal parallels these visual elements with medieval law treatises that required the rape victim to produce her torn clothing and show her disheveled hair. Throughout her study, Wolfthal takes issue with scholars who state that women in early modern societies did not fear rape; indeed, the evidence here insists that viewers looked with horror at the fate of the Levite’s wife.

From biblical narratives, Wolfthal proceeds to an examination of rape in the context of historical and contemporary war and finds that late-fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century images reveal a tradition that often condemned soldiers who committed rape. Wolfthal further offers evidence from chroniclers as well as witnesses to the rape of women by soldiers, which attests to the realities of rape experienced by women in early modern Europe. Wolfthal distinguishes between images that depict the rapist as “heroic,” such as in the rape of the Sabines, and those that show the rapist as a brutal soldier, as in scenes of Lucretia. Although these narratives recount ancient Roman legends, representations of Lucretia frequently depicted figures in contemporary dress, thus asserting the real threat of soldiers as rapists. Taken alongside images of the rape of the Sabines, which sanitize the act, Lucretia “offer[s] a negative model and condemn[s] it. Together [the two traditions] reveal a society that was ambivalent in its attitude toward soldiers who rape” (75). However, it may be possible to read something other than ambivalence in the representation of contemporaneity in the rape of Lucretia when we remember that the rapist was Sextus, the son of the tyrannical Roman king Tarquin. It was in response to this outrage that Brutus, nephew of Tarquin, swore a revenge that resulted in the foundation of the Republic. Represented within a contemporary setting, the rape of Lucretia may be as much a warning to those who rule as about sympathy for the victim.

Chapter 4 examines rape imagery found in legal texts and in panel paintings displayed in courtrooms. In the Sachsenspiegel, a German law code compiled in 1225 and surviving in four fourteenth-century illuminated manuscripts, the rape victim is shown resisting and fighting the rapist and accusing him in testimony before a judge (the woman is depicted with disheveled hair and torn dress, proof of the attack); throughout, her gestures are those of mourning, perhaps eliciting sympathy from the late medieval viewer. Significantly, the images offer critical information not provided in the text. For example, the woman is shown witnessing the execution. In addition, the Sachsenspiegel stipulates that the rapist is to be executed regardless of the victim’s social status; the images, however, do not clarify the status of the woman, perhaps “to visually reinforce the idea…that the rape of any woman is a capital offense” (106).

In contrast to the Sachenspiegel, fourteenth-century illuminations for Gratian’s Decretum (compiled 1130–40) do not clarify textual descriptions of rape; some images show the woman struggling, some show her as willing. The Decretum is more dependent on ancient Roman law than the Sachenspiegel, and Roman law did not have a word equivalent to our “rape.” Sexual violation was under two broader categories, stuprum (an illicit act not necessarily a violation against the will of the victim) and raptus (violent theft of property). For Gratian, rape had to include abduction, making rape more difficult to prove under canon law than under Saxon law. Gratian’s Decretum was more influential on the development of Western European law than the Sachenspiegel, and the blurred distinction between rape and consensual sex characteristic of the Decretum came to dominate legal discourses on rape in the West.

Justice paintings had a larger audience, for they were publicly displayed in the courtrooms of town halls in northern Europe. Here, Wolfthal compares Rogier van der Weyden’s Justice of Herkinbald, made for Brussels in the mid-fifteenth century (destroyed in 1695 but known from a tapestry made in 1461), with sixteenth-century representations of the same theme. The legend of Count Herkinbald, first recorded in the early thirteenth century, relates God’s approval of the count’s execution of his nephew, a rapist. Rogier’s Justice of Herkinbald upholds the values of the Sachsenspiegel; Herkinbald, as judge and executioner, is praised for condemning the rape and punishing the assailant. Sixteenth-century representations depart from this account by showing the couple as lovers prior to the rape. While rape is condemned through the count’s execution of his rapist-nephew, later representations depict the rape victim as temptress. Where the woman is shown as seducing the man, her actions are open to interpretation as having invited the rape, or even of being responsible for the rapist’s death; here, the rapist and his suffering, as well as the woman’s culpability, become the focus. These panels offered judges conflicting views of women and likely played a role in judicial decisions.

Chapters 5 and 6 explore responses to misogyny in early modern Europe. Wolfthal considers Christine de Pizan’s accounts of rape in her Epistre Othea, written 1399–1400, and in her Le livre de la cité des dames, of six years later, and suggests that the originality of the illuminations must have been due to Christine’s direct involvement. In some narratives, Christine avoids explicit depictions of sexual violence, perhaps as a rejection of contemporary misogynist ideas regarding a woman’s desire to be raped. Further, Christine clarifies what her contemporaries found ambiguous, the difference between rape and seduction; for Christine, the difference is the use of violence. In addition, Christine avoids the stereotype of woman as sexual aggressor and suggests that a woman’s “proper” response to rape is taking justice.

While the vast majority of medieval and early modern rapists were men in both literature and imagery, “the most frequently depicted sexual aggressor was a woman, Potiphar’s wife…” (162). For Wolfthal, the popularity of the story illuminates why real rape was marginalized; the story of Potiphar’s wife supported misogynist stereotypes that women were ruled by lust and were deceitful. Wolfthal explores the significance of this narrative within a historical context in which rape was underreported, rapists were rarely convicted, convicted rapists were sentenced lightly, and women were punished for bringing false charges if a rape trial ended in acquittal.

In her conclusion, Wolfthal urges readers to consider late medieval and early modern representations of rape when examining modern art. Wolfthal refers to Käthe Kollwitz’s 1907 etching, Raped, which shows a woman on the ground with outspread legs and raised skirt, elements now familiar to the reader as traditional iconography identifying a rape victim. As Wolfthal points out, there is much evidence that early modern artists depicted the brutality of rape from the woman’s perspective, a tradition that may have been known to Kollwitz. Retrieving this earlier visual history is critical for understanding modern and contemporary representations of sexual violence.

With the exception of the cover illustration, all of the images in this book are in black and white. This is unfortunate because some works are not readily available in color elsewhere. For those that are, such as Nicolas Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines, locating a color reproduction is only a minor inconvenience but one worth taking, particularly since this work is critical to Wolfthal’s discussion of canonical accounts of “heroic” rape. After reading Wolfthal’s formal analysis of the painting in chapter 1, this reader wanted to turn to Poussin’s work to see, from a feminist perspective, how the artist used color to elaborate the Roman narrative. This is only one of many skillful formal analyses but is evidence of Wolfthal’s sophisticated feminist reading supported by more traditional art-historical methods.

Scholars as well as general readers with diverse interests will find much that is useful, inspiring, and disturbing in this text. Wolfthal is to be congratulated and thanked for bringing this material together, making it accessible to a broad audience and reminding readers of the powerful influence of the past on the present.

Marjorie Och
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Mary Washington

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.