Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 20, 2024
Assaf Pinkus Visual Aggression: Images of Martyrdom in Late Medieval Germany University Park: Penn State University Press, 2021. 216 pp.; 50 color ills.; 87 b/w ills. Hardcover $109.95 (9780271083797)

Assaf Pinkus’s Visual Aggression: Images of Martyrdom in Late Medieval Germany is the latest addition to recent scholarship on how medieval sculptors staged meaningful encounters with embodied viewing subjects. Using somaesthetics as its theoretical framework, it charts the emergence of an unprecedented visual rhetoric of violence in 14th-century monumental martyrdom cycles from southern Germany. Aptly termed “galleries of violence,” the imagery in this study is characterized by an encyclopedic array of bodily horrors and mutilations. While scholars like Caroline Walker Bynum have interpreted scenes of medieval martyrdom in light of contemporary devotional practices, Pinkus argues that these images elicited a viewer response that was “unmediated by theological ideas” (5). His central claim is that the visceral cruelties on display in these sculptural cycles “ocularly assaulted the bodies and minds of the viewers with such violence that seeing the series virtually amounted to an act of visual aggression” (3). In other words, the viewers experienced the acts of brutality against the saints as if they were inflicted upon their own bodies. Pinkus connects this somatic engagement to two historical developments: the scholastic reformulation of violence as bodily and negative and new civic codes and judicial procedures for regulating violence in southern Germany.

These arguments are largely born out in the first two chapters of the book. Pinkus identifies the key characteristics of “galleries of violence” by examining two martyrdom cycles: the relief sculptures on the northern choir portal of Schwäbisch Gmünd’s Holy Cross Minster (1351–70s) and St. Theobald’s west portal in Thann (ca. 1370). In earlier martyrdom imagery, the depicted violence was subdued and limited to individual scenes within larger cycles chronicling the saint’s vita, primarily representing an identifying attribute. In contrast, the cycles at Gmünd and Thann consist entirely of scenes of extreme brutality inflicted upon multiple saints, expanding the range of depicted torments and accentuating their emotional and physical anguish, often at the expense of their individual identity.

Pinkus’s extra-devotional reading is strongest in chapter two, which explores the historical circumstances that shaped the unconventional arrangement of Thann’s sculptural program. He convincingly argues that its composition was based on accounts in the local Annales of waves of violence in the region. By following these organizing principles and incorporating references to civic and juridical proceedings, the Thann cycle “reenact[ed] law and authority . . . offering a model for the local inhabitants to think of themselves as new martyrs,” providing solace to a community beset by disorder (61) .

Without a narrative framework to mediate the excess brutality on display, Pinkus argues that the novelty of the visual rhetoric instead elicited an intensely somatic response. The decontextualization of the martyrdom scenes in these cycles is certainly unusual. Yet few actually feature saints in the throes of agony; most martyrs appear instead to face their torment with remarkable stoicism. For instance, an unidentified martyr at Thann endures the extraction of his fingernails and toenails with all the composure of someone indulging in a salon manicure /pedicure. Moreover, one wonders how unmediated medieval encounters with such galleries of violence really were since church imagery was often activated for viewers through verbal remediation: indeed, we know preachers explicitly referenced architectural sculpture in their sermons, and Conrad Rudolph’s 2018 article (Art Bulletin 100, no. 1) has shown guides were often available to explain complex art programs to visiting pilgrims.

Pinkus fleshes out the precise mechanics of the viewer’s somatic engagement with galleries of violence in chapter three, analyzing the grisly martyrdom scenes of St. Bartholomew and St. Catherine of Alexandria from Gmünd and Thann, as well as Stefan Lochner’s Martyrdom of the Twelve Apostles (ca. 1435). Through the lens of somaesthetics, he attempts to reconstruct medieval viewers’ experience of violent imagery. He suggests that the numerous disparities between the visual and textual accounts of these violent acts, as well as the rarity of witnessing such modes of torture in real life, created a “gap” between experience and representation that was readily filled by the viewer’s “bodily imagination.” Pinkus thus argues that “in the moment of immediate encounter with the violent imagery, the devotees themselves are united and become one with the imagined body.” Moreover, this union importantly defers devotional experience, instead prompting the viewer’s actual experience of pain so that “the pictured suffering becomes their own in a literal manner” (71).

Pinkus correctly observes that galleries of violence resist traditional interpretations of medieval martyrdom scenes as models of exemplary behavior. Since this prevailing view is largely based on 15th-century devotional texts used by a more exclusive readership, it does not readily transfer to the monumental, public sculptures of 14th-century church portals. Nevertheless, his account of the relationship between the physical experience of pain and devotional meditation remains unresolved. At times, he seems to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive, even while acknowledging elsewhere that such imagery might have elicited a devotional response. Despite emphasizing the body’s role in immediate aesthetic encounters, Pinkus’s overly strict distinction between inner and outer bodies, such that pain is sequestered to the physical body, overlooks how bodies both mediate experience and may themselves be discursively produced.

Even murkier is the question of how the particular aesthetic qualities of this violent imagery trigger somatic responses. While Pinkus claims the scale of the work determines "whether viewers can measure the depicted martyrdom on their own bodies” (68), he seldom provides the dimensions of the galleries of violence central to his study or accounts for the distance between object and viewer. Indeed, it is questionable whether the actual site conditions would have permitted viewers to discern individual details of visceral horror within what are, after all, incredibly complex pictorial programs. For instance, the thirty-four martyrdom scenes at Thann are dispersed across a fifty-two-foot façade featuring a main tympanum with twenty-one scenes from the life of the Virgin, five rows of sculpted archivolts, two smaller tympanums, and approximately two dozen life-sized sculptures. Given the density of this visual environment, a more substantial consideration of the larger architectural context seems warranted.

The last two chapters sharply diverge from the rest of the book, exploring a broader range of violent images and their somatic effects. Chapter four focuses on erotic and sexual responses to the nude martyrs in Meister Francke’s St. Barbara altar (ca. 1410–16), arguing that such representations of gendered violence challenged viewers to choose between carnal and spiritual modes of seeing. Chapter five examines the (re)animating force of the interplay between color and medium in hybrid works like the Metropolitan Museum’s Schreinmadonna (ca. 1300) and reliquary busts of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins (ca. 1350), prompting the viewer to imagine the reintegration of the saintly referent’s fragmented and/or violated body. Although both chapters stand on their own, their evidentiary value for the larger claims of the book remains unclear, largely because Pinkus does not address the fundamental differences in location, function, and audience between the painted altarpieces or private, devotional objects and the monumental, public sculpture he explored earlier. Critically, the objects in these chapters do not seem to meet the author’s criteria for galleries of violence. The St. Barbara altar, for example, includes narrative scenes and would have been mediated by the liturgy, whereas the violence of the reliquary busts is highly abstract, lacking the novelty and visceral punch that were so key to his characterization of the earlier examples in Gmünd and Thann.

While Visual Aggression offers a richly historicized account of a relatively understudied group of images, it never quite coalesces into a coherent narrative. By the end, one is left with the impression that the individual chapters operate too independently to support the book’s overarching thesis. This lack of clarity is exacerbated by the absence of critical contextual information about many of the key works in his study (as mentioned above). Further compounding the issue, substantial portions of the introduction, chapters one, three, and five are recycled (often verbatim) without acknowledgment or citation from his 2014 book, Sculpting Simulacra, and several previous journal publications.1 

Many readers will undoubtedly appreciate Pinkus’s emphasis on nondevotional responses to martyrdom scenes as a refreshing alternative to the imitation Christi model that has traditionally informed interpretations of these images. Nevertheless, his proposition that somaesthetics is the key to understanding these works is not entirely convincing. Regardless of whether one believes that somaesthetics itself is a viable approach to the historical past, the universalizing and homogenizing assumptions that undergird this method undermine his assertion that this rhetoric of visual aggression grew out of specific, local circumstances in Germany. Given the strength of his historical contextualization elsewhere in the text, one wishes Pinkus had instead turned to the rich “medieval” discourses on imagination’s corporeal effects. As scholars such as Michelle Kearnes (University of Chicago Press, 2017) have shown, imagination was understood not only to channel sensory perceptions to the intellect but also to simulate their tangible effects on the body, even without any corresponding physical experience. Rather than succumbing to the ahistorical allure of neuroaesthetics, anchoring Visual Aggression: Images of Martyrdom in Late Medieval Germany within this historical framework might have more effectively revealed the layers of meaning and embodied experience these galleries of violence offered their contemporary beholders.

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1 In the acknowledgements, Pinkus notes that “sections of chapters 1 and 5 have been previously published in Gesta and Viator” (xii). However, the Gesta article was already republished as Chapter 3 of Sculpting Simulacra and it is clear from variations between the two that the excerpts from the present book come from the latter. Portions of the introduction and Chapter 4 from this book are also reused without acknowledgement. Moreover, no citation is given in a footnote or the bibliography for the Viator article, but presumably he is referring to “Transformations in Wood: Between Sculpture and Painting in Late Medieval Devotional Objects in Germany,” Viator 48, no. 3 (2017): 263–91. Some of the book’s material has also been previously published in the following articles without acknowledgement (half of which are listed in the bibliography, while the other half is not): “The Eye and the Womb: Viewing the Shrine Madonna,” Arte Medievale 4, no. 2 (2012): 201–20; “Imagining the Magdeburg Rider,” Paragrana 23, no. 1 (2014): 23–45; “Imaginative Responses to Gothic Sculpture: The Bamberg Rider,” Viator 45, no. 1 (2014): 331–60; “Guido da Siena and the Four Modes of Violence,” in Death, Torture, and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300–1600, ed. John R. Decker and Mitzi Kirkland-Ives, 19–34 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2015); “The Giant of Bremen: Roland and the ‘Colossus Imagination,’” Speculum 93, no. 2 (2018): 387–419; “Verkörperte Imagination, imaginierte Körper. Die Martyrien des hl. Bartholomäus und der hl. Katharina in der rheinischen Kunst des Spätmittelalters,” Zeitschrift des deutschen Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft 72/73 (2018/19): 347–70; “‘ein rise starc unde grôz’: Geographies and Temporalities of Salvation in St. Jakob in Kastelaz,” Word & Image 35, no. 4 (2019): 347–66.

Tamara Golan
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History
University of Chicago