Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 7, 2001
John Dillenberger Images and Relics: Theological Perceptions and Visual Images in Sixteenth-Century Europe Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 248 pp.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0195121724)

In his preface, the author states that he intends to provide a “comprehensive account” (vii) of the place of images in sixteenth-century religious reformations—a laudable goal, though one that this volume ultimately falls short of delivering. John Dillenberger, a noted scholar of theological history, continues his contributions to the study of Reformation history, while taking a different angle by focusing on the role and perception of images in the sixteenth century. The author’s endeavor, particularly in extending his efforts beyond his established area of expertise, is praiseworthy. Unfortunately, this foray into the visual arts frequently reveals the potential dangers that attend such cross-disciplinary ventures, as many points and assertions are not in accord with current art-historical understanding.

This book ultimately comes across as having two disparate strands that are insufficiently woven together. The first theme, suggested by the book’s title, is a discussion of reform ideas in sixteenth-century theology. The second strand, which occupies roughly three-quarters of the book, is an overview of major artists who were active during the period under discussion. While the idea of examining the interaction of theological and visual concerns during this dynamic and volatile century is a commendable one, this might have been done more effectively had the book been organized thematically rather than as a series of monographic studies.

Images and Relics is divided into three parts, the first of which, “Cultural and Theological Settings,” provides a general introduction. The second and longest part, “Artists and Images,” consists of four chapter-length overviews of single artists (Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Michelangelo Buonarroti) and one chapter devoted to “Three Artists with Distinctive Accents”: Hans Holbein the Younger, Hans Baldung Grien, and Albrecht Altdorfer. The criteria used for selecting these particular artists and arranging them in the given order are neither stated nor clarified. The inclusion of Michelangelo is incongruous amidst the otherwise German emphasis of the book. The third and final part, “Iconoclasm and Beyond,” somewhat abruptly jumps to a discussion of “The Rejection and Repositioning of Visual Images.” The entire book therefore seems to be conceived as an introduction (Chapter 1) and a conclusion (Chapter 7 and Conclusion), that frame five disjointed chapters focusing on individual artists.

It is interesting that Dillenberger follows the model of biography—that is, a work that attempts to trace each artist’s development. This is somewhat at odds with the author’s attempt to explore the interaction between theology and images, not to mention that between images and relics. The title suggests that this will be a central theme, but it is dropped after the cursory introduction to images and relics in Chapter 1. Instead, Dillenberger attempts to discern the artists’ specific take on theological concerns, hence the biographical organization and emphasis of the book. Such an approach is problematic in that it assumes that images were predominantly informed by the artist’s intentions. Certainly enough work has been done on the influence of patronage, context, and audience expectations of images to allow us to move beyond the notion that the artist’s beliefs provided the sole or principal force behind the formation of holy images.

Dillenberger tends to provide a cursory overview of an artist’s work without delving into the specifics of each commission and context. For example, in Chapter 2, on Grünewald, the Munich panel of Saints Erasmus and Maurice is not well integrated into the discussion, though it would provide an ideal focal point for an examination of the relationship between patron saint, relic, and image. As titular saint of the church at Halle, St. Maurice’s presence is hardly surprising, and the inclusion of St. Erasmus can be explained by the fact that his relics were moved to Halle by Albrecht of Brandenberg. No more is made of this, despite the usefulness of such a line of inquiry in explaining the image. Oddly, in a book with the title Images and Relics, Dillenberger does not seem to be concerned with the ways in which the presence of relics informed the creation of many attendant images.

The author glosses over many points, losing complexity and subtlety in the face of sweeping generalizations. In Chapter 1, he makes the important observation that “relics, indulgences, and images could not be readily separated in their common understanding” (6). While he correctly notes the common devotional conflation of images and relics, the author does not discuss the process through which this took place, and thereby misses much of the dynamic interchange between images and relics in practice and perception. As in much Reformation polemic, the issue becomes somewhat simplified. Perhaps most problematic is an apparent looseness in the use of the term “relic.” For example, the author writes “…the relics of St. Anthony—the invoking of the saint through prayers; identification with him…; the use of herbs—all were considered agents of balm” (31). These are all practices or devotions, but none is properly to be termed a relic. The author should have been careful with such misleading terminology, particularly in a book that purports to analyze the artistic and theological ramifications of just this sort of conflation. Dillenberger does not differentiate between relics, holy images, and “works of art.” Nor does he attempt to articulate how they might have been conflated. His entire study is undermined by an unwillingness to address this central consideration, which, given the book’s title, promises to be its central focus. Though the author bears an excellent record of scholarship on Protestant theology, he does not appear to have attempted any deep, resonant study of the Late Medieval beliefs and practices that informed many of the debates of the sixteenth century.

The same can be said for the discussions of images. Commenting upon Dürer’s Munich Self-Portrait of 1500, Dillenberger writes:

The artist strives to mirror creation in presenting it, just as God has done, without the marks or traces of the creator. Here Dürer stands in the tradition of images not made with hands, such as the images of the face of God, as in the imprint of Christ on the Veronica veil. Dürer strove to remove every trace of the working marks of the artist from his works of art (63).

This is a curious assertion given the painting’s prominent inscription in which Dürer clearly states that he painted himself in this image—an unambiguous statement of the artist’s role in the genesis of the image. This example highlights the looseness with which reference is made to relics and miraculous images without careful examination of the practices and beliefs associated with them.

The author interprets Altdorfer’s woodcut of the “Schöne Maria of Regensburg” as “part of the attempt to focus on Mary in a more simple state, free of overelaboration and overprogrammed assemblages of saints to the point of clutter” (167). Indeed, as a pilgerblätter of an important Marian shrine, the work would logically focus on the Marian image. Dillenberger continues, citing the Schöne Maria woodcut as evidence that Altdorfer “can be associated with reforming currents within Catholicism” (167). But given that Altdorfer’s woodcut is remarkably traditional and consistent with other pilgrimage prints, Dillenberger’s evidence works against his thesis. The author’s avoidance of discussions of the context and practice of pilgrimage and the attendant role of images (including prints) leads him to such misguided hypotheses.

Like the claim that Altdorfer appears to embrace a reformist agenda, Michelangelo is constructed here as something of a crypto-Protestant. While this may explain his incongruous inclusion in a book otherwise devoted to German artists, this assertion remains unconvincing and devoid of solid evidence. Dillenberger follows the tenuous thesis that Michelangelo was a Nicodemite, based on the tradition that he used himself as the model for his figure of Nicodemus in his Florentine Pietà. The author does not consider how, in a Tuscan context, the legendary carving of the Volto Santo by Nicodemus might provide a different impetus and resonance for a sculptor fashioning himself as a new Nicodemus.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, it should be noted that the book does provide an adequate overview of the material. Chapter 3 includes an interesting and well-balanced, if not overwhelmingly new, discussion of Dürer, particularly in regard to the Munich Four Holy Men (1526) and Nuremberg’s smooth transition to Protestantism. The same might be said for the discussion of Luther and Cranach in Chapter 4. The examination of “Luther’s views of the Visual Arts and Theology” (89-95), while clearly laid-out along chronological grounds, is essentially derived from the work of Carl Christiansen. Chapters 1 and 7 might be useful texts to assign as undergraduate reading in order to provide a general understanding of the nature, actions, and motivations of sixteenth-century Reformation and iconoclasm throughout Europe. Again, the discussion is less new, and more review-like.

The question remains: For whom is this book best suited? It could serve as a useful introduction to the issues surrounding holy images, iconoclasm, and theology in sixteenth-century Europe (mainly Germany). Perhaps Dillenberger’s most useful accomplishments are to focus our attention on these issues and to prompt continued, and hopefully more well-defined, exploration of this complex and dynamic arena. If this book sparks continued investigation and debate, then it will indeed have contributed to our understanding of images and relics in the Late Medieval and Early Modern eras.

Scott B. Montgomery
University of Denver