religious painting and idolatry -- 1/28/22

Today's selection -- form Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy by Michael Baxandall. In the 1400s, the Church encouraged art, but zealously monitored artists’ work lest the images in their paintings become the subject of idolatry:

"Most fifteenth-century pictures are religious pictures. …What was the religious function of religious pictures? In the Church's view the purpose of images was threefold. John of Genoa’s late thirteenth-century Catholicon, still a standard dictionary of the period, summarized them in this way:

Know that there were three reasons for the institution of images in churches. First, for the instruction of simple people, because they are instructed by them as if by books. Second, so that the mystery of the incarnation and the examples of the Saints may be the more active in our memory through being presented daily to our eyes. Third, to excite feelings of devotion, these being aroused more effectively by things seen than by things heard. …

"If you commute these three reasons for images into instructions for the beholder, it amounts to using pictures as respectively lucid, vivid and readily accessible stimuli to meditation on the Bible and the lives of Saints. If you convert them into a brief for the painter, they carry an expectation that the picture should tell its story in a clear way for the simple and in an eye-catching and memorable way for the forgetful, and with full use of all the emotional resources of the sense of sight, the most powerful as well as the most precise of the senses. …

"Idolatry was a standing preoccupation of theology: It was fully realized that simple people could easily confuse the image of divinity or sanctity with divinity or sanctity itself, and worship it. …

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

"But idolatry [in Italy] never became as publicly scandalous and pressing a problem as it did in Germany; it was an abuse on which theo­logians regularly discoursed, but in a stereotyped and rather unhelpful way. …

"As for the pictures themselves, the Church realized there were sometimes faults against theology and good taste in their conception. S. Antonino, Archbishop of Florence, sums up the three main errors:

Painters are to be blamed when they paint things contrary to our Faith -- when they represent the Trinity as one person with three heads, a monster; or, in the Annunciation, an already formed infant, Jesus being sent into the Virgin’s womb, as if the body he took on were not of her substance; or when they paint the infant Jesus with a hornbook, even though he never learned from a man. But they are not to be praised either when they paint apocryphal matter, like midwives at the Nativity, or the Virgin Mary in her Assumption handing down her girdle to St. Thomas on account of his doubt and so on. Also, to paint curiosities into the stories of Saints and in churches, things that do not serve to arouse devotion but laughter and vain thoughts -- monkeys, and dogs chasing hares and so on, or gratuitously elaborate costumes -- this I think unnecessary and vain.

"Subjects with heretical implications, apocryphal subjects, subjects obscured by a frivolous and indecorous treatment. Again, all three of these faults did exist. Christ was erroneously shown learn­ing to read in many paintings. The apocryphal story of St. Thomas and the Virgin's girdle was the largest sculptured decoration on S. Antonino's own cathedral church at Florence, the Porta della Mandorla, and appears in numerous paintings. Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi, painted for the Florentine merchant and humanist Palla Strozzi in 1423, has the monkeys, dogs and elaborate costumes S. Antonino con­sidered unnecessary and vain. But, also again, the complaint is not new or particularly of its time; it is just a Quattrocento version of a stock theologian's complaint, voiced continually from St. Bernard to the Council of Trent."



Michael Baxandall


Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy


Oxford University Press


Copyright Oxford University Press 1972


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