The Reception of Christian Devotional Art: The Renaissance to the Present

By Jones, Pamela M. | Art Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Reception of Christian Devotional Art: The Renaissance to the Present


Jones, Pamela M., Art Journal


This issue developed out of a session held at the College Art Association's 1995 annual meeting in San Antonio. Like many art historians, by 1995 had long been interested in reception. My concern with the reception of Christian devotional art was initially stimulated in the early 1980s by reading Roman Catholic art theory of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, in response to Protestant aniconism, provided a compelling defense of the usefulness of religious art. At the heart of Roman Catholic apologies for sacred art was a belief in the indelible power of visual imagery and a concomitant concern with channeling and exploiting viewer responses in the service of the "true" faith.' Together with post-Tridentine art theory, the work of such postmodern theorists as Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss heightened my concern with reception as a corrective to an undue stress on production and intentionality.2 Thus, given the theoretical framework within which Christian art was justified in the early modern era-my own period of specialization-a methodological shift in favor of the audience's role seemed particularly warranted and beneficial. It has also been fruitful for the study of modern art-as, for example, Michael Fried and Wolfgang Kemp have demonstrated in a secular context. Several articles in this issue, however, treat the reception of modern art in a religious context.3

Crucial to reception theory is a concern with the multiplicity of ways in which viewers with different "horizons of expectation" concretize works of art. These multiple viewers may be either the artist's own contemporaries or beholders from later eras. Contributors to this issue explore multiple viewing perspectives by emphasizing cross-sectarian, cross-cultural, and multicultural issues that have created special problems for the reception of Christian art from the fifteenth century to the present.

Four of the six articles-those by Roger Crum, Mitchell Merback, Gauvin Bailey, and David Morgan-are revised versions of papers originally delivered at the 1995 CAA session.4 Sally Promey's and Annette Stott's articles were solicited for this issue to strengthen coverage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and to complement and expand upon methodological problems introduced in the essays on earlier eras. There is no way, of course, that six articles can cover all important reception problems, let alone all regions and historical periods. Yet these articles do address a range of major issues, showcasing ways in which art historical and literary models can be usefully adapted and critiqued. They are informed to varying extents by classic and recent scholarship by art historians and by reader-response criticism and reception aesthetics. They also incorporate models from social history, semiotics, and anthropology. Collectively, the authors debate the diverse ways in which works of art might be read as signs coextensive with social and political power. Individually, they examine how beholders' expectations have helped shape Christian imagery, and how their completions of devotional images can promote a sense of community or division.

To turn to the individual articles, the issue begins with a European paradigm of cross-cultural viewing during the fifteenth century, an exchange between the Low Countries and Italy, as represented by Roger Crum's study of Hugo van der Goes's Portinari Altarpiece. Crum faces a typical methodological problem: a lack of documented responses to a Renaissance devotional painting. Discussion of such works usually hinges on the assumption that they succeeded in their original devotional contexts. Crum challenges this assumption, noting that our contemporary experience of the negative reception of art incorporating Christian iconography-such as the notorious 1980s case of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ-indicates that we should admit the possibility of failed reception in past eras. Through an examination of liturgical difference in northern versus southern Europe of the late fifteenth century, Crum helps us consider a famous case of cross-cultural response in a new light. …

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