Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century/St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology

By Nees, Lawrence | The Art Bulletin, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century/St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology


Nees, Lawrence, The Art Bulletin


CYNTHIA HAHN Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 442 pp.; 8 color ills., 149 b/w. $60.00

JEFFREY F. HAMBURGER St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 323 pp.; 26 color ills., 156 b/w. $60.00

On Sunday, May 24, 1998, Pope John Paul II presented a homily devoted to the famous Shroud in the cathedral of Turin, publicly exposed at that time to crowds of pilgrims who had come to see what he referred to as "one of the most unsettling signs of the Redeemer's suffering love." Setting aside the issue of the object's historical relationship to Jesus as not a matter of faith, he claimed that the "Shroud is truly a unique sign that points to Jesus, the true Word of the Father, and invites us to pattern our lives on the life of the One who gave himself for us."1 In an intriguing way, he addressed the fundamental issue in the two important, recent books here under review: the role of images in helping or leading the beholder to imitate Christ and achieve salvation or even absorption in the divinity. Both Cynthia Harm's Portrayed on the Heart and Jeffrey Hamburger's St. John the Divine locate the essential thrust of the imagery they study in the core Christian trope of the imitation of Christ, and they also show how and to a remarkable degree why images of saints could mediate between the beholder and Christ. Hamburger is primarily interested in the fundamental scriptural notion expressed in Genesis and especially developed in the writings of John and Paul that man was made in the image of Cod, and the various expressions of this and related ideas through images of John the Evangelist that could potentially provide a model for theosis, or deification, of the beholder. Hahn explores the imagery of saints, especially of the Lives of saints, as the model for achieving a holy life patterned on Christ, relying heavily on her understanding of a formulation by Gregory of 'fours in his fundamental 6th-century tract Life of the Fathers-namely, that it is appropriate to use the singular "Life" for all the saints because "the saints all share one Life, that of Christ, [and] their Lives must bring that identity before the reader" (p. 34). Hahn argues, here following Gregory the Great, that visual stimuli could have enormous power, as the images of external things can be drawn into consciousness and "portrayed on the heart," the phrase she chose for her title, because this interior illumination and consciousness can lead the beholder to compunction and bring about a change of spirit and life (p. 49).

In his homily, Pope John Paul II recognized the sharp diversity of opinion about the Shroud of Turin, contested on many levels in a manner that reflects the controversial status of images in the Christian world. The making and use of religious images of any kind, either rare or nonexistent for almost the first two centuries of Christianity,2 seem to be relatively late developments and have always remained controversial, leading to periodic crises. Those in the 8th and 9th centuries, especially Byzantine iconoclasm and the reaction to it in the Latin West,3 and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century4 have attracted particularly intense historical and art historical study. Images could be lightning rods, attracting hostility as strongly as devotion. Hamburger's work includes images of one subject, the marriage of John with Christ, "sufficiently infamous to earn the condemnation of Counter-Reformation critics such as [Johannesl Molanus" (p. 160); many of the idiosyncratic images tread on or over a line that some might see as heretical or blasphemous. Both authors effectively convey a sense of the powerful underlying pressure that found outlet in new and compelling images, designed to serve and stimulate compelling spiritual hunger. …

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