Book Review

Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300 – 1650 ed. by John R. Decker and Mitzi Kirkland-Ives

Matt Firth (reviewer) – Parergon 33 (No. 1, 2016)

This collection of essays builds on an already extensive body of literature examining the depiction of the desecrated body in medieval and early modern European art. Comprising case studies from nine art historians, the collection does not adhere to a strict periodisation framework and avoids a near-sighted focus upon art in isolation. Exploring the full range of social, cultural, spiritual, and political contexts in which these visual depictions of the brutalised body were created, the contributors seek to make sense of the cultures of torture and violence that validated such imagery. The essays are illustrated by an extensive array of details and images, though regrettably none is in colour. The book is divided into two parts: the first looks to martyrdom and the violence of hagiography; the second considers civic values as reflected by the social violence of justice and war.

Part I comprises five chapters. The first four focus on individual artworks depicting hagiographical scenes of violence that were designed to demonstrate the saint’s faith and God’s power. Broadening a strict interpretation of the section title, ‘The Creation of Martyrs’, Mitzi Kirkland-Ives analyses depictions of the body of Christ, while Kelley Magill examines the pastiche of early modern decorative restorations in spaces that sought to reclaim the imagery and atmosphere of early Christian antiquities and holy places. Natalia Khomenko’s chapter at the end of the section, examining the ubiquitous nature of physical suffering to post-Reformation female martyrdom, stands out oddly as the only essay that does not examine visual art.

The second part departs markedly from the first. The four chapters making up this section move away from depictions of holy suffering, and examine images of the desecrated body as an aspect of social violence. The shift from holy violence to secular violence is distinctly chronological: while the first section looks to both medieval and early modern art, the second section is entirely early modern. Moving from war to impaling to effigy to propaganda, these chapters are only broadly connected by the theme of the collection.

Despite the editors’ admirable attempt to draw them together in their Introduction, this is an eclectic collection of essays that transcend chronology and topic. Nevertheless, the volume provides new insights into representations of torture in medieval and early modern art.

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