Strangeness and Recognition

Mystery and Familiarity in Renaissance Paintings of Christ

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Chloë Reddaway
Arts and the Sacred
  • Turnhout: 
    Brepols
    , July
     2019.
     230 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9782503581200.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The magisterial Renaissance art historian Leo Steinberg often mused on the power of paradox and ambiguity evident in the art of Leonardo and Michelangelo. For example, was the figure of Christ as judge in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment “caught in midstride” about to stand up or about to sit down? What difference would those options make in the hearts and the minds of the artist and viewer? Do we see only with ocular vision or with the intellect? Or perhaps do we experience haptically through the body? “The eye,” Steinberg cautioned in one of his classic essays, “is a part of the mind.” (The Eye is a Part of the Mind,” Partisan Review 20.2 (1953). Do we come to know through the eye so that seeing is believing not simply in terms of religious faith but in terms of cultural and social realities, political attitudes, and historical fact?

From its earliest beginnings within the late antique world, Christianity has had to balance the ambiguity and paradox fundamental to a fully human Jesus of history and the simultaneously fully divine Christ, without denying the reality of either. At once indescribable, invisible, and intangible, this singular figure is fully embodied and theologized as the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the Logos (Word), and as the foundation of an infinite dialectic between image and word that governs Christian art from its earliest expressions into the 21st century. How do artists, let alone believers and theologians, imaginatively construct this distinctive “man” who is never physically described and for whom we have no contemporary portrait?

In Strangeness and Recognition: Mystery and Familiarity in Renaissance Paintings of Christ, Chloë Reddaway takes on the conundrum of how to picture Christ during that transformative cultural moment known as the Renaissance when western culture transitions from the theocentric world of Byzantium and the medieval into the anthropocentric universe of early modern Europe. Trained in theology and art history, she stands on the shoulders of giants including art historians Erwin Panofsky and Hans Belting, literary critic Erich Auerbach, and Christian theologians from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and John of Damascus to Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas Aquinas, and Rowan Williams. Reddaway further incorporates the more contemporary interdisciplinary scholarship of art historians including Norman Bryson (“the gaze”), Michael Baxandall (“the period eye”), Jean-Louis Chrétien (phenomenology), Daniel Arasse (symbology ), and Georges Didi-Huberman (philosophy). Her panoply of scholarly references encourages her detailed discussions of individual artists and the evolution of her own thinking about the challenges of painting Christ in Renaissance art.

With an often poetic resonance, Reddaway promotes the categories of strangeness and recognition as her guideposts for understanding the artistic modalities that represented Christ Incarnate in visual language and concepts in Renaissance art. She divides her text into two major parts as she prudently leads her readers on a journey from history and theology of the image in Christianity toward descriptive analyses of specific works. In part 1 entitled “Strangeness and Recognition,” Reddaway organizes three distinctive chapters—"Problem and Potential of Religious Language and Art,” “Naming Strangeness,” and “Recognising Christ”—that when synchronized provide a historical survey and a glossary of critical terminology and ideas.  

Part 2, “Making Strange,” focuses the reader’s attention on what might be identified as traditional motifs that incorporate both strangeness and recognition including chapters on “Unexpected Iconography,” “Time and Place,” and “Revelation.” For Reddaway, strangeness and recognition stimulate an acknowledgment of human finitude and the inadequacies in the visual but silent conversation between artists and viewers. The conventional categories in a Renaissance painter’s visual vocabulary such as iconography, perspective, and temporality can proffer experiences of dislocation and estrangement, thereby challenging painters to shock themselves and their viewers into new ways of seeing, a recognition if you will, that results in a visual theology of “what can and cannot be seen.”  

Throughout these six chapters, Reddaway fascinates and enchants her readers with insightful analyses of a wide-ranging banquet of Renaissance art from Jan van Eyck’s The Madonna in a Church, Joos van Cleve’s The Holy Family, Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, and Fra Angelico’s The Coronation of the Virgin to Michelangelo’s The Entombment, Titian’s Noli Me Tangere, and El Greco’s The Visitation among others. Her readings of these artists and their works stimulates both the reader’s intellect and the viewer’s eye as her volume is copiously illustrated in full color. This is a volume that is as much about history and theory as it is about affectivity and the experience of Christian art.

Implicit throughout Reddaway’s book is the comparative consideration of the reception of these works of art by then contemporary renaissance viewers and by 21st-century viewers. Even employing Baxandall’s theory of “the period eye,” Bryson’s “gaze,” and Arasse’s “closer look,” we can only guess at how 15th- and 16th-century viewers experienced these works, for in the end reception is subjective. Further, the intentionality of any of these Renaissance artists is difficult to discern even with the artists diaries, contracts, commissions letters, and contemporary reports (i.e., Vasari’s discussions) and is complicated by then contemporary theological decrees and texts, such those of Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti. Reddaway’s Strangeness and Recognition is a clear challenge to art historians and theologians to continue to look and look again at these primary documents that visualize and simultaneously voice the meaning of the incarnation in the Renaissance or in the 21st century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is professor emerita of religious art and cultural history and Haub Director in the Catholic Studies Program, Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chloë Reddaway is a research fellow in the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College London, and former Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow and Curator of Art and Religion at the National Gallery, London. She writes and lectures about visual theology, specializing in the recovery of historical images for contemporary theology. Publications include: Transformations in Person and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015).

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