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Image beyond Likeness: The Chimerism of Early Protestant Visuality

Jennifer Nelson [Yale University]
Robert H. and Clarice Smith Fellow, 2012 – 2013

When I first saw the relief sculptures of Peter Dell the Elder (1490 – 1552), I was struck by their confidence. Conditioned by earlier published studies of Protestant art in Germany — studies focused on the late sixteenth century, on print media, and on the aftermath of 1520s iconoclasm — I expected objects less well made and more didactically overdetermined. Yet Dell’s work demonstrates mastery of carving techniques inherited from his teachers, Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460 – 1531) and Hans Leinberger (c. 1475 / 1580 – c. 1531); the reliefs’ iconographical density proves flexible, supporting multiple interrelated narratives. Indeed, this last quality sets Dell’s work apart from that of previous and later generations of German image makers.

Like much early Protestant elite art of the years from around 1525 to 1555 that I discuss in my dissertation, Dell’s reliefs represent encounters among sacrohistorical entities. The reliefs function not by presenting an illusionistic whole, but by juxtaposing various motifs with divergent styles. Early Protestant images’ internal diversity, which I call chimerism, affirms the special capability of visual art to represent sacred history as a container and crucible of all contingent histories, in all their radical difference.

Dell’s Resurrection represents the realm of Albertine Saxony in 1529 alongside the antique realm of the Soldiers at the Tomb, the transfigured realm of the Resurrection proper, and the nether realm of the towers of Hell. All these parts of the relief look very different from one another; even text motifs appear different from one instance to the next (tabula ansata, pier inscription, phylactery). The relatively round, squat soldiers in the foreground resemble neither the humans escaping hell nor the classically statuesque leftmost soldier guarding Christ’s empty tomb.

These juxtapositions of visual idiom resonate allegorically with the circumstances of the relief’s commission by Duke Heinrich of Saxony (1473 – 1541) or his wife, Katharina. In my dissertation, I explain how this relief represents a turning point in Heinrich’s confessional allegiances, a point at which he distanced himself from his repressive Catholic elder brother and sided with his Lutheran wife. Heinrich, later known as Heinrich the Pious, and his heirs would come to be crucial supporters of the Reformation. Uncannily, as if predicting this then-uncertain future, the relief models the importance of Heinrich’s faith to the salvation of future believers and underscores the powerful role of visual representation in this process.

The first half of the dissertation discusses Dell’s Protestant oeuvre, then moves more broadly to characterize the importance of the diverse visual inflection of texts across a range of early Protestant media. The second half offers a new reading of The Ambassadors of Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497 – 1543) in the context of Protestant sponsorship of and theological support for technologies of measurement, as well as a close examination of three understudied projects by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515 – 1586), who used chimeric techniques to emphasize the uneasy inclusion of sociocultural problems of his time — gynophobia, anti-Semitism, and rulers’ perceived hypocrisy — within the rubric of sacred history. Overall, early Protestant art offers, through its chimerism, a pluralistic, self-limiting alternative to monological Neoplatonist melancholy. Like the assembled allegorical fragments of seventeenth-century tragedy that Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) describes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, the works in my dissertation celebrate, in their very disjunction, a productive gap between meaning and appearance. However, because of the works’ theologically grounded confidence in an image beyond likeness, they lack Benjamin’s sense of a tragic fall from an ideal.

As I begin to reframe my dissertation and develop future projects during the remainder of my fellowship, I am exploring further implications of chimerism in art. In particular, I hope to draw out the distinction I have made between chimerism as a collocation preserving different idioms alongside one another and what I call hybridism, a fusion of idioms into a new, unified style. How does the case of early Protestant elite art, with its theologically grounded preservation of difference under the aegis of notionally universal sacred history, compare with contemporary sixteenth-century encounters among differing visual traditions, say, in the Mediterranean or in New Spain? At this point in the development of national and ethnic identification in globalizing Europe, the attempt of early Protestant art to include and preserve divergent visual idioms seems exceptional. The visual history of early modern strife, conquest, and displacement largely reflects assimilation and accommodation in the hybridization of visual idioms. Nevertheless, comparing contemporaneous examples of chimerism and hybridism may yield insight into idiom as meaningful in and of itself.

In the fall of 2013 Jennifer Nelson will join the Society of Fellows and the department of the history of art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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The image found in the original report can be accessed in Center 33.

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