Manipulating the Sacred …..again!

Manipulating the Sacred…..again!

Merry will be our guide through this article on the recurrent outbreak of the Bubonic plague and the saints invoked to save the day. Be ready to identify your favorite plague saint!

1. What relationship did Millard Meiss suggest existed between the Black Death and the art that it engendered?
2. In what ways are Trexler, Johnson, and this author alike in their views about images and how they operate? How do they differ?
3. Why does Sebastian’s status as a “two-time loser” qualify him as the plague saint “extraordinaire!” ?
4. Why is the manner in which Sebastian portrayed a “supernatural contradiction” and why did this offer such hope to plague sufferers?
5. What did St. Roch have going for him as a plague saint? The Madonna della Misericordia?
6. Did Christ/God’s vindictiveness surprise you?
7. When did the Virgin become a Feminist and what was the source of her transformation? What is the source of her power?
8. Unpack the fresco painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1464 for the Augustinians of San Gimignano (p. 527). Why is this such an extraordinary image?
9. How did images function in the Renaissance during the intermittent outbreaks of the plague?


11 responses

  1. Question 9:
    “For contemporary worshipers, images were an effective means of protection, ritually activated and manipulated in a process of confident negotiation and persuasion with the celestial powers” (529).
    During plague outbreaks in the Renaissance, images were often created “through experience or expectation of the plague” (529). Sometimes these images would show saints who suffered and were martyred. This provided encouragement by showing how others had suffered and increased their divine status. Images of the Madonna della Misericordia by showing a protective and merciful figure. Thus, images functioned as sources of hope during plague outbreaks by showing others suffering as well as others receiving mercy.

  2. Merry’s Questions:
    1. Do you think the example of the “life” of Saint Roch supports Marshall’s thesis that the people of the time were trying to regain control over their environment (psychologically) through worship? Why or why not?

    2. Why do you think Christ is depicted as judging the plague victims and not a representation of god instead?

    3. Discuss the similarities and/or differences of the saints’ depictions to Christ. Also consider why artists may have visualized Christ as wrathful/judgmental but at the same time had saints emulating the suffering of his crucifixion.

    4. Consider what the change in the depictions of central holy figures from benevolent to wrathful (or in the Madonna’s case, independently powerful) meant for the Renaissance viewer.

    5. Why do you think the two male saints are shown as pleading or interceding on the behalf of the masses when the Madonna, a woman, has an incredible amount of power to defy god’s/Christ’s plague?

    6. Why do you think the artists portrayed the Virgin of Mercy excluding people from her protection (i.e., his motive)? In a time of pestilence, one would think the artists would try to comfort everyone, yet here they are clearly sending a message about the dangers of not worshiping the Madonna.

    • Question 2:
      I think that Christ, rather than God, is depicted as judging the plague victims because he provides a counterbalance to the mercy of the Virgin Mary. Christ judges, while Mary forgives and protects. Christ and Mary are often paired together in other works of art we have seen, but God and Mary are not usually depicted as a pair. Because Christ is generally more identifiable as part of a pair with Mary, it makes more sense for him to be the counterweight to her mercy.

  3. I have to say that the pieces of art that struck me the most in the article were the ones depicting the Virgin protecting some while shunning others. Hypothetically speaking, the artists might have chosen to depict the Madonna in such a way to serve as a cautionary tale to citizens during the plague, as a testament of sorts to various citizens’ faith. If you were to survive the plague than you were pious enough and should be recognized as such. No medicine saved you, it was your sheer faith in God that protected you, and as for those who died from the plague. These pieces of art would serve as reminders to survivors or what happens when you are not religiously devout enough. In addition, I think the artists were trying to remind viewers of Madonna’s power. Perhaps during the plague, artists felt that a maternal-like figure would best serve as the subject because it would further extend viewers guilt.

    The only other thing I wanted to comment on is my disappointment of the lack of examples of how Roch is depicted in art. I’m sure we will have much more to say about the article, so that is all i’ll say for now.

    Merry, I can’t wait for your brilliant if not morbid (black death humor) approach to the essay 🙂

  4. This is such an intriguing article! I have never thought about the fact that the Renaissance people would have an optimistic view about their life during the plague. The author has some great paintings that support his argument.
    For question 9, I totally agree with what Hannah has said, it provides hope for the desperate during the plague and encourage patience and waiting to overcome the plague.

    I remembered the author concluded about the confidence of the worshippers to survive the plague by seeking solutions from the painting. However, I think Marshall has overlooked one important factor in these paintings : patronage. Most of these paintings aren’t private collections that express personal feelings, rather they are from those in power to “educate” the public. So how much political, military and social influences are there on the paintings. To me, these paintings seem to share one common theme: obedience. With the background of plague and poverty, a rebellion from the desperate people is highly possible. In order to appease the unsettling people and maintain control, it is plausible for the people in power to make paintings that convey the optimistic ideas. So it’s hard to tell whether the confidence was truly from the people during the plague or from the powerful that intend to educate the people.

    • Bravo for picking up on this point. Patronage is key in these works! I’m not sure rebellion was bubbling beneath the surface at all times during the plague, but my hunch is that hedonism was….and that was even more of a moving target for the Church.

    • I would like to add to your comment Shan Shan, the artists of this period meant for the people to follow the right path to “justice” and repent their sins. A horrible epidemic such as the black death, could definitely motivate a need to understand why such a disease would be unleashed upon an entire population. Looking for such answers often drive people toward religion and a higher power. Using saints instead of Christ or God in that sense could be to assert a relationship to God that could be more earthly, and easier to understand and comprehend. The article draw lines between the Saints and Christ; to sacrifice your own flesh for the sake of your people. A Saint would hold a more “human” connection to God, and I think that would motivate people to think that God has not given up on them and that he is certainly present. This strengthens the position of the Church, and also as you pointed out Shan Shan, to hold a certain power and instill obedience. The art of this period serves almost as advertisement or propaganda to convey their message to the people.
      Presently, I would say there is also this surge towards religion and a higher hand or power whenever a catastrophe or other crisis inflict upon a certain group of people or a country. Religion is a way to be able understand and justify the horribleness that affect them.

  5. In response to question two as well as the responses related to it: I believe that Christ is depicted as a judging Christ because these paintings are still (religiously) political. Keeping in mind the patron/artist relationship, a judging Christ compels the viewer to examine their own life and how it stands in relation to the plague. For the Christians of the time who associated contracting the plague with sinning and non-patronage of the Church, seeing Christ judging the afflicted would potentially motivate them to give more money to the Church in Rome as a way of securing their salvation. Despite their very somber and human portrayals of the bubonic plague victims, the depiction of Christ essentially damning these souls speaks to who was paying for the painting and what they felt a necessary “takeaway” message would be for those who viewed it.

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