The deceptively simple question posed in the title invites a myriad of compelling responses, a respectable array of which are presented in the fourteen essays edited by Tilman Borsche and Inigo Bocken. This book, the culmination of a conference held at the University of Hildesheim concerning the relationship and mutual development of philosophy and art during the Renaissance, is divided into six sections (“Theoria—Geistiges und Natürliches Sehen,” “Zuschauer,” “Spiegelungen,” “Medien der Reflexion,” “Bewegung der Natur,” “Bild und Ausdruck”). The interdependence of philosophical thought and visual representation is brought to light through the works of philosophers such as Nicolaus Cusanus, Giordano Bruno, Leon Battista Alberti, Giovanni Boccaccio and the painters Jan van Eyck, Pieter Brueghel, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Mathias Grünewald.
This collection begins with two essays concerned with the concept of “seeing,” for this sense undeniably stands at the epicenter of cognition. Volker Rühle differentiates between the acts of Sehen and Sichtbarwerden by focusing on the role of artist as creator and the process of creation as one that is eternal. As do many authors in this compilation, Rühle returns to the writings of Nicolaus Cusanus, in particular his De visione dei, in order to emphasize the analogous ideals of “becoming” that encompass both thinking and painting. Thomas Leinkauf lauds the element of imagination inherent in the creation of visual representation, one that arguably allows for the expansion of philosophical thought. By referencing both Cusanus and Giordano Bruno, Leinkauf explores the ability of painting to inspire a transcendental, metaphysical movement of the soul capable of inspiring representation far beyond mere imitation.
The essays by Marc De Mey and Inigo Bocken both center on the role of the viewer and his/ her gaze. However, their approaches are distinctly divergent. De Mey writes of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece and the possibility of it containing elements of the Devotio Moderna. By analyzing the performative aspects of van Eyck’s piece, De Mey argues for the artist’s creation of a meditative space which opens up to bring the devotee closer to God; the act of viewing the painting becomes transcendent. In [End Page 444] contrast, Bocken’s essay considers the sophisticated and convoluted way in which object, artist, and viewer are sometimes inextricably entwined. As Bocken argues, viewing can no longer be considered a passive, one-dimensional aspect of the relationship between viewed and viewer, but rather as the source of the tension between inward stasis and outward movement; Renaissance art influenced Renaissance philosophy because of its unique ability to evoke hermeneutical, dialectical thought.
In the third section, Tilman Borsche’s essay deconstructs Cusanus’s treatise on receptivity (De filiatione Dei) into twenty-four small segments, thereby establishing that the fifteenth-century thinker held the very contemporary view that the reception of an artwork is, in actuality, an active process. Elisabeth von Samsonow furthers this notion by connecting the theories of Giordano Bruno and Jacques Lacan; they both arrive at the concept of an ecstatic reflexivity via artistic representation with externalization of memory and imagination at the very heart of it. These themes continue in Section Four in essays by Georg Bertram and Norbert Schneider. Bertram takes a different view than his fellow contributors by privileging language over image in its capacity for reflexivity. In his exploration of the semantic differences between language and image as symbolic media, Bertram ultimately determines that the human spirit can only gain distance from the empirical world through language, achieving a Freiheit des Geistes. Schneider, on the other hand, investigates the possibilities of visual signification found in Jan van Eyck’s portraits. Because of his use of mirrors, reflection, and refraction, van Eyck was able to create a visual likeness of his subject’s physical features with such exactitude that their natural “signs” were reproduced in oil on canvas, the totality of which achieved an externalized reflection of the subject’s soul, a singular and immutable identity.
Section Five is concerned with the representation and...