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  • Images of Rape: The Heroic Tradition and Its Alternatives
  • Cynthia Polecritti
Images of Rape: The Heroic Tradition and Its Alternatives. By Diane Wolfthal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. 304. $95.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper).

From the vibrant brushstrokes of Titian's Rape of Europa to the classical balance of Poussin's Rape of the Sabines, depictions of sexual assault as sensual ravishment by gods and heroes have received an enthusiastic reception by artists who copied these works, patrons who commissioned them, and scholars who continue to praise them. In Images of Rape: The Heroic Tradition and Its Alternatives, Diane Wolfthal boldly challenges the assumptions of art historians who have sacrificed discussions of content for purely stylistic analyses. She questions the acceptance of the "classical idea of rape as rapture" and argues that these visually splendid images have been "sanitized and aestheticized," erasing the voice of the victim through their disturbingly violent eroticism. Given its premise, Images of Rape might have become polemical in other hands, but Wolfthal skillfully examines a range of alternative portrayals of rape, revealing that during the Middle Ages there was sometimes considerable empathy for women. And, although it incorporates recent interpretive modes, the book is unburdened by abstruse terminology, making it attractive to the general reader as well as to scholars in a variety of disciplines.

After an initial overview of some of the conventional icons of Renaissance art (chapter 1, "'Heroic' Rape Imagery"), Wolfthal moves to an earlier period and less familiar images. Indeed, one of the major strengths of this book is its close analysis of overlooked visual evidence for the social history of rape. Chapter 2, "Rape Imagery in Medieval Picture Bibles," convincingly argues that for some medieval authors and artists rape was rape, in all of its brutality, unvarnished by a patina of eroticism. For example, in a series of startling miniatures, the thirteenth-century Morgan Picture Bible uncompromisingly depicts the gang rape and murder of the Levite's wife as a horrific crime. Yet despite their focus on biblical tales, the picture Bibles point not merely to abstract moral lessons but also to contemporary social problems: the accompanying text to the Rape of Tamar in the Vienna Bible Moralisée pauses to condemn priests who prey on virgins. (Wolfthal notes that in England and France a high percentage of rapists were in fact clerics.) Unlike the domesticated versions of rape and ambivalent flesh too often seen in Renaissance painting, the miniatures show a clear understanding of the reality of forced intercourse. The scenes are occasionally explicit, more often subtle, but Wolfthal helps us interpret the medieval visual language of sex without consent: a hand raised in protest, disheveled hair, the woman's wrist or belt seized by her assailant. With their representations of resistance, not compliance, the picture Bibles critiqued prevailing assumptions about female complicity in rape. [End Page 130]

Although the actual conviction rate for sexual assault tended to be low, rape was still sometimes treated as a capital crime. Chapter 4, "Rape Imagery in the Context of Law," examines changing attitudes toward rape and retribution. Fourteenth-century copies of the influential German Sachsenspiegel law code show that both lawyers and artists could be adamant about the just punishment of offenders, insisting on the destruction of rapists and, in a fascinating medieval ritual, the animals and houses that "witnessed" rape. Even in high art, there were less triumphal visions of sexual assault than in the Renaissance canon: monumental Netherlandish justice paintings, publicly displayed in city halls, sternly portrayed executions and the cool composure of raped women who become avengers, not just victims.

But Wolfthal also argues that the dominant discourse of the late Middle Ages was ambivalent at best. Contemporary canon law treatises showed far less severity than the Sachsenspiegel and the justice paintings, evolving over time until they conveyed the message that the problem was not only criminal aggression but female sexuality. Despite the sympathy of some writers, artists, and lawmakers, most textual and visual sources maintained and enhanced gender stereotypes. It is not surprising, then, that images of Potiphar's wife were extremely popular, since she was a blatant symbol of female lust and...


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pp. 130-132
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