- Sight and Spirituality in Early Netherlandish Painting
This book confirms that art historians are still finding imaginative ways to respond to Svetlana Alpers's memorable challenge in The Art of Describing (1983) to interpret paintings in such a way that does not subordinate visual modes of expression to textual modes. In Sight and Spirituality Bret Rothstein seeks to perceive and describe the assumptions and operations of viewing that particular works of art presuppose. He argues that "up-market early Netherlandish painters" (139) strove to negotiate the contradictions in a Western intellectual tradition that at once prioritized an imageless ideal and accorded a role to material images in devotional exercises. Painters addressed the issue, Rothstein argues, by intensifying trompe l'oeil effects while at the same time subverting the resulting illusion with clever mechanisms that point to the artist's craft. Early Netherlandish painting represents an "efflorescence of paradoxical mimesis" (175), and is characterized by reflexivity and self-reference on the part of both artists and patrons. Such increasing self-consciousness about the nature of art (in the senses of both skill and product) led to growing appreciation and sophistication of viewing skills. This in turn led to a greater valuing of artists' talents, and finally a "balance of power" that [End Page 583] he perceives was beginning "to shift from patrons toward artists" (188). Thus Rothstein contributes to the ongoing debate about a perceived shift in the character of artistic identity in the fifteenth century, though some of his conclusions are problematic.
Rothstein's introductory chapter sets the stage by showing that the role of devotional images was unresolved among such writers as Jean Gerson, Geert Grote, and Jan van Ruusbroec. In doing so, however, he sometimes oversimplifies their views. His characterization of Gerson in particular neglects the theologian's complex and contradictory views about imagery expressed in varied genres to diverse audiences. Nevertheless, this discussion prepares him to tackle the problem of how painters responded to and contributed to the debate. Chapter 1, "Picturing Vision," compellingly demonstrates the importance of vision as an interpretive paradigm in the Bladelin Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. Chapter 2, "The Imagination of Imagelessness," examines the reflexive visual maneuvers that Jan van Eyck used to exploit the tensions between the ideal of imageless devotion and the material qualities of his Virgin and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele. Chapter 3, "The Devotional Image as Social Ornament," acknowledges that paintings with ostensibly devotional pretensions, such as Van Eyck's The Virgin and Child with Chancelor Nicolas Rolin, were also meant to enhance the worldly prestige of the donor. Finally, both chapter 4, "The Senses of Painterly Strength," and the epilogue examine "intervisual moments" (166) in several paintings by Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, and Petrus Christus, which Rothstein argues reflect a new artistic self-consciousness both resulting from and leading to a rise in the social and intellectual status of artists.
Rothstein's argument, that devotional writings shaped the desires of lay patrons and the practices of lay artisans, is an important corollary to Jeffrey Hamburger's groundbreaking work, which primarily explores the role of images in monastic devotions. It is, however, a problem that Rothstein's ambitious and overarching arguments address only a handful of paintings by a handful of artists. Furthermore, as he is well aware, he studies only a rarified interpretive community, "wealthy and intelligent patrons" (177) and "sophisticated painters" (138), who seek and provide a visual experience "utterly unlike that available to the average contemporaneous viewer" (170). This runs against the grain of recent scholarship, which argues that the most hailed masterworks enshrined in the art historical canon should be viewed as part and parcel of a larger and very rich visual culture that shaped and reflected the lives of the average contemporaneous viewer. One of the virtues of Jeffrey Hamburger's work, for example, is that he asks us to question traditional divisions between high and low, to consider that viewers who were not necessarily...