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  • Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art
  • Debra M. Israel
Hans Belting. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. xxiv + 651. $65.00.

Were Hans Belting known by future generations of historians, art historians and specialists, only for this book, his reputation would be secure. In its scope, its departure point (the use of sacred images), and its disciplined methodology, Likeness and Presence is, quite simply, magisterial. This book is not only an [End Page 114] analysis of the image per se, but, covering territory well-known to the specialist, it is simultaneously a history of the image in the millennium and a half from antiquity to the Renaissance: a history of the image before the Renaissance and Reformation, following which, art “took on a different meaning and became acknowledged for its own sake—art as invented by a famous artist and defined by a proper theory” (xxi).

Likeness and Presence deals with the beliefs, superstitions, hopes and fears that come into play as people handle and respond to sacred images. Before the Renaissance and Reformation (1–16), holy images—the only independent images then in existence—were treated not as “art” but as objects of veneration (17–29). The faithful believed that these images, through their careful likeness to the person represented, became a tangible presence of the Holy and were, through this careful likeness, able to work miracles, deliver oracles, and to bring victory on the battlefield.

Belting traces over 20 chapters (each one so complete in itself, each might well stand alone as single essays) the long history of the image and its changing role in European culture. His point of departure is his conviction that neither can he “explain” images nor do images explain themselves (1). Rather, he proceeds from the belief that images reveal their meaning best by their use. It is the changing use of holy images which he traces in three historical stages (see below), consciously focussed on the image qua image and its use. Thus, he keeps holy images distinct from the narrative image, the idealism of art appreciation for its own sake, or any of the approaches current in the scholarship, from the view point of the psychologist or anthropologist.

Belting’s history of holy images, particularly the iconic portrait, opens in late antiquity when Christianity adopted the cult images of the “pagans,” in a complete reversal of its original prohibition on images, and developed an image practice of its own (chaps. 3–8). The middle section of Likeness and Presence is also the center of the story: the Middle Ages when images of God and the saints underwent many significant changes as either icons or statues, in the East and West respectively (chaps. 9–16). The final third of this volume (chaps. 17–20) treats the period of transition between the Middle Ages and the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, the era of art so-called, when images emerge with a new face. In this period, holy images, Belting maintains, reemerge (xxii) as works of art made by gifted artists, characterized by individuated styles and visualizations of the traditional biblical repertoire. In the hands of such artists as Duccio and Coppo, Jan Van Eyck and Memling, Antonella da Messina and Durer, or later, well-known Renaissance artists, the artist strived consciously to make visible both the idea of the divine and the idea of beauty, symbolized in the perfection of art (484–90).

Likeness and Presence is a splendid book, if only with reference to the sheer magnitude of undertaking to write of a history of images, but also in the physical presentation of the volume itself. It is conceived evidently with the reader in mind. Besides the 490 text pages distributed over 20 chapters, each with clearly titled sub-sections made accessible by a full Table of Contents, there is yet another 58 pages of endnotes, a satisfyingly full bibliography, and two very useful indices (of subjects, and of persons and places). In addition, Belting [End Page 115] provides 65 densely packed pages...

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