Iconic Presence. The Evidence of Images in Religion

Project description

Iconic production differs significantly across religious traditions, and yet it still relies on similar patterns that emerge through comparison. Iconic presence is first and foremost an investigation into how humans engage with images in practice, as Hans Belting demonstrates in his book Bild-Anthropologie (2001, An Anthropology of Images). The current project draws from both the histories of religious images as well as modern episodes in art history. Through a multidisciplinary approach, the example of Europe can be integrated into a broader anthropology of human engagement with images.
Hans Belting: Iconic Presence. The Evidence of Images in Religion (extensive description of the project in English)

Partner Institutes and Research Projects

1. Center for Literary and Cultural Research
Head Researcher: Sigrid Weigel
Associate Researcher: Johanna Abel
Collaborative Partner: Martin Treml

Iconic and Real Presence. Mediation in Religions

Iconic presence is presence in and as a picture. The physical presence of a picture (its mediality) indicates the symbolic presence that it depicts. In the context of religion and iconic ritual, the person pictured shares a specific kind of presence that bodies also possess. At the same time, the picture attests to an experience of absence. Iconic presence marks this temporal and constitutive absence insofar as the picture transforms absence, without negating it, into another sort of presence. In religious practices, iconic presence will on occasion assume an actual presence as, for instance, with reenactment performances of divine apparitions, in which the picture itself not only plays a role, but practically determines the course of events.

In more general terms, pictures in religious practices fulfill a desire for real presence, a presence that the pictures themselves evoke. The ›here and now‹ of the picture makes it possible to experience real presence through the senses. Rituals center on images that in turn appear as objects of ritual practices. Religious studies scholars refer to these practices collectively as mediation (B. Meyer 2014).

Corporeal presence in the Hispanic cult drama auto sacramental
Johanna Abel
The project is focused on Spanish sacramental plays and their iconology from the baroque period (16001700). In these Autos sacramentales the sacrament of the Eucharist, one of the Figures of the European, was put on public display in a multimedia spectacle. Characterized by their special mix of theology and poetry, the drama texts demonstrate how literary means generated presence in addition to ritual practices and imagery. While religious images were carried around in the Corpus Christi procession preceding the plays their poetical conceptos were afterwards animated on stage and became speaking and bodily performing allegories. In a continuum of Iconic Presence of the cult images, Real Presence of the consecrated host on display in the streets and the bodily Co-Presence of the public and the actors performing as sacred figures, ritual and theatre entered into competition evoking live presence. But in the intent to compensate the invisibility of Christ’s body in Real Presence and the lack of vividness of material images they also mutually potentiated each other in the production of presence.

To explore the tension between these two modes of mediation, the project focuses on three specific plays that demonstrate how embodied allegorization works to represent the unrepresentable of the Host. The work sources are the drama texts, their ›appearance reports‹ (memorias de apariencias) documenting the effects of ›presence machines‹ and further archive material on pre-modern stage practice.

In the allegorical Auto The true God Pan (1670), Calderón’s employment of prefiguration, incorporation in personae dramatis (e.g. »La Idolatría«) and the trans-figuration of images on stage, e.g. the picture of a lamb turning into a statue of the Immaculate Conception, will be analysed as poetics of transubstantiation.

The iconicity of transubstantiation in hispanic feast and theatre culture became part of a worldwide image programme through Spain’s colonial expansion to the Americas and Asia. The classical play The Divine Narcissus (1689) by Mexican author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, shows the global impact of the genre, taking the Eucharist as an opportunity to reflect upon transcultural image questions in general. The desire of images as the result of the absent body, image cult instauration to maintain the memory of a given symbolic heritage, the power of images and the changing order of sacrifice expressed in new images are all issues addressed in her Auto sacramental and serve as theoretical parameters for the project.

In both works, the recurring tropes for doubling, blurring and overlapping all aim to grasp enhanced perception. As their predecessor, the complex and well documented set of stage props and mechanics of Lope de Vega’s mysterious auto La Margarita preciosa (1616) show how the material culture of religious theatre used copies of liturgical objects like Chalice and Host in ingenious ways to illustrate, transfer and train hermetic visionary experience. Lope’s theatrical representation turned the Eucharistic bread into a white flower inverting the colours of monstrance and host and further transfigured its plain centre into a three-dimensional pearl (Matthew 13: 45) that is to be obtained off the »Merchant of Glory«, the Christ-figuration performed in his play. The combination of image and word on the Corpus Christi-stage made the appearance of a polyform sacred body real.


2. Center for Advanced Studies BildEvidenz. Geschichte und Ästhetik, Freie Universität Berlin
Chair: Klaus Krüger
Research Associate: Henry Kaap
Affiliated Researcher: Friederike Wille

Art and Religion in the Renaissance. The Case of Venice

The Mobile and Transregional Artist: On the Aesthetic Structure of Lorenzo Lotto’s Altar Pieces
Henry Kaap


3. Centrum raně středověkých studií (Center for Early Medieval Studies), Masarykovy Univerzity Brno
Head Researcher: Ivan Foletti
Research Associate: Zuzana Frantová

Walking to Places with Living Images

The Christian world worshipped what are in a way possessed images which performed miracles and played their role in the liturgy. From Rome to Fatima and to Constantinople such images »walked« across the public, urban space. Attention will be given to the phenomenon of the activation of static images which performed as a result of mediation and invited the movement of the viewers to meet them, especially in the context of pilgrimage. The presence of a holy place appears first as an idea and as a goal to be reached. Gradually, across a theatrical landscape, the pilgrim started to recognize images that were present (and virtually lived) at a sacred place. The moving pilgrim thus gave life to static objects, which took part in the dynamism of the movement as such. In this sense, an immobile image became – in the pilgrim's experience – a local icon that attracted ritual performance on the spot and turned into a living image existing in space (the site) and time (the pilgrim's visit), as formulated by Alexej Lidov (Lidov 2009, cf. also V. and E. Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture).

Repetitive images of pilgrimage churches: workshop praxis or rhetorical strategy?
Zuzana Frantová

See also:
Balzan Prize 2015 for Hans Belting

Ill. above: Francisco de Zurbarán, Santa Faz 1631, Nationalmuseum Stockholm (detail), in: Hans Belting: Das echte Bild. Bildfragen als Glaubensfragen, München 2006, 121.

Interdisciplinary Research Project funded by the International Balzan Prize Foundation 2015–2018
Head researcher(s): Hans Belting (Prizewinner and Head Researcher)


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28 Nov 2017

Johanna Abel: From Ritual to Theatre. Spanish Corpus Christi-plays between procession and stage

Center for Early Medieval Studies, Masaryk University, Veveří 470/28, 602 00 Brno (CZ)

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Workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin
19 Jan 2017 – 20 Jan 2017

Iconic Presence, Real Presence and Sacred Art

Freie Universität Berlin, various venues

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