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).

Corpus Christi-Plays and their corporeal presence in the Hispanic cult drama auto sacramental
Johanna Abel

In Corpus Christi plays from the baroque period in Spain, the autos sacramentales, the sacrament of the Eucharist was put on public display in a multimedia spectacle. Focusing on these religious dramas this sub-project explores those ritual and iconic practices that made the presence of divinity real, in particular the ›magical forces‹ of Christ’s body and blood.

The autos can be seen as an aesthetic manifestation of the failure of convivencia, the coexistence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Spain. This understanding of the dramatic works derives from their militant support of the Church’s ideology of ecclesia triumphans in Counter-Reformation Spain as well as the insistence on the ›miraculous truths‹ of Christianity following the Council of Trent. Furthermore, the one-act-plays share in the transcultural literary tradition of the Iberian Peninsula, by including the macrostructural process that saw a reversal in politics from convivencia to the limpieza de sangre (blood purity). The medieval translation schools of Toledo thus had paved the way for an interdenominational education as illustrated in the »Disciplina clericalis«, which then lead to the beginning of Early Modernity in conquest both abroad, the colonial expansion starting in 1492 (conquista), and on the interior, the expulsion of Muslims and Jews (reconquista) from the newly established Catholic nation.

Spain’s Catholic culture of festival celebrations and their iconicity of transubstantiation extended to the Americas and Asia and, as a ›figure of the European‹, became part of a worldwide iconic program. It demands a complex elaboration of the terms image and presence that mediate between the aspects of representation and enactment, stasis and movement, visualization and exegesis. In their special mix of theology and poetry, the allegorical drama texts by authors from Pedro Calderón de la Barca to Juana Inés de la Cruz demonstrate how literary means generate presence in addition to ritual practices and imagery. Do ritual and theatre enter into competition by dramatical animation of the religious images in speaking and bodily performing allegories? Or do they mutually potentiate themselves in the production of presence?


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

See also:
Balzan Prize 2015 for Hans Belting

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


Logo der International Balzan Foundation


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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