Detail of the lower half of a painting showing a linen cloth with the pale imprint of a human mouth.

Iconic Presence. Images in Religion

The project investigated iconic presence in religions as a question of human pictorial practice, as elaborated in Hans Belting’s Image Anthropology (2001). The project was based on the hypothesis that, although iconic production occurs in different ways in different religions, it is nevertheless subject to similar patterns that only become apparent when compared. Against this background, the pictorial histories of the religions and art history of modern times were put into relation to each other on equal terms. Through its multidisciplinary research approach, the project succeeded in integrating European practices and experiences into an anthropology of human pictorial practice and, to this end, intensified the dialogue between the art and image studies and the religious, literary and cultural studies as well as ethnology. The project explored, for instance, dramatic texts and performative practices of early modern sacramental plays in relation to image cult and processional theatre in the context of the Spanish Reformation. Research was also done on Renaissance art works and commentaries on art theory, especially Venetian works and their impact and visual efficiency. Finally, serial representations of theophanies on portal pictures of medieval pilgrimage churches in France, were investigated.
Hans Belting: Iconic Presence. The Evidence of Images in Religion (detailed description of the project)

Partner Institutes and Research Projects

1. Leibniz 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

The ZfL’s research team on mediation emphasized the complementary historical intertwining of the Eastern and Western Chruch’s visual presence with Eucharistic real presence and contributed to the sharpening of the concept of presence within the overall project.

Iconic presence was understood 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).

Sub-Project by Johanna Abel:
Corpus Christi plays and corporeal presence: the Hispanic auto sacramental in the mirror of an anthropology of images

The project is focused on Corpus Christi plays and their iconology from the baroque period in Spain (1600–1700). In these autos sacramentales, the sacrament of the Eucharist was put on public display in a multimedia spectacle. In their special mix of theology and poetry, the allegorical 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 as speaking and bodily performing allegories. The representation strategies of ritual and theatre to create live presence can be described as mediation. In this way the question can be discussed, how the production of iconic and stage presence and of Eucharistic real presence potentiate each other and whether they enter into competition.

At the centre of the analysis are three specific plays that demonstrate how embodied allegorization works on different levels of representation. The sources to be employed will be the drama texts, their ‘appearance reports’ (memorias de apariencias) documenting the effects of ‘presence machines,’ and further archive material on pre-modern stage practice. Characteristic for the second phase of Spanish Golden Age, art and poetry—especially painting and theatre—were harmoniously fused (Curtius 1936). Calderón de la Barca, the most influential theologist writing religious theater, borrowed numerous metaphors and concepts from painting and an “index pictorius” of his works is still a significant gap to be filled. Using the example of the Calderonian auto sacramental The true God Pan (1670), the tropes and mechanisms of spatialization are to be explored in the sense of a poetics of transubstantiation. Linguistical and dramatical means like prefiguration, incorporation in personae dramatis (i.e. La Idolatría) or the trans-mutation of images on stage, e.g. the picture of a lamb turning into a statue of the Immaculate Conception, are but some forms of sacramental representation the project aims to systematize.

Through Spain’s colonial expansion to the Americas and Asia, the iconicity of transubstantiation in Spanish feast and theatre culture became part of a worldwide image program as a ‘figure of the European.’ The classical auto sacramental The Divine Narcissus (1689) by Novohispanic author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz shows the global impact of the genre, taking the Eucharist as an opportunity to reflect 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 Sor Juana negotiates in her play through a performative imagology, and serve as theoretical parameters for the project.

In both works, the recurring metaphors for doubling, blurring and overlapping all aim to grasp enhanced perception. They have their predecessor in Lope de Vega’s auto sacramental The precious Pearl (1616). A complex and well documented set of stage props and mechanics show how the material culture of religious theatre used copies of the liturgical objects like the chalice and the host in ingenious ways to illustrate, transfer and train hermetic visionary experience. While Eucharistic presence turns bread into an invisible body, theatrical presentation by Lope turns the bread into a white flower inverting the colours of monstrance and host, further transfiguring its plain centre into the three-dimensional Pearl (Matthew 13: 45) that is to be obtained by the Merchant of Glory, the protagonist of his religious drama. How does the body of Christ appear on stage? By means of the three works, this project differentiates if, when and in which forms the sacralized body of the Christ figure and respectively the real bodies of the actors appear and approximate to the bodies of the public.


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

Iconic Presence in Religion and Presence in the Art Work

In the High Renaissance, works of art that are famous today such as those of Raphael and Titian, were famous in their own time as agents of miraculous power. Thus, two kinds of experience seem to clash: the belief in heavenly intervention and the impression of visual efficacy. While the reformation north of the Alps led to demolishing church inventories and destroying cult images, in Italy the art collection exited the religious space, and art literature followed. Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of Andrea Odoni represents a Venetian art dealer selling a Diana figure while keeping a small cross on his chest as symbol of his belief. How do these phenomena add up?

To answer such a question, the project readdressed the relationships that exists between religious presence and the visual or bodily presence in an artwork. Religious presence in pre-Renaissance images was not limited to so called cult images but applied to all those religious images, which were expected to invite the real presence (or a miraculous visit) of the represented. The visual capacity of Renaissance and Post-Renaissance art, however, created a fiction or spectacle that changed the issue of presence—locating it in the beholder rather than in the power of the image. From then on, the belief in the ‘power of art’ is sometimes circumscribed in Eucharistic terms, for instance in the writings of Sperone Speroni (Dialoghi, Venice 1542). While the sacramental act of the Eucharist was meant to change the substance (bread into body), painting undertook the task to transform the painted surface into the impression of a body. Thus, the so-called transubstantiation seems to have been translated into visual terms. In fact, painting did not create a body but only created the fiction or evidence of a body in an object. Pondering on Hans Belting’s term of ‘iconic presence,’ Kaap’s sub-project discussed the production of presence in the twofold sense of religious power and visual efficacy.


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 was 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

Liminality, Embodiment and Iconic Presence

Serial Images in French Pilgrimage Churches

As a contribution to the Balzan project “Iconic Presence,” this sub-project was connected with the Brno experimental program of “Migrating Art Historians.” The latter introduced an aspect of bodily experience in the approach to pilgrimage art from an anthropological point of view. The common denominator was the rhythm of visual information that the pilgrim encountered on his journey to Santiago de Compostela.

The 11th and 12th centuries witnessed the depiction of Theophany on the portal tympana of the important pilgrimage churches. It is the subject of Christ in glory as we find it in earlier times only in the apse. The new way of transmitting the message has been explained with the promotion of the Gregorian Reformation or from the struggle with the new heresies (Manicheans, Cathars). It is common to explain the phenomenon of pilgrimage churches as a new visual culture that connects one church with the other.

The Brno project, however, focused on the personal experience of the participants. It employed two basic anthropological concepts: liminality and embodiment. Liminality as a situation of the body between what it felt before and what it was to experience after, is based on the theory of the British anthropologist Victor Turner. His theory considers pilgrimage as a transitional ritual and he points out its “liminal” phase especially. At this stage, the pilgrim would leave his or her well-known structured world and enter a world unknown and unstructured. The constantly recurring and repeating situation of the portals of pilgrimage churches gave the pilgrim the certainty of being on the right track. Thus, one could speak of a threshold situation. The concept of ‘embodiment’ means the personal encounter with an expected sight or object. Importantly, such an encounter is not only personal but also shared. Finally, the same encounter lives on in the person’s memory and is refreshed when the same sight is seen at another place. The tympana of pilgrimage churches activate memory and imagination. At the same site, the pilgrim had the first meeting with the monks. While waiting for admission to the church, the pilgrim was confronted with the image of Christ on the tympanum, i.e. with Christ himself. In this situation Iconic Presence would come to mean a ritual situation that conditions an animation of the imago. To quote David Hume, “Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it.” In Différence et Répétition (1968) Gilles Deleuze considers repetition as an active force producing difference. It encourages the viewer to “experience a difference.” Therefore, Iconic Presence was a repeated experience in front of each important church. It created unity in pilgrimage: the constant vision of God. In Frantová’s project, the desire of Iconic Presence was studied as a bodily experience in returning to the same Theophany image.

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 2015–2019
Head researcher(s): Hans Belting (Prizewinner and Head Researcher)


Sigrid Weigel

Grammatology of Images
A History of the A-Visible

Fordham University Press, New York 2022, 320 pages
ISBN 978-1-5315-0015-3
Johanna Abel, Johannes Gebhardt, Sven Jakstat

Die Inszenierung der ›Sagrada Forma‹ im Real Monasterio de El Escorial

Wallstein, Göttingen 2021, 192 pages
ISBN 978-3-8353-5040-3
Sigrid Weigel

Grammatologie der Bilder

suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft vol. 1889
Suhrkamp, Berlin 2015, 487 pages
ISBN 978-3-518-29489-5 (Print); 978-3-518-74146-7 (E-Book)

Johanna Abel

  • Pervivencia de un género de arte sacro: “Filipinas” (1954) – un auto sacramental post/colonial de Adelina Gurrea, in: Actas del XX Congreso de la Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas. Madrid/Frankfurt a.M.: Iberoamericana/Vervuert 2022
  • Ritual drama and dramatic ritual in Spanish sacramental plays: “La Margarita Preciosa” (1616) between procession and stage, in: CONVIVIUM. Exchanges and Interactions in the Arts of Medieval Europe, Byzantium, and the Mediterranean VI/1, Brno: Brepols 2019, 148–166
  • Schatten und Kopie im Sakraltheater. Der “auto sacramental” als ikonologisches Reflexionsmedium, in: HeLix. Dossiers zur romanischen Literaturwissenschaft 12.1 (2019): Auto Sacramental: Aktuelle Forschungsbeiträge zum Fronleichnamsspiel in Spanien und Hispanoamerika, 98–106

Hans Belting, Ivan Foletti, Klaus Krüger

  • Iconic Presence: The Life of Images in Religion and Art, an interview with Hans Belting by Victor Stoichita, in: Salvatore Veca (ed.): Balzan Papers III, Florence: Olschki 2020, 95–104
  • Hans Belting, Ivan Foletti, Martin Lešák: The Movement and the Experience of “Iconic Presence”: An Introduction, in: Hans Belting, Ivan Foletti, Martin Lešák (eds.): Convivium VI.1 (2019): Movement, Images and Iconic Presence in the Medieval World, 10–15
  • Ivan Foletti et al. (eds.): Migrating Art Historians on the Sacred Ways. Rome: viella 2018
  • Klaus Krüger: Bildpräsenz – Heilspräsenz. Ästhetik der Liminalität. Göttingen: Wallstein 2018


Interner Workshop
08 Mar 2019 · 11.00 am

Image and Performativity in Iconic Presence

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Seminarraum 303

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10 Jul 2018 · 6.15 pm

Hans Belting: BildPräsenz und Präsenz im Bild

Freie Universität Berlin, Kolleg-Forschergruppe BildEvidenz, Arnimalle 10, 14195 Berlin

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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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