Monday, June 23, 2008

Vatican Newspaper Reviews Book by Hans Belting on the True Face of Christ

In the edition of June 22, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published a review signed by Damiano Pomi of a book by the distinguished scholar of art history Hans Belting entitled Il Vero Volto di Cristo "the true face of Christ" (Turin 2008, Bollati Boringhieri, 256 pages). As far as I know this book has not appeared yet in English. If someone knows differently I would appreciate being corrected. Belting is one of a group of art historians who must be known by anyone seeking to deepen their knowledge of the history of images. His work Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago 1994) is fundamental. What follows is my English translation of Pomi's review of Belting's Italian language book, the photos above are by Paul Badde.

Another part of (Belting's) text, dedicated to the representation of the body as a theme of faith, is centered on the image of the Veronica - vera icona (true icon) - paradigm of the artistic definition of the face of Jesus for a number of centuries. Beyond recounting the historical events of which the famous relic was the protagonist, an interesting perspective is delineated for the research according to which, starting exactly from the evanescent image visible on the cloth conserved in the Vatican basilica, there proceeded to be defined a new perception of the face of Christ. In the image, that tradition held was miraculously formed by the contact of the cloth with the face of Jesus, one is already able to foretaste, in a certain sense, that which could only be fully experienced after death: the vision of the face of Jesus.

This idea, widely diffused from the time of the middle ages, is testified to also in literature, in particular in the work of Dante Alighieri. In the work of his youth, Vita Nova, "new life", the celebrated Tuscan poet, writing of the pilgrims that were passing through Florence on their way to Rome to venerate the Veronica, compares them to Beatrice his prematurely deceased beloved. The pilgrims, upon arrival in Rome, would see that which his beloved was already able to gloriously contemplate: she could fix her gaze upon the One of whose true likeness the earth was in possession.

The presence of the relic in the heart of Christianity has given life to an iconography that has rendered even more vivid and real the face of Jesus: the artists that reproduced the cloth were called to furnish a recognizable expression to the indistinct features on it. A work not very easy, whether to satisfy the commissioning of the works of art, or to adequately represent a mystery never fully able to be decodified. Evocative in this vein, is the painting by Francisco de Zurbaran, preserved in the Prado of Madrid, in which a painter, holding his brush and palette, is in devout recollection before the Crucifix. Prior to placing his hands to the work, he seems to be questioning himself on how best to constitute that which is present to his eyes: the death of a man on the cross or the highest manifestation of the love of God. Will his work succeed in communicating this apparent contradiction?

The troubled history of the Roman Veronica, beginning with the sack of Rome at the hands of German lancers in May of 1527, has meant that the icon would be received less as an image and instead be largely received as a relic. The reproductions which followed the sack of Rome would usually present the holy face with closed eyes, while previously they were open: a living face which observed and not only was observed, in an exchange of looks which conferred on the one who examined closely a strong emotional impact. Through that which was held to be the true face of Christ, the person felt personally called and encouraged to redefine even his relation with himself and the reality surrounding him, inasmuch as, by means of the image, the mystery of God, in part, had been unveiled for him.

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