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crucifixion as a photo-op

February 29, 2012

David Feedberg’s The Power of Images is a book on images and affect, exploring the kind of responses they provoke and their various uses in religion, magic and art. It is art history in reverse: from the position of viewer’s response rather than critical reading of the works. In the chapter invisibilia per visibilia: Meditation and Use of Theory, Freedberg writes about the practice of meditation where images were used for the production of mental images. He mentions the “aim of this kind of meditation is to grasp that which is absent, whether historical or spiritual.” Images are used to prevent the mind from wandering and help in the process of ascent from the physical, to the mental to the spiritual. Feedberg quotes Thomas Aquinas’ threefold reasons for the institution of images in the Church, first for the instruction of the unlettered, second for better memorizing the mystery of Incarnation and the examples of from the lives of the Saints, and lastly “to excite the emotions which are effectively aroused by things seen that by things heard.” Further in the chapter, Freedberg quotes a passage from the preface of Pseudo-Bede’s Little Book on the meditation on the Passion of Christ divided according to seven hours of the day:

 It is necessary that when you concentrate on these things in your contemplation, you do so as if you were actually present at that at the very time when he suffered. And in grieving you should regard your-self as if you had our Lord suffering before your very eyes, and that he was present to receive your prayers.”

An example of this “presence” at the time of suffering is a plate in Johannes David’s Orbita probitatis ad Christi imitationem, where he shows Christ carrying the cross over the mound surrounded by nine painters seated at their easels. They are painting the event as it is taking place, but they are each painting it from a different “perspective.” It is only the “bad imitator” who is painting Christ as the devil in guise of the woman. The drawing suggests that crucifixion does not only include the event itself but also includes the historia, that the painters are each painting different scenes of which. Curiously, it is only the painter in the center, who is looking at from the axel point directly at Christ is drawing the representative image. This further emphasizes on the position of both the painter and the viewer in the pyramid construction of the linear perspective. The image also implies the fragmentation of the event as it is happening, the very wandering of the mind that the practice of meditation claims to prevent.

Orbita probitatis ad Christi imitationem, Johannes David

The meditative aspects of the drawing aside, it shows how the event and its representation form a single entity. The representation does not follow the event, nor it is based on the narration of the event through the words of the witnesses, but rather its integral to its conception. The crucifixion and its representation are inseparable. Fast-forward to the live coverage of the arrival of US soldiers to the Somalian beach of Mogadishu in 1992, where they were greeted not by clan fighters or starving children, but by flash lights of photojournalists. Fast-forward to Tahrir Sq, the army tanks are surrounded by civilians’ LCD’s, participating, witnessing and documenting the event as it is taking place. Johannes David’s drawing renders crucifixion as a photo-op.

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