The Sacred Image Between Revealing and Concealing
New Directions in the Interpretation of the Sacred in Ancient and Medieval Art

April 20–22, 2017

International Conference at Harvard University

The conference “The Sacred Image between Revealing and Concealing: New directions in the interpretation of the sacred in ancient and medieval art” will bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines at the nexus of the history of art, visual culture, and aesthetics. In a field that has attracted enormous attention over the last three decades (propelled particularly in Europe by the so-called “iconic turn”, or, in Germany, “Bildwissenschaft”, which provided a new paradigm in the Humanities), the conference aims to deepen the understanding of current methods for the interpretation of sacred images, question their continued applicability in light of new models, and, in particular, to foster debate among scholars on both sides of the Atlantic whose work remains rooted in very diverse academic traditions which too frequently talk past, rather than with, each other. 

Classical archaeology and medieval art history—the archaeological and art-historical disciplines dealing with pre-modern societies in the western and Mediterranean traditions—were at the forefront in successfully adopting the new methodological challenges raised by the “pictorial turn” and “Bildwissenschaft.” Both disciplines had a long tradition of interpreting images in light of contextual and cultural-historical perspectives rather than analyzing them solely in terms of artistic or aesthetic considerations. In this respect, the subject of the sacred images emerged as a paradigmatic case for investigating visual media as systems of visual representation rooted in and intertwined with interactive, performative, somatic and emotional experiences in which images served as communicative devices permitting and merging aesthetical with spiritual dimensions. By allowing for a confluence of the rich and innovative scholarly research traditions on the sacred image from both sides of the Atlantic, our conference should serve as an ideal starting point for discussions of methodology and future areas of research. 

The conference will feature papers on the representation of the sacred in general and specifically on sacred images in the European world from Greek and Roman antiquity to the Middle Ages under a broad variety of perspectives, including the question of the cult image and the visual representation of god(s), in relation and contrast to other, namely poetic and philosophical, means of representation, the iconography of the sacred in visual media, the role of images and language in creating sacred spaces and in framing rituals, religious participation and performative actions of the experience of the sacred (cult) and the presence of the divine (epiphany). Especially the latter (how to mediate the essentially inhuman irruption of the divine) is a primary reason for the existence of a deeply rooted polarity of revealing and concealing in premodern poetic and pictorial modes of conveying meaning. The participants will be asked to address explicitly the methodological approaches which lead and guide their research. Moreover, the conference aims at promoting an in-depth understanding of how different methodologies enable innovative research and generate new pathways of investigating the function and the use of images and specifically of the use of imagery in the context of the experience of the sacred. 

The conference is organized by Adrian Stähli and Jeffrey F. Hamburger (both Harvard) and Gerald Wildgruber (Graduate School “Eikones”, Basel University), and is sponsored by the Graduate School “Eikones” at Basel University, Swissnex Boston, Harvard’s Provostial Fund for Art and Humanities, the Harvard Art Museums, the Department of the Classics and the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, and Harvard’s Standing Committee on Medieval Studies.

Image: Two-faced gold-plated bronze sheet depicting Athena 530 B.C., Acropolis Museum Athens


Thursday, April 20, 2017
Fogg Museum, The Naumburg Room (2nd floor)

12:30 noon

Introductionary remarks by the conference organizers:

Adrian Stähli
(Harvard University, Department of the Classics) 

Jeffrey F. Hamburger
(Harvard University, Department of History of Art and Architecture) 

Gerald Wildgruber
(University of Basel, Graduate School Eikones)

1:10 pm 

Ioannis Mylonopoulos
(Columbia University, Department of Art History and Archaeology) 

When the Gods Became Objects:
The Materiality of the Divine Image in Ancient Greece

The paper will explore the various materials used for the construction of divine imagery in ancient Greece and their possible meanings. Attention will be drawn not only to popular materials such as marble, bronze, gold, and ivory, but also to silver, dark stone variations, clay, and even gypsum, to which ancient sources also refer, albeit more infrequently. In the paper, particular emphasis will be placed on wooden images and the notion of “ancientness.” The Greco-Roman evidence will be viewed within a heuristic framework informed by thing theory and contemporary approaches to materiality, cognition, and perception.

1:50 pm

Gerald Wildgruber
(University of Basel, Graduate School Eikones)

The “mechane” of the Ancients:
Two Accounts of Tragedy as Battling with the Gods

This paper presents two interpretations, one ancient, and one modern, of the “mechane” of Greek tragedy, i.e., the formal techniques of representation specific to this art form: an epigram on dance and its figures by Phrynichos – a founding figure of Attic tragedy – and Hölderlin’s meditation on Sophocles that accompanied his famous translation of Sophocles’s plays. Hölderlin’s remarks on tragedy help to clarify fundamental differences between the Greek’s relation to the sacred compared to our own, especially with regard to the action of catharsis so central to tragedy. Catharsis implies a practical conception of art works, which poses the further problem of whether or not such art can be retrospectively understood.

2:30 pm

Verity Platt
(Cornell University, Department of Classics)

Framing the Sacred:
Boundary and Ritual in Hellenistic Votive Reliefs

Focusing on a scene of theoxenia in a votive relief from Thessaly, this paper interrogates the diverse ways in which formal framing devices contain, construct, invoke, and celebrate the divine. Far from extraneous to the figural ‘content’ that they border, such devices perform a kind of visual theology that is a critical component of Greek religious practice.

3:10 pm

Coffee break

3:35 pm

Sophie Schweinfurth
(University of Zürich, Kunsthistorisches Institut)

Christian Ruler and Divine Emperor?
Some Methodological Remarks on the Problem of Analyzing
Imperial Representation under Constantine the Great

It is something like a methodological commonplace in art history that art reflects the ‘Zeitgeist’ of its period (see Wölfflin, Riegl, Panofsky). What do we do when the seminal literary sources oppose the artefactual evidence? The talk is dedicated to this inconsistency characterizing imperial representation under Constantine the Great.

4:15 pm

Laura Nasrallah
(Harvard University, Divinity School)

‘My mind hesitates about what it should be quiet about’:
Vision and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

This paper focuses on early Christian interpretation of the story of Ezekiel’s vision and on late antique mosaics. In doing so it explores a variety of opinions about seeing God, scriptural interpretation, and optics in late antiquity.

5:00 pm

Surprise event. – This event takes place in the immediate vicinity of the Fogg Museum (only a short walk away). We will meet outside the museum at the Quincy Street entrance of the Fogg. After the event, which will take roughly 30 min., we will walk to Harvard Hall for the keynote lecture.

6:00 pm 

Harvard Keynote lecture
Harvard Hall, Room 102
(directions will be given in the course of the conference)

François Lissarrague
(École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Paris)

Ways of Visualizing the Divine in Ancient Greek Imagery

In this paper, I will try to analyze the various ways images of religious rituals integrate divine presence according to different modes, media and rites. The suggested typology of divine presence during rituals includes descriptive as well as narrative images and will take into account the tensions between these two different modes.

8:00 pm

Dinner for invited speakers at The Red House Restaurant,
98 Winthrop Street, Cambridge

Friday, April 21, 2017
Fogg Museum, The Naumburg Room (2nd floor)

10:10 am

Milette Gaifman
(Yale University, Department of Classics)

Jugs, Gods, and the Creation of the Sacred in Classical Greece

The paper will explore Classical Athenian jugs with depictions of the gods. By focusing on the relationship between the vessels’ imagery and their potential use, the paper will consider some of the complex relationships between instrumentality, visual representation and the creation of the sacred in Greek antiquity.

10:50 am

James Simpson
(Harvard University, Department of English)

Idolatrous Images and the Psyche in Reformation England

The charge of idolatry spread rapidly and unpredictably through the evangelical nervous system in sixteenth-century England. It attached itself to every salvific form, both psychological and material, that was judged to be man-made, and without scriptural foundation. The first victim of that viral charge was religious visual culture. The first phase of that material destruction was, however, just the easy start, before a much more painful second sequence began. Iconoclastic hygiene around the absolutist God targeted all forms of idolatry, including psychic imagination. In this paper I explain how the material image stepped back into the public domain from the ravaged psyche.

11:30 am 

Felipe Pereda
(Harvard University, Department of History of Art and Architecture)

“Floating in the Sea” The Origin and Nature of Sacred Images
in Early Modern Spain.

A number of important sacred crucifixes venerated in North Western Spain (Castile and Galicia) since the Late Middle Ages share a similar legend for their origin. They are attributed to Nicodemus, and all arrived at the coast floating in the sea. This paper will explore the roots of this ancient Mediterranean topos, how it was transfered to the Iberia Península, and what it tells us about the nature of sacred images in Early Modern Spain.

12:10 noon 

Lunch for invited speakers (venue to be determined)

1:30 pm 

Barbara Schellewald
(University of Basel, Graduate School Eikones)

Gold(-Mosaics), Lapislazuli and All That Glitters: Staging Holiness

The paper will focus on the complex relationship between the material used for (or in) images, basic theoretical approaches, and the spatial organization of (or for) images. The study of a few examples from at least two different cultures will lead to the question of the shared potential between, on the one hand, material culture and, on the other, so-called “Bildwissenschaft”.

2:10 pm 

Pierre-Alain Mariaux
(University of Neuchâtel, Institut d’histoire de l’art et de muséologie)

“Significata magis significante placent”.
Crafting the Sacred Through Ornament

(abstract will follow soon)

2:50 pm

Coffee break

3:15 pm

Henriette Hofmann
(University of Basel, Graduate School Eikones)

Order and its Deconstruction.
On the Formation of Space by Frame-image Dynamics

The paper discusses the phenomenon of the frame and questions the functions frames have within medieval image systems. At the beginning of the 11th century, the bishop of Hildesheim commissioned the monumental bronze doors which feature an intellectually highly elaborate image cycle as well as an equally elaborate framing system. The frames appear to be of central relevance for the visualisation of spatial concepts, primarily by influencing the way the beholder experiences the very act of seeing itself.

3:55 pm

John Hamilton
(Harvard University, Department of
Germanic Languages and Literatures)

Incarnationis Mysterium: Contemplation, Devotion and Disfiguration
in Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation invites reflection on the limits of contemplation and devotion by presenting the unrepresentable and therefore disfiguring moment of divine incarnation. Through an investigation of this painting, one may arrive at a better understanding of the theological premises that motivate and frustrate any straightforward reading or interpretation.

4:35 pm

Closing remarks

6:00 pm

Panel discussion and evening reception at Swissnex Boston, 420 Broadway, Cambridge. Swissnex is in short walking distance from the Fogg (ca. 5-10 min.); directions will be given in the course of the conference.

The conference – but neither the keynote lecture on Thursday nor the panel discussion and evening reception at Swissnex on Friday – will take place in the Naumburg Room at the Fogg Museum. The Naumburg Room is part of the Fogg Museum and is itself, as a historical room ensemble, a museum exhibit; its wooden wall revetments, panels, and fireplaces have to be respected with the utmost care.

Admission to the Fogg Museum will be waived for conference speakers and participants. When conference attendees arrive, they will receive a black sticker and a daily tag from the admission desk, so that security knows they are in the Fogg for the conference. As the Naumburg Room offers only a limited capacity of seats, all conference attendees – with the exception of invited speakers – will have to register for attending the conference; the online registration portal will be available at the beginning of April. Registration will also be required for the Swissnex event on Friday, but not for the keynote lecture on Thursday.

Travel luggage is not permitted and cannot be stored anywhere in the museum; please leave it at the hotel. There is no attended wardrobe in the museum, and the cloakroom in the courtyard has only small lockers with very limited space, but conference speakers are allowed, at the discretion of museum guards and staff members, to bring purses and laptop bags into the Naumburg Room; also, you will find a coat rack in the Naumburg Room for your coats. No food or drinks can be brought into the museum, but we will provide drinking water in bottles in the room throughout the conference, and there will be coffee breaks. Unfortunately, no exceptions to these policies established by the Harvard Art Museums can be granted.

Bathrooms and drinking water dispensers can be just outside the Naumburg Room.

Konzept: Gerald Wildgruber, Adrian Staehli, Jeffrey Hamburger

Referierende: Barbara Schellewald, Sophie Schweinfurth, Gerald Wildgruber, Henriette Hofmann, Milette Gaifman, John Hamilton, François Lissarrague, Pierre-Alain Mariaux, Ioannis Mylonopoulos, Laura Nasrallah, Felipe Pereda, Verity Platt, James Simpson