Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Christopher S. Wood, Forgery, Replica, Fiction. Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

Christopher S. Wood, Forgery, Replica, Fiction. Temporalities of German Renaissance Art(University of Chicago Press, 2008) 416 pp.; 116 b/w ills. Hbk. $55.00 / £38.00. ISBN-13: 978-0-226-90597-6

Reviewed by Andrew Morrall

[1]  The ambition of Christopher Wood’s wide-ranging study is to re-think the existing historical models that explain the nature and reception of artistic production in late medieval and early modern Germany. Wood seeks to resolve the problem of the apparent lack of a German “Renaissance” in the Italian sense of rediscovery and re-identification with the arts of Greek and Roman antiquity, and in doing so, to provide a model that would reconcile into it a large body of culturally significant material, including tombs, monuments, buildings, epitaphs, inscribed tablets, coins, medals, which have found little interpretive purchase within existing art historical scholarship.

[2]  The larger historical framework within which Wood operates is the grand narrative of disenchantment (71), of the breakdown of the medieval – theologically bound – worldview and the emergence of modernity and the secular, rational sensibility that is its hallmark. Emblematic of this paradigm is the emptying of the medieval cult image of its magical qualities of immanence and its replacement with the authored, secular work of art, valued for its uniqueness of expression, its concern with aesthetic values, and its semantic freedom, a model laid out in Hans Belting’s influential Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (Munich, 1990) (transl. by Edmond Jephcott as Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago, 1994). In Italy this process was hastened by identification with the arts and letters of the classical past, together with the adoption of a collective notion of “the arts” as a defining aspect of society and as an index of its civilization. In the German lands, while the Reformation served effectively to kill off the devotional and cult image, the secular, collective idea of “the arts” as possessing this larger defining cultural role was slower to emerge.

[3]  Wood argues that it was competing attitudes to the classical past and the differing conceptions of history and of the operations of time underlying each – the “temporalities” of his title – that determined the two cultures’ respective attitudes to the image and artefact and allowed the idea of “the work of art” to emerge only slowly and with different emphasis in Germany. The Germans saw the past not, as the Italians came early on to do, in terms of rupture and discontinuity with a lost golden age of arts and learning, but rather in terms of unbroken heritage and connection, best grasped in political terms, in the line of German Holy Roman Emperors that could be traced back continuously to those of the Roman Empire. Under this dispensation, there were no “middle ages”, and indeed these later centuries, denigrated as “barbaric” by the Italians, were celebrated by the northerners for their achievements in political organization, technology, engineering and architecture (the empire, the great cathedrals, the invention of gun powder and of moveable type), which stood on equal par with those of ancient Rome. Northern Europeans of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, locked into this framework of temporal continuity, also lacked any sense of a strict chronological mapping of the past. It took them longer than their Italian contemporaries to develop a sense of anachronism, the sense that the past was different in quality from the present; it left them uncritical about evidence, lacking the modern historical perspective that sees “sources” – textual and material remains – as themselves the product of historical forces; and it left them without any sense of or interest in causation. Within this elastic temporal continuum, as Wood vividly demonstrates, contemporaries had no means – or reason – to distinguish between buildings, styles and artifacts of different ages: they made no distinction between Roman or Romanesque, artists could clothe ancient soldiers in the costumes of the contemporary Landsknecht without any sense of anachronism, and a scholar of stature like Conrad Celtis could imagine he saw ancient effigies of druids in medieval portal carvings of saints.

[4]  The medieval, mythopoeic sense of history has tended to be viewed in terms of its teleological functions: that it was written chiefly to justify contemporary claims to power, or to provide exemplars of virtue and vice, as in a mirror to princes, where all manner of heroes, biblical, mythological, historical, suspended outside of chronological time, could rub shoulders without anachronism. Wood’s focus is upon how this fluid sense of temporality conditioned the understanding and significance that contemporaries brought to the artefacts, images and monuments of their past and present. He argues against what he calls the “anachronistic representationalism” (83) of modern scholarship, which interprets the artefact in terms of individual authorship or the conditions of its production within a local cultural order and specific geographic space. These perspectives (“fifteenth-century Florence”, say, or “Prague, 1600”) are the twin pillars of a concept of historical time upon which modern cognition and knowledge of the past depend; both are necessarily retrospective constructs, and were themselves ultimately the product of the philological and archeological movements that only began with fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanism.[1] Instead, Wood argues that the pre-moderns, lacking such a perspective, drew meaning from objects “referentially,” primarily as they formed a “link to an origin” (33). He applies to the German Renaissance a theory of “substitution”, a hypothesis he developed already in an Art Bulletin article of 2005, co-authored with Alexander Nagel.[2] According to this theory, all manner of artefacts, buildings, monuments, devotional images, were understood as part of “substitution chains”, which linked an individual image or artefact to a distant, original source via chains of intervening variations across time. Wood conceives of such chains as essentially typological: they transmitted certain unchanging characteristics that held true beneath local variations and usages. In this light, the fascinating array of forgeries, copies and replications of older works that Wood brings to his discussion could be regarded as perfectly valid because they looked back to and stood in for a supposed original. By the same token, a theory of substitution can explain how a version of the Madonna, even one painted within living memory, could have been regarded as “ancient” if it effectively transmitted, by means of some authenticating reference, the authority of a distant original, as for instance, versions of the supposed ad vivum likeness of the Virgin by St. Luke. The later Madonna’s precise date of manufacture or the conditions of its authorship were irrelevant in the face of this transmitted, transcendent meaning.

[5]  The theory of substitution seems to have evolved from a consideration of certain categories of cult image, where the typological link between a string of images and a celebrated original – St. Luke’s portrait of the Virgin or the sudarium of St. Veronica – can be established fairly clearly by a reliable and traceable tradition. In other cases, a substitutional chain is inferred rather than demonstrated. Wood suggests for instance that certain buildings – a venerated church, say – even if completely rebuilt over time, drew meaning from the fact that they were understood to contain within themselves a continuity of reference to an original structure or site. Such chains, Wood argues, were created retrospectively by contemporary beholders and the links to common origins might be various. Wood posits a putative relation between the early Christian basilica as ur-type and later church architecture, suggesting that one retrospective chain might have been found in the survival of the basilical plan, another in the retrieval from pagan buildings of arches and vaults (44).

[6]  Wood’s grasp of a pre-modern typological understanding and his recognition of a referential reading of objects is an important insight and one which will be undoubtedly influential for future scholarship in the field.  His proposed model of the substitutional chain of material artifacts works well as a metaphor to describe a meta-historical process, one not consciously articulated by contemporaries and whose operations are largely impossible to trace. However, within a pre-modern sense of the past where time is effectively collapsed, one wonders whether the idea of “chains that trailed behind artifacts” into an indeterminate past (38) is not too concrete an image and one that contains too strong a sense of staged, linear regression, to accurately describe the subjective apprehension of the typological within the thing beheld. Today’s strictly chronological view of history offers up no adequate vocabulary for this experience, which, like the operation of myth, refers to an event, person or thing, which in some sense had happened or existed once, but which in another sense, continues to happen or exist all the time.

[7]  Evidence of substitutional thinking in other areas of the culture can perhaps illuminate this experience in ways that both support and complicate Wood’s reading of the material artefact. A contemporary analogy in the realm of language is the proverb, the sententia, or adage, whose concentrated form, like the devotional image, was weighted with an authority whose origin was obscure and often lay in the presumption of long transmission. In the Adages, Erasmus explains this phenomenon. He calls proverbs “symbols” in which ancient wisdom was contained. It was precisely their lack of a traceable source and their antiquity which gave them their authority as universal truths. Erasmus quotes Juvenal as saying of the proverb,  “Nosce teipsum” (Know Thyself), that it “descended from the sky,” oracle-like (1, vi, 95). Yet even as Erasmus acknowledges this “transcendent” sense of origin, his own treatment of the saying in effect historicizes it: he notes that it was found written over the doors of the temple of Delphi and traces its usage through a series of classical and early Christian authors, from Plato, Cicero, Varro, Ovid and Pythagoras to Macrobius. Erasmus thereby imposes upon the indeterminate, “timeless” line of transmission his own historically more specific substitutional chain, a line of descent within historical time that threatens to weaken or dislodge the apparently transcendent power of “received” utterance and replace it with a new weight of specific historical authority. He also subjects the adage to his own highly rhetorical sense of literary form.

[8]  The clear articulation of these two modes in Erasmus’s exposition, indeed of the one (the “received”) working through the other (the linear, historical) and continuing undiminished within Erasmus’s self-conscious rhetorical elaborations, casts a tangential light on the gradual shift in the understanding of the artifact from the “referential” to the “representational,” concepts that are key to Wood’s theory of the transformation of the image to work of art. They show also how the two modes might intersect and merge, a point Wood is sensitive to, for instance, in his engaging analysis of the life-size bronze effigies of ancestors made for Maximilian’ I’s tomb in Innsbruck (Chapter 6). In a similar vein, recent scholarship on the devotional image has attempted to refine Hans Belting’s account of the transition of the cult image to the work of art by suggesting how the strategies of aesthetic representation of the “modern” artwork were in fact instruments used to enhance or express the older inherited quality of immanence and religious affect.[3]   Wood’s arguments significantly expand the parameters of these investigations by offering in effect a general theory that covers the entire world of artefactual and artistic production and gives intelligible shape to the historical processes involved.

[9]  The greater part of Wood’s study is devoted to grasping the referential purposes of the artefact. He does so via a method of historical anachronism, by deliberately seeking out instances of historical opacity, blind spots to our modern sensibility, the probing of which sharply illuminate a pre-modern worldview quite remote from our own. He uses a contemporary account of the emperor Maximilian I directing canon fire on (apparently) one of the oldest Roman edifices in Trier, as well as pope Julius II’s breathtaking self-confidence in tearing down the basilica of Old St Peter’s as evidence that contemporaries lived within a temporal continuum that did not permit a modern sense of “age-value” (61-62) in respect of ancient monuments. His search for anachronism leads him to explore neglected aspects of the later medieval and early modern visual record. Some of the most sustained and original scholarship in this wide-ranging and densely argued volume is found in the chapters devoted to medieval forgeries, to replicas, to early Renaissance archeology and antiquarianism and to an investigation of the forms of epigraphy and typography in the north, areas outside the mainstream of art-historical study, but whose consideration sheds essential light onto problems of stylistics, of contemporary understanding and reception, and the cultural preconditions of artistic production. His account, for instance, of the retrospective labeling of older relics and tombs with deliberately archaic inscriptions suggests they were regarded not as forgeries in the modern sense, but as necessary, self-evident confirmations of older, perhaps pre-literary, truths. In a discussion about the retrospective re-fashioning of earlier tombs, the development among sculptors of the late Middle Ages in making accurate and detailed physiognomic likeness is regarded, in respect of tomb effigies, not as evidence of period or personal style, but as a form of visual rhetoric, created out of a need to answer a well-established memorial function. “Likeness is an effect generated not by literal analogic correspondence to a real model, but by an excess of information with respect to the apparent function of the image (139).” Regarded as a kind of copia, realism becomes a rhetorical gloss, a device that “intensified the bond between living and dead subjects,” by strengthening the referential link to the person entombed.

[10]  At its heart, the theory of substitution is concerned with the issue of authority. The image or artefact as substitute carried within itself a value or an “essential” meaning that remained culturally stable and ensured continuity across time, a “fixed ground” (43) underlying the more immediate functional frames of reference it might have. The relocation of authority, both theological and secular, brought about by the Reformation, fundamentally undercut the ideological foundations of the referential image. Humanist philology and archaeology also fuelled the growth of skepticism and critical historiography that played a crucial part in undermining these old authorities. This process was reinforced by the new culture of print. Central to Wood’s argument is that it was the published artefact –illustrated in woodcuts and set about with explanatory text– that effectively stripped the original of its “privileged relationship to origins” (176). The woodcut illustration to the authoritative text, by its potential to replicate itself endlessly as well as by the mechanical, impersonal nature of its medium, introduced what Wood terms a “newly invented rhetoric of credibility” a record of eyewitnessing, that made of it a new instrument of knowledge, replacing the older reliance on the material artefact and in effect interrupting the older substitutional chains of relationship. More fundamentally, the new culture of print, through its work of replicating and categorizing knowledge, imposed new structures and categories on the previous flow of medieval experience. Finally, Wood proposes that, from within this nexus of forces that brought about a more rational, detached attitude towards the world, the concept of “art” emerged as a field of “fictionality” where the sense of anachronic play of the medieval sensibility could survive. From this developed the idea of the picture or sculpture as a self-sufficient, autonomous ground of individual creativity.

[11]  The range of material on which Wood draws is extraordinary, as is the command of his sources and the rigour and originality of his thinking. All make for consistently fascinating reading. Wood’s style combines sections of strenuous abstract theorizing with vivid narrative and descriptive exposition, buoyed up by a dramatic sense of the epic in the play of historical forces, and enlivened by idiosyncratic rhetorical flourishes and striking incursions of wit, all too appropriate in a scholar who has brought to light the reflexive qualities of Renaissance artists. The book will become essential reading for anyone working in the field.

Bard Graduate Center, New York, September 2009


[1] For an early twentieth-century rationale and critique of this model, see respectively, Georg Simmel, “Das problem der historischen Zeit” (1916), Brücke und Tür: Essays des Philosophen zur Geschichte, Religion, Kunst, und Gesellschaft, ed Michael Landmann (Stuttgart, 1957): 3-31; and, in respect of the dating of artistic styles, Erwin Panofsky, “Zum Problem der historischen Zeit,” (1927) republished in Aufsätze zu Grundfragen der Kustwissenschaft, ed. Hariolf Oberer and Egon Verheyen (Berlin, 1985): 77-83. [back to text]

[2] Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Interventions: “Toward a New Model of Renaissance Anachronism,” Art Bulletin 87, no. 3 [September 205]: 402-32.[back to text]

[3] See for example, Klaus Krüger, Das Bild als Schleier des Unsichtbaren: ästhetische Illusion in der Kunst der frühen Neuzeit in Italien (Munich, 2001). [back to text]

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