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Sacred Eloquence

Giambattista Tiepolo and the Rhetoric of the Altarpiece


Johanna Fassl

This book offers an innovative approach to the altarpieces of Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) by discussing them within the intellectual context of the first half of the eighteenth century. Tiepolo occupies a particular position in the history of art: firmly embedded in the eighteenth century, he is one of the last great painters of the classical tradition, and, at the same time, one of the precursors of modernity.
Why has Tiepolo’s religious art often been misunderstood? How can the abbreviation and absence of key symbols in the images be explained and why is this rhetoric of absence so utterly modern? Deliberately concentrating on what is not painted, rather than what is in the picture, the book deals with Tiepolo’s lacunism as an eighteenth-century phenomenon anticipating modernity. It discusses four different forms of rhetoric: iconic, narrative, silent, and visionary. Each discourse calibrates the images within their contemporary religious and philosophical context, which promote this type of rhetoric as highly innovative.


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The Body of Saint Agatha: Temptation or Contemplation? 173


Narrative: Historia 173 picture plan, the martyr’s palm, belongs less to the pictorial space than the viewer’s world. Loosely placed on the steps, it could tum- ble down any moment. Agatha’s left foot rests directly on the lower step and the draperies of her blue mantle cover the steps, all pushing forward. Without a prologue, Tiepolo’s image directly confronts the beholder with the mutilated saint, reinforced through his graphic depiction of Agatha’s body.61 The Body of Saint Agatha: Temptation or Contemplation? Tiepolo’s choice of moment and presentation of the martyred body deserves further attention. Although an altarpiece of a tor- tured female body has primarily theological significance as an im- age for contemplation, the manner of presentation has the poten- tial to suggest something quite different. Throughout the pictorial tradition, images of Saint Agatha have had sensual, sadistic, vo- yeuristic, and violent overtones. Often it is the combination of the religious and the erotic that gave the images much of their power, and made Saint Agatha such a popular iconographic subject.62 The equivocal nature of the Saint Agatha images results on the one hand from the presentation of the saint, and, on the other, from the innate multivalence of the female breast.63 What might be called the ur-erotic potential of the Saint Agatha iconography is already found in the text of the Golden Legend. The account starts 61 On Tiepolo’s pictorial strategy of drawing the observer into the work, see also BLEYL 1998. 62 See EASTON 1994; CHENEY 1996; CLIFTON...

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