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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 Sacro Cuore: Body and Blood 186


Sacred Eloquence 186 The Sacro Cuore: Body and Blood Agatha’s bleeding wounds are a testimony of her suffering and an emulation of Christ’s death on the Cross. The frontal display of Agatha’s body and the graphic rendition of the dripping blood add a dimension of reality to the painted scene, confirming both Agatha’s and Christ’s humanity. This idea of the sacramental body in fleshly form was also represented in the upper, visionary section of the altarpiece (before it was cut), where we find a representation of the Sacred Heart (fig. 17). Like His wounds, Christ’s heart is a metaphor for the incarnation of the divine on earth. Rather than being a symbol of the soul, Christ’s heart operates as the reification of His human and mortal existence, and the crown of thorns wrapped around the Sacred Heart emphasizes the suffering of His carnal body.90 The cult of Christ’s heart, the Sacro Cuore, originated in the thirteenth century and became commonly represented from the 90 Saint Agatha is brought in conjunction with the Sacred Heart in one of Domenico’s pen and wash drawings from the New Testament series, re- cently discussed by Adelheid M. Gealt and George Knox (GEALT and KNOX 2006, no. 302, p. 694). The scene supposedly takes up the narrative from the Golden Legend when eruptions of Mount Etna threatened the city and danger was averted several times by Saint Agatha’s veil. It shows an elevated priest, standing in front of a classical building, with a group of...

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