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Sacred Eloquence

Giambattista Tiepolo and the Rhetoric of the Altarpiece

Series:

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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Invention: Specular Narrative 193

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Narrative: Historia 193 tion of Mary and Christ in the body of Saint Agatha makes the pic- ture an example of “double intercession,” images that combine two sacrifices: Christ’s bleeding and dying on the Cross, and Mary’s suffering for her child and therefore for all sinners.108 Invention: Specular Narrative Besides connecting Agatha’s body and blood to that of Christ, the depiction of the Sacred Heart in the upper section of the altarpiece also performs a purely pictorial function with great effect for the reading of the image. Taken “off the altar” and looked at as a nar- rative image, the symbol of the Sacred Heart acts as an obstacle thwarting a narrative conclusion. In the Paduan altarpiece, Tiepolo painted the apparition of Saint Peter on a cloud. Below him, an angel, holding a plate with an ointment jar, continues the descent to the terrestrial realm. The upper section of the altarpiece alludes to the subsequent scene in the narrative, the miraculous cure of her breasts by the apostle, when she is back in her cell. In the case of the Lendinara altarpiece there is no such narrative prolepsis, not even the traditional, concluding act of awarding the saint the mar- tyr’s crown. Both Sacred Heart (top) and martyr’s palm (bottom) function as symbols that frame and underscore the visual constel- lation of figures and objects. The incongruities in the spatial framework, the dismembering and silencing of the bystanders, and the lack of conclusion depart from narrative convention. If the traditional...

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