Časopis ARS 44 (2011) 2


Poznámky k vizuálnej topike stredovekých obrazov martýrií na Slovensku
[Notes on the Visual Topic of Medieval Pictures of Martyrdom in Slovakia]


The article offers a brief review of the ideas associated in older and more recent literature with the repeated compositions and motifs of martyrdom, the original understanding of them and their historical functions. The first part considers general ideas, while the second part is more directly concerned with visual analysis of the pictures.

The Christian understanding of martyrdom continued older traditions, but also had a special character as the most perfect of acts of virtue, as something that shows perfect love (Thomas Aquinas). It stands out as the extreme case and orientation point of Christian existence. Pictures of martyrdom provided examples of perseverance in faith, which aroused the sympathy of believers. The victory of evil over the martyrs sharply contrasts with the scenes in which saints were able to protect the victims of injustice.

The psychological and social functionality of irrationality is based on providing hope of victory over death. The attitude of the Church to the legends of martyrs is rather ambiguous. The more sober Church dignitaries attempted to free the rich folk tradition from improbably irrational elements, but they never succeeded in convincing the wider mass of believers to accept a rationalist approach. The popularity of fantastic stories, rooted in the early developmental stages of the human psyche, was constantly renewed in spite of critical and sceptical voices.

The condemnation of the saint was usually modelled on the condemnation of Christ as described in the Gospels and depicted in numerous pictorial cycles. Use of the same motifs and compositional schemes was chiefly motivated by an effort to express sanctity. Analysis of paintings devoted to this theme is faced with a wide complex of questions. For example: what cultural norms, models and ideas did the pictures represent? What values are associated with them? How did they see the action of the figures? What was the role of the body and corporeality?

The struggle against idolatry often appears in the context of the condemnation of martyrs. According to Tertullian, idolatry is the “chief crime of the human race”. From this point of view, the picture of the saint who destroys idols meant a paradoxical reversal of the legal state prevailing in the picture. In the eyes of Christians, the criminal is not condemned, but the judge. In a society based on faith, this type of scene could never lose its significance mainly because it provided a radical example of the defence of Christian doctrine.

Pictures of female saints resisting the enticing offers of rulers in the name of faithfulness to their heavenly bridegroom sometimes acquired motifs and details with a possibly erotic meaning in addition to the usual emphasis on the similarities between the martyr and Christ. The perception of nudity is culturally coded. It is questionable how far erotic associations are relevant to the original perception of the pictures, which oriented the creation of the viewers’ mental images in a different direction. It is probable that under pressure from this situation, at least the conscious elements of viewers’ imagination took a different direction. If a picture aroused desires in some viewers, the culture of their surroundings did not permit such feelings, and people would keep them secret, perhaps even from themselves.

Many cycles include pictures of the body tormented by instruments of torture. The body exposed in the centre of the composition addresses the viewer with a multiple emotional message. It appeals for personal sacrifice, evokes sympathy and may also have erotic associations. When considering the reactions of viewers to the image of a tortured body, it is necessary to take into account various possible interpretations from a distant approach to the body as an object, through dialogue to identification. When interpreting these and similar images, it may be meaningful to apply the traditional concept of catharsis in addition to modern terms. It evokes less suspicion of anachronism than retrospective use of modern conceptions. The tortured person remains faithful to his or her truth. The ruler may destroy him or her physically, but in the cultural system within which the action acquires meaning, he has no power.

Many tortured martyrs in pictures retain a calm expression, motivated by deep faith in definitive victory over death. Tertullian already promised the martyrs that their bodies would not suffer from the torture if their souls were going to heaven. Gregory the Great to some degree contradicted this view in a comment paraphrased by Bruno of Querfurt: “If death was not associated with any suffering... the glory of martyrs would not be so great.” Depiction of martyrs gave painters space to express a sceptical view of human nature. In some cases, details of their dress (pointed hat or turban) aimed the message of the picture beyond the Christian community. An image of cruelty could be used for political, social or religious manipulation, to delegitimize those who differed from true-believing Christians. The pictures sometimes indicate social differences between the torturers not only by their clothing, but also by their actions. People from the higher classes are often “only” initiators or witnesses, not the direct perpetrators of torture.

Images of execution, such as the picture of the crucifixion of St. Peter with his head at the bottom, can also be seen as invitations to contemplation pursuing a higher aim than can be described in ordinary language. The language of the image could also fail when attempting to express the deepest mysteries of human existence. Most frequently, the language of interpretation is inadequate. Even a successful interpretation of a picture leaves many of its elements unnoticed. However, in spite of the incompleteness of analyses, many of the important meanings and functions of a work can be understood. Late medieval pictures of executions changed and updated the meaning of the theme in various ways. The variations of individual motifs can best be demonstrated in the case of the most frequent method of execution: beheading. The numerous group of scenes enables us to attempt to create an internal typology directed towards distinguishing the constant elements from the changeable motifs, which modified the meaning of the picture and gave it individuality, for example, the selection of the moment of depiction or the visual references to various miracles. In the course of development, additional figures could acquire opposite meanings, as in the case of the picture of the donor in the painting of the execution of St. Margaret at Mlynica.

Various questions remain open for further analytical research. One of them is the historical confirmation of the presence of certain universal characteristics in a certain place and a certain time. Apart from improvement of the means of visual analysis, an answer to this question requires that we cross the boundary separating the history of art from the history of society, the Church and literature, for example, to research the sermons given on the feastdays of saints.

English translation by M. C. Styan