Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 20, 2016
Erin E. Benay and Lisa M. Rafanelli Faith, Gender and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art : Interpreting the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2015. 304 pp.; 6 color ills.; 58 b/w ills. Cloth $107.96 (9781472444738)

At first, the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas episodes may appear to be a rather curious pairing as the subject of a book. These two religious narratives are often represented separately and usually have been discussed as distinct topics throughout much of the history of Western art. They are not typically thought of as forming a unit. However, as co-authors Erin E. Benay and Lisa M. Rafanelli reveal, these two events are related. Central to both stories is the resurrected body of Christ and the varying levels of contact with it. Artistic representations of the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas stories involve the quest for faith as achieved through the hierarchically ordered senses, namely touch. While Christ explicitly forbids the Magdalene from touching him, Thomas is invited to do so. Through a methodological approach that combines feminist theory and notions of reception, Benay and Rafanelli argue that the ways in which the two figures experience the resurrected body is largely dictated by gender. Even though it was the Magdalene who first encountered Christ in his post-resurrected state, the testimony of a woman was not trusted in early modern Italy, and her experience of Christ through the more elevated sense of sight challenged the social order. By contrast, the Doubting Thomas confirms his faith by coming into direct contact with the divine, thereby confirming male authority.

As its title suggests, this study brings together two iconographic episodes in Italian art and traces their histories through image and text to demonstrate how these stories were represented throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The book is the fruit of two combined doctoral dissertations, thoroughly revised by Benay and Rafanelli, who wrote in tandem. Despite the rather ambitious scope of the book, it is thoughtfully organized around a few representative “case studies.” This structure provides a more focused group of objects for the authors to consider in depth and to compare with one another. Such a study allows the reader to observe how the representation of these narratives changed over time. The first and last chapters consider the two themes together, while chapters 2 through 5 each focus on one of the two stories as the dominant theme.

The opening chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book by providing background information regarding the origins of the Magdalene and Thomas stories in image and text from early Christianity and the Middle Ages. Particularly revealing are the examples in which the Magdalene and Thomas appear together, as in the tombs of Saint Celsus (early fifth century, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, presso San Celso, Milan) and of Cardinal Petroni (1318, Siena Cathedral), as well as in the mosaics in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and the Gospel book of Otto III (ca. 998–1000). This group of examples cuts across various media and geographic areas to demonstrate that the two stories were understood as related at one time. Texts such as the Gospels, homilies, and sermons account for the way in which the roles of the two saints were represented in art. For example, the sermons of Gregory the Great inform the shift from images of the Magdalene as one of the Myhrrophores, the women who bear witness to the empty tomb, to becoming a model of penance as an individual subject in itself.

With the rise of humanism in the Renaissance, new importance was placed on the body and the human aspect of Christ. Furthermore, empiricism became the favored mode of scientific inquiry. These and other factors come into play in chapters 2 and 3, which focus on the two saints as exempla in mendicant orders: Dominican and Franciscan, respectively. While the Magdalene was the patroness of the Dominicans as the protectors of her crypt in Provence, Franciscans reserved special devotion to Thomas due to their common association with the wounds of Christ. Chapter 2 features the Magdalene as a “model of piety” for both Dominicans and Franciscans. Benay and Rafanelli demonstrate that female and male viewers alike identified with the Magdalene, albeit through different modes of viewing. The “symbolic gender reversal” mentioned in the introduction here accounts for this identification with the opposite sex. Another example is found in chapter 3, where it is suggested that female viewers, such as nuns, could imagine themselves in the place of Thomas. While the texts referenced in these chapters encompass a wide range of primary and secondary sources, including sermons, liturgy, and iconographic studies, the idea of gender reversal is difficult to sustain.

Chapter 4 draws the comparison between images of Thomas and frescoes of criminal punishment located outside of Tuscan court houses. The search for truth in the context of a criminal trial and the corporal punishment that followed is here likened to seeking truth in a devotional context, with the body serving as evidence in both. The discussion of Thomas as a new symbol of civic virtue under the Medici is well supported, yet this argument is confined to Tuscany and does not seem as widely applicable to the other works of art examined elsewhere in the book.

The issue of private devotion and the involvement of touch is further explored in chapter 5, specifically with reference to images of the Noli me tangere scene. A significant contribution to this topic is the authors’ discussion of the Querelle des Femmes literary movement, which establishes the inferiority of women during the Renaissance as challenged in elite circles through the empowered figure of the Magdalene. Benay and Rafanelli argue that even when the audience is female, and the “base” sense of touch is often gendered as female, this sense is still associated with male dominance. Their argument for female viewership is complicated by the selection of two paintings possibly commissioned by women, but without any certainty, and another, by Michelangelo, that is no longer extant. While the point about women emulating the Magdalene is significant, there is little evidence to prove that this was actually the case. Furthermore, the question of the Magdalene touching the male body of Christ is turned on its head in the Thomas scene, in which the claim is made that Christ’s body becomes “feminized.” Here and throughout the book, Benay and Rafanelli seem resistant in recognizing the act of a male body penetrating another and the homoerotic implications of the Doubting Thomas subject, even though they allude to this idea several times. Despite their use of suggestive language of the “penetration” taking place between two men, only once do they mention sodomy, but it is not further developed. This seems a missed opportunity for an alternative reading of the Doubting Thomas scenes, particularly in a book that expressly addresses gender.

The study proceeds in chapter 6 with the changes in art that resulted from the renewal and redefinition of doctrine by the Catholic Church following the Reformation. During this time, the Noli me tangere became much less popular as a subject of art than the images of the penitent or ecstatic Magdalene, whereby her former life of prostitution and sin was emphasized. The authors explain the increased importance of somatic experience and sensuality as promoted by the Reformed Church in religious treatises, sermons, and exemplified by Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (1522–24). Similarly, the Doubting Thomas gained popularity and culminated in works by Caravaggio, Guercino, and Mattia Preti. The increased importance of relics and the Eucharist are discussed in relation to Caravaggio’s painting of Thomas, in which the shroud figures prominently. The discussion of images representing the encounters between the Magdalene and Thomas with Christ is fruitful in separating the difference between private and public consumption of religious imagery. This leads to an interesting analysis of the paragone, as it relates to earlier chapters of the book concerning the hierarchy of the senses.

The joining of two iconographic episodes presents a history of iconology. By reducing the number of examples to a few case studies, Benay and Rafanelli manage to condense a huge amount of material into a legible volume. In addition to viewing some of the best-known examples of these two stories afresh within a new methodology, the works that have been left out of the book open the door to further scholarship. By the same token, it would have been interesting to counter the prioritization given to well-known artists working in the major artistic centers of Florence, Rome, and Venice with lesser-known examples to learn to what degree the study may be applied more broadly throughout Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. Given its wide use of literary source material, Faith, Gender and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art will appeal to early modern scholars across a range of disciplines, not only within the history of art. From a strictly practical perspective, the individual chapters will also make for focused reading assignments for the Renaissance and/or Baroque student. The amount of textual and visual evidence consulted is truly impressive, and the study will become a useful source for anyone working on either of these subjects or in gender studies.

Danielle Carrabino
Associate Research Curator, Division of European and American Art, Harvard Art Museums