Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2018
Thomas Golsenne Carlo Crivelli et le matérialisme mystique du Quattrocento Collection Art & Société. Rennes, France: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2017. 275 pp. Cloth €35.00 (9782753552531)

Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 magnum opus, the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, created a very specific and biased account of the development of art in the early modern period. Artists such as Carlo Crivelli were decidedly absent. It has been the work of twentieth- and twenty-first-century historians to recuperate and reframe artists like Crivelli.

Developed over the course of fifteen years, Thomas Golsenne’s erudite treatment of Crivelli’s oeuvre makes use of historical anthropology to investigate the artist with methods and approaches borrowed from social science, sociology, and philosophy. Golsenne, for example, borrows the term “material mysticism” from the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli. In The Contemplation of the World: Figures of Community Style, Maffesoli defined material mysticism as “a paradoxical expression . . . made up of hedonism, of bodies, of objects, of images, of space—with all that these partake of the concrete—but it is then transmuted into mysticism, that is to say, is shared, and thus favors a mysterious union, or nearer to its etymology, a communion” (Maffesoli, 1996, 32). Golsenne uses this notion to move away from the classic Panofskyan lens of iconography or iconology, which he justly criticizes, and to attempt a new understanding of the quattrocento and the artist.  His methodological sources are numerous, and the result is intriguing and thought provoking, though not without problems of methodological historicity, which the author readily acknowledges.

The volume is divided into five sections, each of which is subdivided into three chapters except for the first which is subdivided into five.

The first section, titled Le Peinture Ultra-Mondaine, begins by outlining the poverty dictates of the Franciscans and Dominicans, who were among the most assiduous of Crivelli’s clients, in order to contextualize the artist in the courtly society of the Marche and its taste for luxury. The aesthetic of the artist’s works is seen in juxtaposition to the friars’ strong rejection of that culture of luxury, splendor, and magnificence that Giovanni Pontano had outlined in his writings. The appearance of contradiction is resolved via Jean-Claude Schmitt and the writings of such mystics as Hildegard von Bingen, Camilla Battista Varano, Angela da Foligno, and Chiara de Montefalco. The Marchigian social order is thus seen as sacralized and the painted figures of saints as divine spouses of God rather than as courtesan-like, so their magnificence becomes acceptable. Sensual mysticism becomes, passing through Gilles Deleuze, an intensified experience of the present, an ornamental present. For Golsenne, Crivelli’s works become not the vision of an otherworldly celestial realm, but the reflection of the otherworldly celestial realm seen through the mystical eye. Religious mysticism and materialism join to shape an aesthetic of “pathos décoratif.”

In the second section, titled Un Dieu Sang et Or, Golsenne shows that luxury could have a positive value when it lent its mantle to the visible portrayal of poverty and humility. In this religious vision of the Marche, Crivelli’s work then looks to both the Byzantine and the Gothic, for he used the ornamental to express the divine, borrowing from both icons and reliquaries. In Byzantine art, ornament is associated with divine abstraction and in Gothic with luxurious ornament. Crivelli is presented as having achieved a synthesis of theological profundity irrespective of his ignorance of Jean Damascène or of Cardinal Bessarion, a problem that Golsenne himself recognizes. Thus, in the wake of Daniel Arasse, Hubert Damisch, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Louis Marin, and even though Golsenne concedes the problematic historicity of each scholar’s methodological approach, Crivelli becomes a refined theological interpreter. Crivelli’s relationship to the Gothic is articulated both on stylistic and aesthetic levels. Although certainly unaware of Suger, he made use of materiality in a very similar way. Through the ideas of Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Crivelli’s ornament becomes a fractal object that defines the space it occupies while at the same time multiplying it and erasing the difference between foreground and background. By paying close attention to the contact between the saintly body and cloths of honor, the artist hence conceives of separation as a way to attract the spectator, à la Walter Benjamin. Crivelli’s works become icons, relics, and reliquary all at once. Art and aesthetic sanctify. Golsenne sees the artist’s ornamentation as his original contribution to the work and perhaps even as a gift to the spectator and to God.

Proceeding from the latter observation, in section three, Golsenne undertakes an anthropological analysis of gift giving, using Marcel Mauss and Maurice Godelier, to consider ex-votos and the inclusions of donors in Crivelli’s images. It is thus argued that Crivelli’s innovation is that of blurring the distinction between the offering of the painting and the offering to the painting. Most interestingly the author notes that in juxtaposition to the dead body of Christ, for example, the ornament is animated with life. Lit candles are shown in Pietà pictures but extinguished candles in a representation of the Madonna and Child. Pushing beyond the mere representation of nature offerings made to pictures (fruits, vegetables, and flowers were common in the Marche of that period) and making use of Bernard Aikema and Louis Marin, Golsenne argues that Crivelli’s trompe l’oeil becomes a simulacrum capable of realizing the divine presence. Crivelli’s ornamentation thus transforms paintings into cult images, à la Hans Belting or Benjamin, and his use of pastiglia a rilievo is recognized as a producer of potentially miraculous images. Furthermore, Golsenne suggests that Crivelli drives the creation of cult images to its extreme: to the creation of a cult of the painter himself via the inclusion of luxury elements such as ex-votos in trompe l’oeil. The latter notion is as intriguing as it is historically debatable; I am not aware of any fifteenth-century artist whose aim was the creation of a cult of his own artistic self.  

In section four, Golsenne explores the idea of Crivelli’s cucumbers as a signature device, one that was taken up by his epigones while they searched for their own possible identifying devices. This is the most fascinating and yet the most historically problematic chapter. Analyzing the Last Supper panel fragment now in Montreal, Golsenne advances the notion that the artist (if indeed the panel is by the master) put cucumbers in the hands of the apostles as a symbol of their sharing the painter’s body. This is problematic. Crivelli is presented as painting incarnate, an incarnation that each follower tried to replicate as if he were the head of a religious sect. Through the lens of sociologist Maffesoli’s tribal theory, Crivelli is conceived of as a living idol, who gave rise to the same veneration that his paintings produced. Crivelli’s relationship to the informal corporation of Marchigian painters is compared to that of Christ and the Christian community or to that of a condottiere and his conquests. In this latter sense, Crivelli is seen as a hero in the guise of a condottiere who is able to transgress, conquer, and dominate specific territories. The transgression of borders is equated to the mystery or theory of the incarnation. The transgression of the borders of the incarnation is seen as a conceptual frame for Crivelli’s works: it invests both the visible and the invisible, immanence and transcendence, and is centered around a living god. Thus, the interpretative framework appears to transform Crivelli himself into a living god interested in his own cult as well as the freedom of expressing his own virtuosity, or as argued in section five, he is highly conscious of intentionality. It is a seductive vision of a postmodern Crivelli but one that is rather hard to accept as historically factual.

In section five, Devenir Ornamental, Golsenne marries the theoretical framework of the incarnation to that of the ornament. In summarizing the previous sections, the author reiterates that the intensity and multiplication of ornamental motifs in Crivelli—from multiplied surfaces to fruit and vegetable festoons—may be explained through the logic of the fractal. The ornamental becomes a way to intensify forms and, through its excesses, to manifest a presence that may be understood to be either that of God or that of the painter. If the Florentine quattrocento proposed a theory of perspective, Crivelli in the Marche is seen as subscribing instead to a theory of the incarnation used as if it were the basis of a painting theory. Although completely unaware of Nicholas of Cusa and his theories on the representation of God, he might have been exposed to Bernardino of Siena and his followers, who thought of the incarnation as a moment when form became essence. Using Claude Lévi-Strauss, Crivelli is thus seen as a bricoleur, the ultimate consummate creator of Christological religious and aesthetic montages, as conceived of by Deleuze. The insertion of a fly becomes symbolic of a creative moment that results from the paradoxical wish of the artist to get rid of intention.

Beyond Deleuze, Didi-Huberman, Bataille, or any other theoretical framework invoked to examine Crivelli, perhaps this the truest assessment that emerges from Golsenne’s work: Crivelli seen as an experimenter, a discoverer of the power, of the virtue of painting, and therefore of style; Crivelli seen as an artist who married the cult image to the power of a work of art. 

Liliana Leopardi
Assistant Professor, Art and Architecture, Hobart and William Smith College