Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2020
Felipe Pereda Crime and Illusion: The Art of Truth in the Spanish Golden Age Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2018. 336 pp.; 118 color ills.; 11 b/w ills.; 336 ills. Cloth €60.00 (9781912554096)

Felipe Pereda’s study Crime and Illusion: The Art of Truth in the Spanish Golden Age offers the reader both an enlightening and a frustrating experience: enlightening in that it provides new insights into the contexts of an important group of Golden Age Spanish religious works, and frustrating due to the author’s repeated attempts to force his investigations into a difficult and ultimately unsustainable theoretical framework.

At the outset Pereda states that, instead of having a thesis, his book investigates “a series of singular images from the so-called [Spanish] Golden Age.” It also seeks to understand “the laws that underlie” aspects of early Baroque religious imagery in Spain (9). Pereda presents a series of case studies that one may call explication du texte, including the broader function of placing works of art in context. To accomplish these tasks, Pereda brings a massive theological erudition and skill in textual exegesis, as well as sensitive compositional and stylistic analyses cognizant of the “self-signals,” as George Kubler would have called them, emanating from artifacts.

Among the tools he applies to images are dramatic and rhetorical analysis, most usefully Aristotle’s idea of peripeteia (reversal), applied to an anonymous Road to Emmaus at the Walters Art Museum (12–13), and Diego Velázquez’s Joseph’s Bloody Coat (125–26). A second concept from Greek dramatic theory, anagnorisis (recognition), is applied to the depiction of The Supper at Emmaus of 1639 that Francisco de Zurbarán sent to Mexico (22–25). While Pereda cites Rensselaer W. Lee’s 1940 article on the idea of ut pictura poesis (Art Bulletin 22, no. 4) and subsequent related discussions in his bibliography, he does not engage with the critical and metahistorical issues of the concept, except in his discussion of Spanish art theorist Francisco Pacheco’s treatise Arte de la pintura (1649), where he successfully follows Pacheco’s arguments as simile (21, 71).

Pereda also offers chapters providing context for Velázquez’s Portrait of Sor Juana Jerónima de la Fuente of 1620 (96–109) and his Joseph’s Bloody Coat of circa 1630 against a background of contemporary Italian painting and iconography and the ideas of Leon Battista Alberti (122–29). Other chapters cover images of Christ presented on Veronica’s veil, following ideas of Victor Stoichita and including observations on “vestige” artifacts, such as the Shroud of Turin; a series of unusually bloody and bruised sculpted images of Christ on the cross, attributed to the Pharisee Nicodemus of the Gospels; and the Cristos yacentes of the sculptor Gregorio Fernández (1576–1636). The latter chapter reviews Fernández’s versions of this subject and provides a context for understanding them. One must also applaud Pereda’s wider understanding of the era, such as his insistence on the rising importance of empirical science in the seventeenth century and his demonstrations of how deeply art and religion were intertwined in the Iberian world.

One wonders, however, why Pereda did not feel these notable efforts were sufficient in themselves. Instead, he seeks to demonstrate that, in Golden Age art, the equation of art and religion “had a single center—the revelation of truth—and two extremes: first, the presentation of the image as a testimony, and second, the transformation of the viewer into its witness” (10, emphases original). Citing the influence of Michel Foucault, he develops a “juridical” or “forensic” argument, so that the works of art are considered empirical evidence of religious “truth.” However, if images are forensic testimony, then the metaphor must be that the viewers are the “jury,” not witnesses. Pacheco, whom Pereda discusses at length, took this view: the works of art are supposed to convince the viewer, who can theoretically make a decision—pro or con—on the message the image conveys. If Pereda had sorted this metaphor out at the beginning, his explanations might have had a clearer critical framework. Pereda also often falls into the habit of repeating assertions almost as fact and then using them as the first premise of logical arguments. Instead of evidence he provides his interpretation of evidence, including of what is seen in the works of art. The theoretical framework gets in the way of his explication du texte.

In fact, Pereda admits that, except for Pacheco’s aesthetic philosophy, “we have no evidence of these artists’ religious ideas other than the paintings themselves” (26). This leaves him with subjective readings of the works of art or implications generated by the context. There is a double fallacy here: first, an inability to document the intention of the artist, and second, an uncertainty about how much intention matters from a critical point of view. In some cases his juridical theories do relate to the objects, as in the commemorative works painted after an Inquisition case and auto-da-fé held at Madrid, 1630–32, or in Velázquez’s Joseph’s Bloody Coat and Forge of Vulcan (1630). Here two of Pereda’s themes, “the image as evidence, painting as deceit” and desengaño or “undeceit,” are indeed related to the subjects depicted (125–26, 136–41). In many other cases, Pereda’s evaluations are badly compromised by his having pushed his fine analyses through the narrow slit of his theoretical framework.

Nevertheless, Pereda provides numerous interesting examples of religious context. Among the more important is his discussion of Francisco Pacheco’s role in a controversy concerning the wording of the titulus, or inscription placed over the crucified Christ, and whether the worship due crucifixes was of the same type as the devotion due the Trinity and the Eucharist (called latria). Pereda shows that Pacheco, in his treatise, goes far beyond his Italian sources in condoning adoration of crucifixes with latria, which was specifically prohibited by the Council of Trent (74–76). Here Pereda provides documents that corroborate the unusual importance the Spanish church gave to images. Apparently, certain leaders of the church in Spain were willing to contradict the pronouncements of an ecumenical council and risk the believer’s falling into idolatry if the adoration of images could lead to greater devotion. Yet Pereda goes too far, insisting that for Pacheco, “the art of painting acquires a virtue for which the only fitting adjective we know is ‘sacramental’” (87). Here and elsewhere, Pereda ascribes to Pacheco versions of ideas that are not documented to him. It would have been far more powerful if he had simply stated the evidence for the context and left the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Unfortunately, some significant scholarship is not fully incorporated into Crime and Illusion. In 1978, Jonathan Brown discussed Pacheco’s relationship with the Italian theorists and with the decrees of the Council of Trent, and in particular the titulus controversy, citing the original documents. While Brown’s study is included in Pereda’s bibliography, no mention of Brown is made in the titulus chapter. If not technically improper, the omission is a serious oversight, especially since Brown indicates the pertinent original documents are in the library of the Hispanic Society of America in New York. Other studies related to Pereda’s general subject, which presumably were available before his book’s publication, are also not included in the bibliography. Chief among those omitted is Babette Bohn and James M. Saslow’s A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, which includes several chapters addressing Counter-Reformation artistic practice. Several others that would have improved Pereda’s arguments were similarly not used, such as studies of the use of maps and related landscapes as evidence in Latin America (see Barbara E. Mundy, The Mapping of New Spain, University of Chicago Press, 1996; Mary E. Miller and Barbara E. Mundy, eds., Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City, Yale University Press, 2013; and Antonio Sánchez, La espada, la cruz y el Padrón, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2013). Studies of the Inquisition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including racist anti-Semitism and aspects of anti-Portuguese prejudice directly applicable to the 1630–32 Inquisition case in Madrid, would have been helpful, including Henry Kamen’s extension of Benzion Netanyahu’s work on racist anti-Semitism in the late medieval Inquisition (Inquisition and Society in Spain in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Indiana University Press, 1995) or Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965). An additional group of useful related studies, one of them coauthored by Pereda, have appeared after Crime and Illusion went to press: Jesse Locker, ed., Art and Reform in the Late Renaissance (Routledge, 2018) and Mercedes García-Arenal, Felipe Pereda, and Consuelo López-Morillas, “On the Alumbrados: Confessionalism and Religious Dissidence in the Iberian World,” in The Early Modern Hispanic World (Cambridge University Press, 2017). The latter provides context for Pereda’s arguments about Inquisition records documenting latria shown to images and related topics.

Our profession might benefit from a return to more confidence in philosophically unadorned descriptions of objects and their contexts, to rigorous analysis for its own sake, and to the careful application of logic to arguments before moving on to aesthetic and cultural-philosophical evaluation. In the case of this book, a great deal of scholarly expertise and analytic skill produced potentially highly useful investigations of Spanish seventeenth-century religious works of art, only to have the effort marred by an insistence on theoretical concerns that ultimately could not be proven by the evidence submitted.

Marcus B. Burke
Senior Curator, Museum Department, Hispanic Society Museum and Library, New York