Benjamin Paul: "Pious Work" in the Age of Art: The Circumcision Altarpiece by Jacopo and Francesco Bassano


Jacopo and Francesco Bassano's 1577 altarpiece for the Duomo Santa Maria in Colle in Bassano del Grappa combines its main subject, the Circumcision of Christ, with a representation of the underworld in the lower foreground. This seemingly clumsy juxtaposition, unique in the history of art, charges the Circumcision with eschatological meaning and lends the altarpiece an unusual sense of urgency. My paper argues that style and iconography relate to the particularly severe historical circumstances of this commission. It explores the agency of religious images in what Hans Belting has famously called the "Age of Art." Thus, while the work of art may have lost its thaumaturgic dimension, by actively contributing to assure divine support, it ultimately can educe the same miracle working results as the medieval cult image.

Benjamin Paul, Associate Professor at Rutgers University. Ph.D. Harvard University 2004. Currently a Marie Curie Fellow in the ‘M4Human program' of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

Research interests: Venice in the late sixteenth-century, tombs, and contemporary art.

Current book project: "The Agency of Art in the Crisis of Late Sixteenth-Century Venice".

Most significant publications: Nuns and Reform Art in Early Modern Venice: The Architecture of Santi Cosma e Damiano and its Decoration from Tintoretto to Tiepolo (Ashgate, 2012); Articles and reviews in Artforum, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Venezia Cinquecento.

Editor of the volume: "Celebrazione e autocritica: La Serenissima e la ricercha dell'identità veneziana nel tardo Cinquecento," which will appear at the end of the year. Currently editing a volume on the tombs of the doges in Venice.

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