Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 31, 2000
Mitchell Merback The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe University of Chicago Press, 1999. 280 pp.; 30 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $42.00 (0226520153)

Recent decades have seen a number of inventive studies that have added significantly to our understanding of medieval and early modern images of the Crucifixion, from James Marrow’s analysis of Passion iconography in Northern art to Anne Derbes’s examination of the impact of Franciscan devotional piety on medieval Italian art. No less inventive is Mitchell Merback’s book, which plunges us into the world of judicial spectacle, for it is this author’s central claim that “late medieval realist painters presented the sacred scene of the Crucifixion in terms of their own, but more importantly their audience’s, experiences with criminal justice rituals” (21).

Merback’s introduction makes his position clear: if we are to recapture what images of the Crucifixion meant to their contemporaries, we must look beyond “judicial iconography” to “the intervisual dynamic between art and spectacle . . . Both kinds of experience, one lived out collectively in the theatre of public punishment, the other enacted sometimes publicly, but often privately, before the Passion altarpiece (where the Crucifixion was typically central and defining), unfolded within the same mental boundaries, fell into the same perceptual schema and were conditioned by the same social and cultural factors” (21). Moreover it is only when we see these “spheres” as being mutually inflected that we can perceive their respective significance (32).

In Chapter 2, Merback argues that, whereas the depiction of the body of Christ was governed by relatively strict theological restrictions, those of the Thieves were open to interpretation, marked in the absence of detailed descriptions in the Gospels or Passion tracts of the period by the “infiltration of the rhetorical by the real” (100). Chapter 3 begins with the assertion that the increasingly brutal scenes of Calvary, typical of the late medieval period, can be attributed in part to the self-consciousness and ambitions of the artists themselves (103). Thus the reason why such images as Robert Campin’s Thief on the Cross (Frankfurt) appear so “real” is not that artists were able either to see unclothed bodies or dissect them, which would be the case with later artists starting with Leonardo, but rather that they learned such things through their experiences with actual executions. Here (113ff.) Merback asserts that what we see is not the result of sword blows but rather evidence of the wheel, approximating but not replicating the ancient practice of the crurifragium (122), a merciful gesture that hastened the death of the accused by breaking the legs and thus ending his ability to forestall asphyxia from not being able to raise the body and fill the lungs.

Focusing on “audience participation in, and response to, the rituals and spectacles of punishment,” (129) Chapter 4 advances the thesis that art and spectacle were inextricably intertwined. Here the author might have made use of one of the best-documented cases of this overall period, chronicled in Michael Kunze, Highroad to the Stake: A Tale of Witchcraft, trans. William E. Yuill (Chicago, 1987). In contrast to earlier scholarship, tainted by German nationalist and racialist theories, Merback articulates (146ff.) not a “theatre of cruelty” with jeering mob, but rather a “drama of Christian repentance, purification and salvation,” in which the accused was often treated with “utmost dignity and respect” (cf. James Boyden, “The Worst Death becomes a Good Death: The Passion of Don Rodrigo Calderón,” in Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval Europe and Early Modern Europe [Cambridge: 2000]), 240-65). Some criminals in their heroic battle with pain could even receive “immediate beatitude” if they were innocent of the crime (156). Supporting this view is the case of Thomas Trummer, who in Regensburg, in 1577, stole not only numerous body parts of a criminal executed with the wheel but also the spokes of the wheel in an attempt to capture something of their sanctity (Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil [London: 1994], 189). Merback’s suggestive analysis raises the question whether Christ’s pose on the cross would have been read in terms of the ancient practice of judges crossing their legs (seen, for instance, in Dürer’s engraving of Sol Justitiae).

Chapter 5 associates the wheel as an instrument of torture with Fortune’s Wheel (168). Merback shows that the horrific inversion of the bad thief’s body with a broken back (Lucas Cranach) relates to the “punished Jew,” i.e. the tradition of hanging Jews (and animals) upside-down to stress their unrepentant and animal nature (188). In one of the most brilliant sections of the book, the author relates this same pose to personifications of Synagogue, because the thief cannot see Christ and thus give Him the “evil eye,” although his use of the “Rothkrug thesis” in explaining the particular vehemence of southern German and Austrian Judenschläger (189ff.) would surprise many historians, who have seen Rothkrug’s linking of the Reformation and pilgrimage shrines as reductive. The wheel was also the closest punishment to the disused means of crucifixion itself (Chapter 6), sharing intense pain prolonged by exposure to the elements, procedural latitude in affixing the body to the apparatus, and visible social disgrace for the condemned and his family (200). This last aspect is closest, in Merback’s view, to the shame associated with slaves, but it was also tied to extended contact with the executioner and his equipment (see now Kathy Stuart, Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts: Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany [Cambridge: 2000]).

Merback argues (Chapter 7) that the two thieves offer a kind of “existential crossroads,” faced by every Christian at the the hour of death (221). Following Derbes, he sees the cult of St. Dysmas as primarily a Franciscan phenomenon (228-9). However, the Good Thief also became a kind of patron saint of other groups, such as the Brethren of the Common Life, whose disciple Wessel Gansfort felt that, in contrast to the complicated requirements of the pentitential structure of the Roman Church, the “penitent thief was saved by so little theology” (Roland Bainton, Christianity [Boston: 1987], 229). After discussing the problem of discriminating between the thieves, chiefly through the homunculus of the dying man’s soul, Merback follows the cult of Dysmas into Baroque Austria and Bavaria, largely fostered by the Jesuits and local confraternities. He ends with the proposition that donors in devotional images often appear on the side of the penitent thief, which allows him to reinterpret such works as Campin’s Seilern Triptych.

The Epilogue takes us into the present, to consider the implications of a possible return of capital punishment in the age of television and “spectacle” (a topic made all the more topical by the new, real-life situations on summer network television), as the issue of torture itself becomes newly relevant, even in America (John Conroy, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture [New York, 2000]).

Taken together, Merback offers probing historical analysis informed by careful looking. Despite the author’s disclaimers (29), his book can also be seen as more theoretical than many studies purport to be, because it stresses, among other things, the role of artists in shoring up repressive power structures (196) in the manner of Foucault, while demonstrating that theories can arise from careful case studies (cf. the comments in Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, Practicing New Historicism [Chicago 2000], 18).

This is not to say that everyone will be convinced of the book’s main thesis. Why, for instance, do the vast majority of Merback’s thieves have full heads of hair when criminals of this period were routinely shaved (see Kunze, 393-5)? And to really clinch the argument about “intervisual” relations between art and spectacle, wouldn’t one want to examine monuments like Nuremberg’s Kreuzweg or those tavolette depicting the Thieves (and the monumental works related to them) used by members of the Confraternity of San Giovanni Decollato to comfort victims until their last moment on earth (see J. Weisz, “Salvation through Death: Jacopino del Conte’s Altarpiece in the Oratory of S. Giovanni Decollato,” Art History 6 (1983), 395-405), as well as the Thieves’ role in such things as Corpus Christi processions? Here one would want to pay particular attention to issues of patronage, generally given short shrift in Merback’s book.

Although he admits that he did not attempt to “produce a study of the diverse visual evidence for a cult of the Good Thief” (26), Merback has nonetheless gone far towards doing so, and one wonders how he would evaluate the images of an artist like Bosch, who repeatedly returned to the thieves, or Jörg Breu’s Aggsbach Altarpiece, where the thieves are dressed as foot-soldiers. Merback (Chapter 8) follows Belting in arguing that the Reformation brought such imagery to an end, something Samuel Edgerton (Pictures and Punishment [Ithaca: 1985])argued was the result of largely aesthetic factors, but he neglects the Catholic Reformation’s later imagery, such as the Antwerp pictures studied by David Freedberg (“The Representation of Martyrdoms During the Early Counter-Reformation in Antwerp,” Burlington Magazine, CXVIII, 1976, 128-38). Artists’ search for the “real” continued to lead them to defame bodies into the nineteenth century, as evidenced by Benjamin West’s involvement in the postmortem crucifixion and flaying of the Chelsea pensioner, James Legge (see James Elkins, Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis [Stanford: 1999], 95 and figure 28).

Whatever its drawbacks, this book deserves a wide readership among students of the social history of art, the power of images, crime and punishment, body imagery, and spectacle (the Reaktion edition was 1999 “Runner-up Book of the Year” in the Longman/History Today Books of the Year Awards). No one who reads it will ever again be able to look at an image of the Crucifixion in quite the same way.

Donald A. McColl
Washington College