“Iconic Revolts” – forthcoming publication

Following our three inspiring conferences on revolts and revolutions, we are now publishing two collective books in order to give a public résumé of our research results.

Our book “Iconic Revolts: Political Violence in Early Modern Imagery” will cover the visual representation of political violence in early modern Europe, America and Asia.
We will discuss who produced and disseminated such images, why certain artistic genres were chosen, and what audiences were addressed.

To this day, images are essential to the communication of power relations and resistance. One could even argue that patterns of visual portrayal are at least as important for shaping political mindsets as the written word. Our profound analysis of 15th to 18th century visual cultures will synthesize recent states of knowledge in the humanities. In doing so, it will offer flexible conceptual and thematic avenues of approach to the study of visualizations of violence in the broadest possible sense. In most early modern European regions, visual representations of punishment played a major role in governments’ strategies to reinvigorate social hierarchies and to reestablish public order after the traumatizing experience of socio-political upheaval. Scenarios of punishment and executions of ringleaders were thus not only staged publicly, but also disseminated in print, both through text and image. In doing so, the authorities hoped to reach a much broader public, including the illiterate majority of the population. The exclusive focus on punishment was supposed to efface the memory of the revolt itself. Visual representations of revolts and punishment could, however, both serve an affirmative purpose as well as have a denunciatory function. Indeed, whereas in present day western societies the explicit rendering of political violence usually has a delegitimizing function, the degree of violence shown in early modern media was no self-contained indicator of its political or moral evaluation.

Moreover, visual cultures differed considerably across confessional, political, social, and ethnic boundaries. This often led to dissonances in the basic evaluations of the images that crossed such cultural borders. They gave rise to feelings of estrangement, which pushed early modern recipients to articulate what was otherwise taken for granted. In this way the confrontation of divergent modes of visualization and the voiced experiences of irritation sheds light on both the literary “syntaxes” and the visual “codes” of representations of political violence.

The overall objective of our research group and the proposed interdisciplinary book is to explore these diverging visual codes in order to remap early modern European – and to some extent global – space in terms of visual grammars of revolt and punishment. All in all, our contributions are interconnected by the following innovative features:

1. Cross-border circulation of knowledge

Representations of punishment and execution were often commissioned by the punishing authorities themselves as a means of propaganda. The individual stages of revolt and the actions performed by rebels, however, were mostly depicted abroad, beyond the range of the concerned authorities. Governments were often able to suppress the memory of small-scale revolts within their own realm (damnatio memoriae), which gave particular importance to publications abroad. Large-scale revolts, on the other hand, could not be silenced internally and became an issue of international attention by their mere size and impact. As foreign media reports triggered back into the territory of conflict, foreign dissemination of knowledge often became a crucial factor of local commemoration.

Images in revolt, i.e. images produced and propagated in the course of a revolt by active parties, could henceforth be confirmed, subverted or replaced by images on revolt, which often came with claims of neutrality and an outside stance. The 1640-68 Portuguese Revolution, the Upper Austrian Peasant War in 1626 or the Jacobite rebellions of the mid-18th century all prove, for example, that diplomatic networks and minorities in exile sustained the production of oppositional propaganda abroad, which served to persuade foreign representatives as well as publics at home of lawful resistance. Because of this strong focus on the international dimensions of visualization and its common or divergent purposes across borders, our proposed collective book offers much more than a loose compilation of individual essays.

2. Broad perception of media beyond the scope of classical political iconography

Without disregarding the objects of traditional art history, our main material consists of images produced for quotidian use, mostly cheap prints on topical events made for rapid circulation. Most media, such as caricatures and news sheets were not monopolized by a specific political faction and could transport antagonistic meanings. Successful early modern rebellions were in fact deeply rooted in contemporary mainstream culture, which wittily drew on a wide range of well-established political media and their supposedly reliable communicational patterns.

As a consequence, the boundaries of visual cultures of revolt and violence differ significantly from traditional categorisations by art historians attributed to highbrow art. We consider this asymmetry to be an important paradigm shift for future research. Objects and performance also play an important part in our approach to early modern visual cultures. We are especially careful to describe reciprocal interactions between distance media, architecture, oral culture and the physical presence of the human body. Above all, our study consciously covers territories that were not yet affected by the printing revolution, such as the Russian and Ottoman Empires. These regions were marked by very different modes of media production and by reduced degrees of circulation, which eventually resulted in autochthonous configurations of public spheres. Beyond the scope of classical political iconography, we demonstrate the heterogeneity of early modern imagery of violence and explain misunderstandings, diplomatic tensions and ambiguity as a necessary side-effect of both cultural internationalization and transitions of visual genres.

VW Visualizing Revolt WEB

“Visualizing Revolt and Punishment in Early Modern Times” – conference held at Harvard University, USA, in spring 2014, funded by VW Stiftung, Germany

3. Diachronic patterns and the self-reflexivity of early modern media production

Our book discloses cultural differences and exchanges in a synchronic perspective, but also retraces diachronic shifts in visual grammars. Aspects of confrontation or translation incited contemporary comparisons and generated an increasing realization of past events as sources of identification. Re-enactments and re-contextualisations of visual codes transformed images and objects of previous ages into vivid emblems of political agency and especially inspired the height of historiographical studies and self-reflected media criticism in the 18th century. Even though we stop before the advent of photography, the time frame of the early modern period is long enough to observe long-term trends in regard to changing techniques and traveling modes of representation, which were closely related to refined symbolism and intricate iconotextual relations.

4. Meta-level in regard to visualized violence today

The Muhammad cartoon controversy and most recently the assault on Charlie Hebdo have put questions of visual culture and more specifically the limits of the visually representable on top of the agenda. For some, the Muhammad cartoons break a taboo and symbolize the severest insult against (their) religion. For others they have become the epitome of a free press resisting backwardness and theocracy. Conversely, images disseminated by the so-called Islamic State provoke horror in the Western world – not only because of the brutal executions they represent, but also due to their visual narratives and techniques of distribution. In this context, our careful methodological approach and our efforts to abstract from limited case studies provides important analytical tools for timeless studies of visualized violence. Our international and interdisciplinary perspective fosters a deeper understanding of cultural differences and hopes to help interrupt the vicious circle of growing polarization.

The book aims at an interdisciplinary readership interested in political, cultural, media and art history. Specialists of the early modern period will be particularly predisposed to buy the book, but it will also be accessible to researchers working on contemporaneity and to a broader public, especially since the approaches and methodologies we develop are not narrowly confined to the early modern period and are similarly applicable to “iconoclastic” controversies of the present. Even more so, readers will find important elements to better assess and historicize central conflicts of our present time, such as the imagery propagated by the Islamic state, or the conflicts triggered by Muhammad cartoons.

The book-project draws innovative impulses from two larger fields of research that have mainly emerged in the Germanic world and whose international reception still remains limited, since research has basically been published in German: political iconography and media-studies. Political iconography builds on Erwin Panofsky’s methods and examines different ways of visually staging political power. The most important contribution from this field is a Manual of political iconography (Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie) edited by Uwe Fleckner, Martin Warnke and Hendrik Ziegler, a dictionary with articles on central terms and related imagery. The partisans of political iconography, generally art historians, are mainly interested in the meaning and recurrence of visual motives, symbols, etc. But they pay less attention to facts of circulation, publication contexts and reception. These questions stand more in the center of media studies (Medienwissenschaft), a discipline that comes mostly from social sciences and studies a whole variety of media, their distribution, reception, etc., but without a particular focus on visual material and generally without the tools of art history. We try to combine these two fields in an integrated trans-disciplinary effort that adopts a larger cross-cultural approach. Instead of analyzing images intra-diegetically (werkimmanent) we take the chosen medium, the context of potential and real reception and degree of circulation/ proliferation into consideration. Some other current interdisciplinary research projects go into a similar direction:
“Transcultural negotiations in the ambits of art” at the Free University Berlin (http://www.geschkult.fu-berlin.de/e/transkulturell/profil_der_for_1703/index.html) is “pursuing the goal of studying from a comparative perspective the significance of artistic objects and practices as factors and indicators in processes of cultural transformation and interlinking. […] Along a diachronic axis [… it is] focused on the space of events […] connecting local relationships with distant events and effects in a historically unprecedented intensification. On a synchronic level, it analyzes cross-cultural processes of interlinking that affect and transform local/regional forms of understanding and artistic traditions in a specific way in each case. […It] aims to summarize competences of regional scholarship [… and bring] comparative methods of neighboring disciplines into an integrative research of artistic practices that offers conceptual alternatives to an ensemble of partial histories of art […] limited to an era or cultural region.”

The NCCR Iconic Criticism group at Basel University (https://eikones.ch/eikones/key-issues/?L=1) tries to unite “two perspectives, one internal and one external [… that have] emerged from the praxis of interdisciplinary research […]. Aesthetic, phenomenological, and semiotic approaches assume an internal perspective. They address the appearance of the image, its internal structure and temporality. In contrast, an external perspective is grounded in the methodologies of history and the social sciences, and targets the discursive, instrumental, and social conditions of images.”

These projects are largely confined to objects of highbrow art, whereas our concentration on revolt as a highly political topic confronts us with more non-canonical media and forms of representation. The collective volume Esthetics of violence, violence of esthetics (Ästhetik der Gewalt. Gewalt der Ästhetik), edited by Anna Pawlak and Kerstin Schankweiler, focuses more exclusively on violence and thus comes closer to at least one important aspect of our interrogation: representations of punishment. But here again the contributions deal mostly with objects of classical art history and the lion’s share of the volume is devoted to contemporaneity. However, Mateusz Kapustka’s article on the prints of Jesuit martyrs is of much interest for our approach, since he explores the visual stylization of Jesuit martyrs in print and their impact on the formation of Jesuit identity.

On the one hand, all these current research initiatives make that a considerable audience on the continent is impatiently awaiting our book. On the other hand, our innovative methodologies will be of particular interest to a larger public, even more so since the geographical range of our research is a global one.

Though our study ends before the advent of photography, the time frame of the early modern period is long enough to allow for the observation of larger trends regarding changing techniques and modes of representation that ‘traveled’ across cultures and which were closely related to a refined symbolism and intricate iconotextual relations.

GRIESSE_V2_Visualizing and Punishment in Early Modern Times_2014

“Visualizing Revolt and Punishment in Early Modern Times” – conference held at University of Konstanz in winter 2014, funded by VW Stiftung, Germany

Our publication is funded by Volkswagen Foundation, Germany, and features the following contributions:

SECTION 1: Constitutional developments and legal consolidation:

Galina Tirnanić, Oakland University, USA:

“Visualizing Punishment in Byzantium: Disseminating Memories of Quelled Revolts Before the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Alain Hugon, Université de Caen, France:

“Revolutionary ceremonies and the use of visual culture in the insurgent city of Naples (1647-1648)”

Blenda B. Femenias, CUA, Washington, USA:

“Violence against the Body in the Drawings of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala”

Yachen Maya Ma, Tsing Hua University, Taiwan:

“To Visualize or Not to Visualize: Commemorating the Suppression of Revolt in Early Qing”


Hollaendischer Druck_Gunpowder Plot_1605_Reichsmuseum_Het Buskruitverraad

SECTION 2: Confessional conflict and proto-nationalism:

Ramon Voges, University of Paderborn, Germany:

“From Power Brokers to Rebels. How Frans Hogenberg Depicted the Beginning of the Dutch Revolt”

David de Boer, University of Leiden, Netherlands / University of Konstanz, Germany:

“For Pity and Piety: Images of Religious Persecution in the Dutch Republic”

Malte Griesse, University of Konstanz, Germany:

“Image and Text in Propaganda during the Upper Austrian Peasant War 1626″


SECTION 3: Legitimation of rule and resistance in cross-border representations:

Nancy Kollmann, Stanford University, USA:

“Truth and Legitimacy in Adam Olearius’ Punishments

Joana Fraga, University of Turin, Italy:

“Visual communication during the Portuguese revolt of 1640″

Gleb Kazakov, Freiburg University, Germany:

“Through Glory and Death: Portraying Razin the Rebel in Western Media”

Nóra Gézonné Etényi, University of Budapest, Hungary:

“The Fame and the Negative Image: Opposition and Resistance of the Hungarian Nobility in the Press of the Holy Roman Empire in the 17th Century”


Gunpowder_Heads Exposed_1605_BLOG

SECTION 4: Representational conventions, art theory and revolutionary content:

Monika Barget, University of Konstanz, Germany:

“Imagining leadership – the impact of 18th-century visual culture on political identity”

Fabian Fechner, University of Tübingen, Germany:

“Satirical Rebels? European Visualizations of Black American Insurgents around 1800″


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