Conference paper “Staging and visualizing rituals of punishment between Occident and Orient: a clash of cultures between Russia and “the West”?”

In November 2014, scholars from several universities in Western and Eastern Europe will meet at the University of Konstanz, Germany, to discuss the visualisation of power, resistance and punishment in early modern times.

The overall aim of our conference is to find cross-cultural links as well as sources of conflict and misunderstanding in the respective visual traditions and their socio-political contexts.

Malte Griesse (University of Konstanz) is especially interested in cultural transfers and translations between 17th and 18th century Eastern Europe and the West.

In his conference paper, he will present results of his current research on the “clash of cultures” between Russia and the influential early modern states in France and the Holy Roman Empire.


Art historians and people familiar with Orthodox iconography are well aware of differences between Eastern and Western religious visual cultures: In Catholic and even less so in Protestant (especially Calvinist) culture, there is no equivalent to the Orthodox veneration of saints that manifests itself in the veneration of icons representing (or rather embodying) these saints. But among both art and “plain” historians (to borrow a schematic distinction from Peter Burke) there has been little reflection about an eventual impact of religious painting on secular visual culture and about the question if and under which circumstances it even makes sense to assume a clear distinction between these spheres. James Cracraft argued that differences between East and West were evened out with Peter I’s accession to the throne. Indeed, during his spectacular journeys to Western Europe the hailed Reform-Tsar did not only study Dutch shipbuilding and recruit military specialists and engineers, but he also acquired a considerable amount of masterpieces from Western art that would lay the foundations to the collections of the Hermitage Museum under Catherine II. In my talk I will question and nuance this alleged harmonization of Western and Eastern visual cultures under Peter I. My primary focus won’t be the fine arts, but rather the (often lowbrow) visual representations of violent punishments as they were part of Western legal culture, especially after events like revolts and conspiracies, which were classified as political crimes and acts high treason. Even though Peter has undertaken a lot to import the cruel Western practices of punishment to Russia, there remained a fundamental and almost intuitive and pre-rational repulsion against the visual representation of such violence.

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