Interpretations of Longinian Ideas in the Visual Imagery from the Early Modern Period to the Present

How does one deal with the reception of a – primarily – philosophical notion in the visual arts? The question of the reception of the Longinian sublime has already been addressed in recent years by such scholars as Caroline van Eck, Emily Brady, and Paul Crowther, amongst others. However, this session seeks to enhance current art historical understanding of the issue by focusing on a diachronic treatment of the matter in various artistic media, as well as by insisting on specific topics that open up certain aspects of the sublime that have not yet been sufficiently explored. 

Topics/approaches could include, but are not limited to: 

-artistic networks 

-relationships among artists, literati and patrons 

-the aesthetics of antiquity and the Renaissance 

-the aesthetics of modernity 

-the treatment of the human body  

-the existence of sublime/Longinian literature in libraries 

-the dissemination of relevant texts  

-the dissemination of relevant theories 

-the relationship between art and politics 

-the convergence of artistic and religious ideas 

-women artists 

Keeping in mind that the early modern reception of the sublime has received less attention than the sublime in modernity (i.e. Romanticism), our session aspires to bring together different eras in which the sublime has been reflected, as well as different places, both within Europe and beyond it, where the sublime may have had an impact.

Session Convenors:

Ianthi Assimakopoulou, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Nafsika (Nancy) Litsardopoulou, Athens School of Fine Arts

Lucy Wood, Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales

Eliana Martini, independent art historian


Ianthi Assimakopoulou, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Longinus’ concept Perì Hýpsous in Bronzino’s Christ’s Descent into Limbo

Bronzino’s Christ into Limbo is large altarpiece demonstrating the artists spiritual influences. The painting, which Vasari praised for its exquisite style, includes some of the biblical figures as portraits of the painter’s friends and townsmen. Bronzino was well known as a “dotto pittor” and this paper will discuss aspects of the longinian concept of the sublime within the context of planning this invenzione. It will be argued that the painting, according to the principle ut pictura poesis, might be credited with grandeur and perhaps with sublimity. 

It should be taken into account, that the circulation of Longinus’ manuscript Perì Hýpsous in Renaissance Florence is connected to Pietro Vettori, the greatest classical scholar of his day, and his student Ugolino Martelli who were at the very centre of the city’s cultural life. Piero Vettori was an editor of greek and latin texts and professor at the Florentine Studio from 1536 to 1584 and stands out for his intimate knowledge of Longinus. Pietro Vettori and Ugolino Martelli were members and even consul of Accademia Fiorentina and well-befriended by Benedetto Varchi, Vincenzo Borghini and Cosimo Bartoli, who have acted many times as artistic advisers to important artists.

While I may not be able to offer a definitive statement as to whether Bronzino’s  in Christ into Limbo produced a sublime / “longinian oratory”, I will argue that he was interested in creating  a style  of grandeur, a narrative action with manneristic paradoxes.

Nafsika (Nancy) Litsardopoulou, Athens School of Fine Arts

Rubens’s Horrors of War: The Art of Measure and Naturalness in the Face of Verbalized Sublime Death

Rubens’s painting The Horrors of War (1637-38) that relates the abominable consequences of the war between Spain and the Netherlands has traditionally been regarded as a statement for peace. In this essay I will discuss two different, yet interrelated, aspects in Rubens’s work: first, his treatment of bodies, in light of his treatise De Imitatione Statuarum. According to this text, the modern painter should imitate classical sculptures. Ancient sculpture merits imitation on the basis of a most important aesthetic feature: balance of the parts of the healthy, strong, athletic human body, namely ideal measure. The Horrors of War, on the other hand, is an image that defies measure altogether on the basis of its narrative. The second aspect I will test this image against is the notion of the sublime as proposed in Longinus’s On the Sublime, well-known in the Netherlands of Rubens’s time. According to Rubens’s own letter-description to the recipient of The Horrors of War, this is an image of war atrocities. Also, in two very significant marginalia of the same letter, Rubens refers to Lucretius and to the Aeneid. The gruesome works of war as related by Lucretius and Virgil are intimately connected to Rubens’s image and, as I would like to suggest, the implications of the notion of the sublime are thus highlighted contrary to the idealized, measured aesthetics of Rubens’s bodies.

Lucy Wood, Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales

Gwen John: ‘The Scene is Sublime’

This paper explores a convergence of religious and artistic ideas in the work of the artist Gwen John (1876-1939). Since the early twentieth century, a recurrent theme in discussions surrounding the relationship between religion and art has been the idea that, in and through the aesthetic encounter, it is possible to have access to a ‘transcendent’ reality that is, in some sense, ‘beyond’ the empirical. This idea is closely related to discourse surrounding the sublime and ‘experiential’ models of religious experience that foreground ineffable modes of consciousness. This paper proposes some limitations with such frames of reference. In turn, it develops a new framework through which to understand the place of religion in John’s art in a way that corresponds with an embodied spirituality and a metaphysics of relation and participation. It draws on John’s vast archive of correspondence and writing, including notes on artistic aims and methods as well as extracts copied out from art historical, theological and philosophical texts. Characteristics of her art and ideas are then brought into dialogue with Barbara Freeman’s account of ‘the feminine sublime’, which, Freeman argues, ‘lies hidden within and repressed by metaphysical theories of sublimity’ (Barbara Freeman, The Feminine Sublime, University of California Press: 1995, p.3).

Eliana Martini, independent art historian

Circe and the beasts: representing the sublime in regional art centres of Victorian England

During the first decades of the Victorian era, Ruskin developed an idiosyncratic theory of the sublime, which served as a way of defining the challenging role of instinct and emotion in his post-romantic worldview. Therefore, he defined the sublime as the overwhelming upsurge of awe and terror that followed man’s encounter with the grandiose and the incomprehensible, as a binary opposite and necessary counterpart of calm, classical beauty. Ruskin took into close consideration Burke’s precedent yet criticized its overt reliance on self-preservation issues. His concept of the sublime exerted a formative influence on artists capitalizing the Pre-Raphaelite heritage and forging a distinct perspective of nature and beauty in regional centres (N. England) that appreciate the accurate rendering of domestic and wild animals. This paper focuses on the work of Briton Riviere (1840-1920), J. Wright Barker (1863-1941), A. Hacker (1855-1919), John Collier (1850-1921) and A. Wardle (1860-1942), specifically in their representation of Circe and the mesmerized beasts as a symbolic token of sublimity. The examined paintings respond to established images of the mythical witch during (J.W. Waterhouse) or just before (E. Burne-Jones) her transformative confrontation with Ulysses, habitually identified with the ritual pattern of sacred marriage that facilitated the perpetuation of natural and spiritual fertility through the writings of J.G. Frazer (1854-1941) and J.E. Harrison (1850-1928). By bringing together Darwin’s theory of species affinity and evolution, achievements of Mediterranean archaeology and popular occultist trends (Theosophy), the pictorial compositions in questions seem to constitute a worthy and neglected case study of defining the sublime in Victorian art.

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