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Phenomenological Anachronism

Jenny Slatman, Tilburg University & Maastricht University

In this paper, I would like to provide an analysis of a visual work of art that can do justice to both
its historical dimension and the experience of a contemporary beholder. As such, this analysis
will be based upon a well-determined “error in chronology”, or at least, a well-determined
“confusing of chronology”. Normally, such an anachronistic approach is considered to be a
cardinal sin for historians and has to be avoided by all means. From the perspective of a historian,
historical sources and works have to be interpreted against the background of their historical
contexts and categories, and not on the basis of contemporary experiences, feelings or
conceptions. We would do no justice to history if we project our present at something historical.
Indeed, it would be absurd to provide a historical interpretation of, for instance, images of nudes
on Greek amphora, stemming from the 5th century BC, on the basis of our contemporary
conception of pornography. The (art) historian may not neglect or falsify chronological relations.
I would like to show here, however, that a historical work should not be interpreted exhaustively
by a strict historical, i.e. non-anachronistic, interpretation. As aptly argued by the art historian
David Freedberg “Art history deprives objects of their most violent effects, and of the strongest
responses to them… it makes them anodyne”(Freedberg 1989: 348). There is more to a historical
work of art than its history. If we consider a historical work not merely as a fait accompli with a
certain historical meaning, but also as a work that is still at work and that has a meaning for us –
contemporary beholders – we have to open up the historical and chronological framework. The
disclosure of the “power of images”, their “capacity” to provide a certain action or response
(Marin: 14), requires a certain anachronisation of the method.
The objective of this paper is to give the outline of an anachronistic method with the aid
of some phenomenological principles. At first sight, it might be surprising to draw on
phenomenology in order to develop an anachronistic interpretation of art; for, indeed,
phenomenology was defined first of all as a philosophy of essence, of eidos (Husserl 1913). And


especially in his essay on The Origin of Geometry. What Heidegger writes about the muddy shoes of Van Gogh is not specific for this work. eidos or idea is something eternal.since Plato. without history. 2 . And it is for this reason that we are not surprised when Merleau-Ponty in his Eye and Mind claims that “from Lascaux to our time. but not of a phenomenology of a work of art. 1 The essence is something that always remains the same. tried to develop a conception of the eidetic –ideal objectivity –that is based on historicity. This general statement about art ignores every historical context. If we want phenomenology to be a method of interpretation that can account for the historicity and particularity of a certain work –instead of being a method that claims to unveil the essence of art in general – we have to make clear that phenomenology can be applied to a particular work of art. we see that the rigid idea of something like the essence of art prevents phenomenology to supply interpretations that takes into account the particularity of a certain work. They both interpret art from a phenomenological (and hermeneutic) perspective. figurative or not. since it counts for all kinds of paintings that represent rural life. I will therefore propose a phenomenological method that remains close to the historical facts such as they are described by the art historian. development and content. But if we look closely to these texts. To say it in a rather disrespectful way. and that reduces all painting to the abstract idea of an “enigma of visibility” can be characterized as “a-historic” or “anti-historic” (Haar 1992: 104. we might wonder whether these phenomenologists really talk about the art works in question. If we look at two famous examples of phenomenologist who interpret a work of art. 109). Both claim that the Being of a work of art teaches us something about Being in general. these analyses only provide an illustration for ontology. And Merleau-Ponty’s observations concerning space in Cézanne’s paintings can be applied to most of modern painting. I am inclined to say that the work of art is here only used as an example within an ontological theory. because the main principle of phenomenology consists of the suspension of all facts. style. Phenomenology thus seems to provide an a-chronistic approach instead of an anachronistic one. Such a conception of phenomenology might seem rather contradictory. painting celebrates no other enigma but that of visibility” (Merleau-Ponty 1961: 127). The examples I think of are Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh in his The Origin of the Work of Art and Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of Cézanne in Eye and Mind. pure or impure. These are examples of a phenomenology of art. respecting the historical facts of such a work. Despite the fact that Merleau-Ponty’s analyses of art do not seem very useful for 1 We have to add here that Husserl in his later work.

it stands for a description of art that concentrates on the content. As we know. Since this pictorial aspect could be ignored easily if we would limit our description to a historical iconography. I will use the term “iconography”rather according to its general meaning. in the phenomenological sense. that which exceeds the image as representation. I will make a difference between a historical iconography and a phenomenological iconography. an additional phenomenological description is required. The Intentional Analysis of a Work of Art Even though phenomenology cannot be separated from ontological questions. Since the work of Erwin Panofsky. an analysis of the intentional relation between beholder and work. iconicity refers to a certain “aspect”of the image. that iconicity can be discovered. What I find one of the most important things in his phenomenology is that he shows that the phenomenological reduction cannot exclude all facts. but always remains indebted to the facts that it wants to suspend (Cf. And it is especially in this intertwinement that we find its fruitful anachronism. But since the image can be considered from different angles. It is especially this movement between the bracketing of facts and their release that I will put into operation in my interpretation of an artwork. instead of aspects of style and form (Panofsky 1955: 26). Since my aim is to take into consideration seriously the factual and historical dimensions of a 3 . Phenomenology cannot be a pure eidetic phenomenology. Although this Panofskian sense of the term is prevailing in contemporary art history and criticism. It is my intention to show that although these two forms of iconography have to be distinguished. Furthermore. I will call my anachronistic “method” an iconography. Slatman 2003). which we may call the “non-representable”. I will start with the question of the constitution of meaning instead of questioning the being of a work. I will nonetheless base my anachronistic method on some aspects of his phenomenological theory. the term “iconography”means nothing else than the description (graphia) of the image (eik n). in this paper. i.e. the latter unveils the meaning (Sinn) of a work based on the intentional relation we may have with the work. and even though a work of art has always an ontological meaning. My aim is to provide a description of an image in which I will focus on both its content and form. It is through an intentional analysis.developing a phenomenology that can account for historical dimensions. they also intertwine. Whereas the first provides a description of facts from a historical point of view. however.

As Sartre argues. 2 Jean-Paul Sartre (1943) has provided a pertinent phenomenological description of shame. toward the experience of the beholder. As I observed the painting my eyes met a beautiful. In my paper. 4 . I take the experience of shame as a starting point and would like to investigate how such a subjective experience can help us with a historical reading of the painting. scantily dressed young man. My analysis of this work takes its point of departure in aesthetic experience. I will thus focus on the way in which the work affects the beholder. It can evoke a lot of other subjective experiences. I felt a bit like a shameful voyeur. The work I will discuss here is Antonello da Messina’s Saint Sebastian (1475). it is not necessary that this painting affects everybody with the feeling of – and not to speculate about the essence of art in general – I will limit my analysis to just one work of art. I felt ashamed. When I saw Antonello’s Saint Sebastian for the first time. But although this experience forms the starting point of the analysis. This approach implies that we first suspend the facticity of the work in order to guide our investigation toward consciousness. immediately forms the center of my visual field. we will see that this does not lead to a purely subjective interpretation of the work. shame is an intentional experience instead of a psychological state of consciousness that is enclosed in itself. it was not this almost naked man in itself that struck me so much. I felt a bit embarrassed when I realized that my gaze had been automatically directed toward the man’s genitals. According to him. Sartre illustrates this with a famous example: when I am peeping through a keyhole I feel ashamed the moment I hear footsteps in the hallway. Before explaining pictorial facts. when I am shamed I am ashamed of myself. Before studying the historical and pictorial details of this work let us consider here what the phenomenological meaning of this affection might be. In the same way that every consciousness is consciousness of something –which is the phenomenological definition of intentionality – being ashamed is always being ashamed of something. accentuated by the shadow at the groin. It is based on the presupposition that there is someone who can see me. which is “being for the other”(Sartre 1943: 221). But still. Shame thus reveals the gaze of the other – even if there are no real eyes actually 2 Needless to say. Instead of starting with an explanation of specific historical facts – a historical description (or a historical iconography) –let us concentrate first on the way in which this painting affects and ‘absorbs’the beholder. The painting was apparently composed in such a way that the scarcely covered penis. Shame is in essence recognition. It is on the basis of this experience that we can reveal the historical dimension of this work. In fact. By means of the feeling of shame I discover an aspect of my own being. this is a way of practicing the phenomenological reduction.

In general. such as the peeping Tom described by Sartre. especially since the 14th century. phenomenological iconography should be sharply distinguished from historical iconography.watching (Sartre 1943: 259-260). But what does that mean here: “the gaze of the other”? Not the gazes of possible other beholders who watch me while I am watching the painting. I just mentioned that the painting made me feel like a voyeur. that we need to be careful with this expression. Or at least. nearly always have a (homo) erotic connotation. these two forms of iconography do not exclude each other. Merleau-Ponty (1961) characterizes the voyant as an incarnated spectator. And yet. it is now time to open up the brackets and explore what a historical 5 . it makes that I cannot place myself entirely outside the spectacle. images of Saint Sebastian. I belief. No it is the painting itself that watches me. Since this incarnated beholder is herself part of the visible. for a voyeur who looks secretly and who keeps that which she sees for herself or himself does not feel shame. It is not the voyeur who feels shame. Even though this painting of Antonello has not such an outspoken erotic overtone. which means that someone who sees is also been seen. As mentioned above. the term “voyeur” is used for describing the spectator of an erotic scene. As we know. because a genuine phenomenology of the work cannot ignore facts and descriptions such as provided by historical iconography. of the spectacle. however. The intentional analysis of the work makes visible a certain sense of being of the image. It is rather the voyant (seer) who is capable of the feeling of shame. Instead of a frozen and eternal image. In what follows. it appears as what I call a moving image or an eik n. After having bracketed historical facts and context to enlighten shame as a form of intentional consciousness. the seer cannot glue the image. Not being able to place herself outside the spectacle. it means that in one way or another the gaze of the other imposes on me. If Antonello’s painting causes a feeling of shame. My hypothesis is thus that the intentional experience of shame can bring to light the iconic meaning of the image. The intentional relation between the painting and the beholder that constitutes the feeling of shame is based on the fact that the beholder is simultaneously seeing and being seen. It is the painting that makes me – the beholder –a part of the scene. it is not possible to grasp the eidos of the image. Shame only comes into play when we sense that someone else might see us as a voyeur. one might have the impression being a spectator of an exciting scene and thus might have the impression of being a voyeur. I would like to demonstrate that a phenomenological iconography can specify this iconic being of the image.

One could say that this painting is a good illustration of what Alberti called a “window” that opens up to the world (Alberti 1435: §19). in contrast. He received his education in the south of Italy. being turned upon himself. A wall on the other side of the room limits the tiled floor that tends to infinity. painted with quiet simplicity and precision. Saint Sebastian presents us a tension between the extended space of the linear perspective and the disturbance of this space due to the unavoidable presence of Sebastian in the center and foreground of the painting. Standing outside. Hieronymus’space is the private area of his own house. is public. but the space behind these windows no longer belongs to the linear perspective. At first glance. this interior seems to be an infinite space. the south of Italy was subject to cultural influences from Spain. The window creates an opening toward the space in which Hieronymus is sitting. These 6 . Lauts 1940. The edge of the painting is like a window frame. without any baroque additions. between the factual and the transcendental – that constitutes the actual meaning of the phenomenological reduction. The disturbance of the space is in this painting even more worrying than in the case of Saint Hieronymus. the south of France and the Netherlands (Cf. the martyr is exposed in a tiled square. Sebastian's space. but the compelling presence of this person immediately breaks the promise of infinity. Pierced with arrows and tied to a tree.analysis can teach us about this specific work. it is the space that surrounds him while he is quietly reading a book. my analysis will proceed as an oscillation between the opening and closing of the phenomenological brackets. Markgraf 1989). This wall also has windows. Iconography: A Description of Historical and Pictorial Facts Saint Sebastian is one of Antonello da Messina's (1430-1479) later works. Around this square we see several potential witnesses. it is especially this oscillation – oscillation between facts and intentional meaning. A fine example of the combination of Flemish “naturalism”or “realism”and the Italian penchant for the then recently “invented” technique of perspective is the painting of Saint Hieronymus. In the center of this interior space sits a person reading a book. we look inside. Because Naples was under Spanish reign at that time. In fact. In the same way. Antonello is usually seen as one of the few Italian Renaissance painters who knew how to combine the microscopic precision of the Flemish masters with the spatial sensibility of the Italian painters in such a way that he attained a higher harmony in painting. As I will explain in the last part of this paper.

Now we may see the meaning of the contrast between foreground and background. Our erotic gaze enjoys lingering here for a while. This means that when this painting hangs on a wall it forces us to a low level. waiting perhaps for a spontaneous erection that occurs quite often during physical torture. exposes itself explicitly. encouraged by the tiles' motif to travel into the distance. The vanishing point. But it is not only beauty that affirms the pertinent presence of Sebastian: it is first of all his location in space that makes him our eye's target. Greimas 1976). constitute the meaning of a work. Let us examine more precisely the meaning of space in this painting by means of a description of some form elements. is immediately stopped by the martyr's leg. which is clearly outlined in the center of the painting. behind the wall that fences the square. The linear perspective in this painting guides our gaze from a low position toward the area behind Sebastian. do not look very interested in the tortured Sebastian. It is in fact linear perspective that imposes this division in different “layers”of space. I rather see it as a way of completing iconography. We should not forget that this painting is rather big: its height is 171 cm and its width is 85 cm. It is easy to imagine that the combination of these measures with the typical spatial composition of this painting forces the beholder to flex her knees. The strange thing is that the tied young man himself seems to not really be affected by the horrifying torture of the arrows.people. such as foreground-background. let us just concentrate on the relation of different form elements in the painting (Cf. is not behind this wall. Almost inevitably our gaze is guided from the shadowy side of the man's left leg to his penis. this division is formed by the collision of linear 3 According to Greimas a semiotic analysis consists of an analysis of binary oppositions. Semiotics thus concentrates on form. These structural oppositions. Following Greimas’conception of semiotics. His beautiful body does not falter. the beholders. Our eyes gape in admiration at this beautiful body. It is located in Sebastian’s left shin. Then our eyes travel upward across the right side of his beautiful torso. Our gaze. and a background that is constituted by buildings and other persons. For Panofsky. This lack of interest amplifies the pertinence of the tortured body for us. on a formal level. 3 First of all we can distinguish between a foreground. and the fact that it is tortured makes it even more erotic for us. to genuflect in front of this painting. There is an unavoidable beautiful body before our eyes. Instead of opposing semiotics to iconography/iconology. however. This invulnerability makes his sainthood clear. iconography is limited to the content or subject matter of the image. 7 . through the open arches. Firstly. Here we see a striking difference with Panofsky’s conception of iconography/iconology. through the rotation of the body and the subsequent incidence of light. which. however. which is mainly filled by Sebastian and his tree.

I will now clarify this iconicity by turning to a phenomenological iconography. the one who sees tries to capture the visible without being captured herself. In other words. It is also the contrast between the serenity of the saint and the (erotic) excitement of the beholder. We are no voyeurs since we cannot take a bird’s eye viewpoint with respect to the saint. However. His sacredness cannot be objectified. He does not fit within the perspective. As I will explain. To determine the way in which the image as icon exists we have to elaborate on the phenomenon of vision. After all. it can be seen as a sort of one-way traffic. The image as icon has a different “meaning of being”than the image as representation of reality. we beholders are no saints. It is my objective to elevate the outcome of historical iconography to the level of phenomenological iconography. there can also be a form of holiness or sacredness in an image even when there is no saint represented at all. A second and more adequate 4 For a more elaborated analysis of iconicity from a phenomenological view. the latter can pry open some frozen historical connotations. his sacred position prevents us immediately from placing him in the homogeneous space of perspective. First. 8 . it thus expresses a certain “meaning of being”of the image that is seen by the beholder. meaning that there is a subject that sees and a object that is seen. see my article “Phenomenology of the Icon”(Slatman forthcoming). Iconography: A Phenomenological Description of Meaning At stake is thus the phenomenological meaning of iconicity.perspective with the presence of a figure that immediately exceeds this perspective. Even though we have already seen that the phenomenological icon might contain a sort of holiness. I call this form of vision voyeuristic. the division between the two forms of space signifies the opposition between the sacredness of Sebastian and the profanity of the world around him. 4 First of all we have to distinguish the icon in the phenomenological sense from Russian and Byzantine icons. And secondly. it is not simply about images of saints. Vision thus understood implies an opposition between subject and object. It is exactly this non-objectifyable being that I call the iconicity of the image. Vision can be understood in two different ways. In the phenomenological view. Sebastian is too big. Implying an anachronistic approach. the icon refers to the relation between the seer and what is seen. Although the saint’s body might invite us to objectify it with our erotic gaze. on the level of content. our sacrilegious gaze does not succeed in capturing totally the desired image. iconicity refers to the intentional relation between the image and the beholder. In fact.

In that case. It is the condition for the visible. In the view of the gaze. He holds the view that perspective can be considered as being a crossing (croisée) of the visible and the invisible. Marion does not use the term icon to designate a certain form of painting. but I am as a seer also visible. “The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. According to Marion. Through perspective there is an apparent piercing of the gaze. the visible is crossed and hollowed out. the icon is above all a certain “meaning of being” of the image. the 'other side' of its power of looking. constitutes the visible object. I am not just a seer. This invisibility. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize.conception of vision can be found in the late work of Merleau-Ponty. the visible dislocates itself by means of which the invisible becomes operative. but more generally as that which forms the basis of every gaze (Marion 1996: 15). this theory of intentionality is limited. the invisible is no longer constitutive for the visible object. Marion argues that the visible and the invisible can be related in such a way that the invisible “stays”in the visible (Marion 1996: 41). is constitutive for what we see. And this “meaning of being” depends on the relation one has with the 9 . Perspective. As he states. Within perspective. Although he refers to the religious experience that belongs to the tradition of Byzantine icons while exposing his theory of iconicity. for it is also possible that the visible and the invisible cross without constituting an object. The so-called subject of perception cannot oppose herself to the visible world as if they were distinguishable. Since she has and is a body. The gaze loses itself in emptiness. For him. He argues that when I see. In La croisée du visible. It is more adequate to speak of a reversibility between seeing and being seen. It sees itself seeing. This conception of reversibility that stems from Merleau-Ponty's philosophy seems to play an important role in the idea of iconicity that Jean-Luc Marion develops in his La croisée du visible (1996). she is inextricably bound with the visible. Marion examines how to understand the relation between the visible and the invisible. perspective is not seen as the application of a technique in painting. but it is also the condition for something being appropriate for our intentional orientation (visable) (Marion 1996: 15). which means that the idea of a subject-object relation is no longer tenable. such as the phenomenologist Husserl described it. it touches itself touching: it is visible and sensitive for itself” (Merleau-Ponty 1961: 124). which itself is not present as a visible aspect. Here. the emptiness of the gaze. in what it sees. This crossing of the visible and the invisible coincides with the constitution of an intentional object. this is what happens with the icon.

The gaze that looks back disqualifies the beholder from her position of being a sovereign subject that is able to form the image according to her own anticipation or ‘foreseeing’(prévoyance). In short. is not only looking but is also looked upon. This “non-seen”stems from the invisible but does not coincide with it. idolatry stops every form of communication between the one that is seeing and that what is seen. he humbled himself”. What the icon shows cannot be foreseen or anticipated (imprévu). the visible is hollowed or emptied out in order to make the invisible present. 5 This implies a reference to the following passage from the Bible: “For the divine nature was his from the first. The prayer. 6 The name of saint Veronica – the woman who cleaned Christ’s face with a cloth during His Way of the Cross making a print of His face –refers to the image as a true icon: vera icona (Cf. The image as idol depends completely on criteria that the beholder imposes on the image. assuming the nature of a slave. 7 This distinction is constitutive for a great deal of Marion’s work (Cf. 1982). It is the provisional invisible that longs to become visible (Marion 1996: 51). her libido videndi. The following aspects determine the “meaning of being”of the icon. yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God. this distinction between icon and idol is essential for his ontology of the image. the idol is a representational or objectifying image of the world. It disregards the gaze of the other. who looks at an icon. The idolatrous beholder withdraws from the gaze of the other. but made himself nothing. facing the eyes of Christ. Marion distinguishes the voyant from the voyeur. but rather the emptying (kenose) of the divine person. does not see and does not speak. 6 The icon is thus not an image or copy of God: it is not an idol (eidolon). 6-8. Philippians 2. does not really understand (Nancy 2003: 64-65). 10 . For Marion. Mondzain 1996: 238). In order to show their difference in relation to the image.7 Whereas he calls the icon “the presence of a non-object”. In that sense. The voyeur is the idolatrous beholder who puts herself outside the spectacle.5 The very first icon. One might be inclined to cheer it but it won’t respond. Marion 1977. It manifests the “non-seen”(l’invu). He claims that the image as idol does not move. This means that the idol is characterized by visibility and that it can be anticipated and foreseen. revealed in human shape.image. In a recent study on images. aims at stuffing herself “of the most accessible visible”(Marion 1996: 91). Bearing the human likeness. Marion also speaks of the image as a void or as kenose. the print of Christ’s face on the cloth of saint Veronica. Her desire to watch. Jean-Luc Nancy endorses this analysis of Marion. Conversely. was not a figuration or representation of the divine. First of all. In the iconic crossing of gazes. the idolatrous beholder does not really see. there is a crossing of gazes (des regards croisés) comparable to the gaze of the one who prays and Christ’s (Marion 1996: 42).

Iconicity therefore does not constitute the essence of an image in general. But. It demands me to bow my knees. if I thus sense the gaze of the other. I could size up the entire painting at a glance. Given the fact that the beholder is not just a voyeur but herself a part of the visible. Or. that iconicity is not independent of the image’s content or subject matter. can enrich historical analysis. as I have described in the previous section. The gaze of the other is thus something impersonal. Sebastian’s position dethrones my voyeuristic gaze that pretends seeing everything. on the other hand. this does not mean that I perceive someone watching me. If Sebastian were not there. This means. The painting renders us a voyant and not a mere voyeur.Even though Marion refers to the religious experience of praying and even though Antonello’s painting represents a saint. Phenomenological iconography has a more general significance. rather a white farm constituted it outlined against the sky at the top of a little hill (Sartre 1943: 258). the gaze of the other that is manifest in Antonello’s painting has not a personal character. As described for instance very clearly by Sartre and Lacan. It constitutes the “position” of the gaze of the other. In the same way. Sebastian does not even look at me. Sartre describes this in the example of men who hide in the bushes to avoid the gaze of the other. there is no intrinsic relation between the phenomenological sense of the icon and religion tout court. It makes visible that there is something in the image that exceeds the subject-object position. iconicity cannot simply be deduced from a historical description of a work. it is the disturbance of the linear perspective by means of Sebastian’s unavoidable presence that forces me to give up my voyeuristic gaze. on the one hand. Phenomenology and Historical Analysis It is now time to articulate in which way phenomenological iconography. It can even manifest itself by way of a “sardine can” floating on the sea as described by Lacan (1964: 95). What is especially lacking in art historical methods is the analysis of the relation 11 . the gaze of the other is like windows in a street without people in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. If I have the impression of being seen. the invisible is also inscribed in the spectacle. The gaze they were hiding for were not two eyes. There might be paintings without iconic dimension. It is the painting itself that makes me conscious of my position as beholder. Or even better. That what exceeds is more precisely the invisible. We have seen that it takes its lead from certain results of descriptions from an art historical perspective. the gaze of the other not necessarily indicates another person.

this omission has made it possible to interpret Sebastian’s story in an exclusive masculine perspective. What is the main connotation of Saint Sebastian within the history of art? Since the 14 th century.some of them even represent an erection or the penis touched by other people – might be shocking for contemporary beholders. that it is rather easy to misinterpret the meaning of sexual or erotic scenes in historical images. Sebastian. His survival. the dominance of (homo) sexuality in pictures of Sebastian needs not necessarily be based upon the legend of the historical Sebastian. makes visible the way in which pictorial elements can affect the beholder. It is in this way that the phenomenological analysis is capable of freeing the image from its fixed connotation within the history of art. was not so much the result of his own bodily strength. saint Irene. images of this saint nearly always emphasize the nudity of the masculine body. survived this torture. not the position of a voyeur but that of a voyant. i. As some interpreters aptly claim. And conversely. and consequently. Of course. representations (and their interpretations) of this saint are thus dominated by the theme of homosexuality. In fact. These images . to conceive it as a homo-erotic scene (Le Targat 1977: 6). Leo Steinberg. gave the order to punish him by piercing his body with arrows. explains that these images should be interpreted against the background of Renaissance ideas about 12 . it is rather difficult. It is striking that most of the Sebastian’s picture totally ignore the presence of this woman. As we know. There might be other reasons for representing or interpreting sexuality in such a way.e.e. its ungraspable iconicity. Before the Renaissance this was not the case. Since the Renaissance. Steinberg. to recognize in these pictures the “historical”Jesus. for us. Phenomenology. As such. Diocletius. It is capable of putting the image within an anachronistic perspective. however. by contrast. the Roman authority. His analysis focuses on images stemming from the Renaissance in which Christ’s sexual organ is plainly exhibited. i. At least. it was the experience of shame that unveiled our position as beholder. miraculously. for instance. this is rather surprising since the original legend of Sebastian does not refer to this theme at all. it revealed a specific ontological dimension in this image. it shows how a certain affection – such as shame – bestows meaning to an image. It was Irene who rescued him by taking care of his wounds. We might want to interpret them as perverse representations of Christ. however. shows in his The Sexuality of Christ (1983).between image and beholder. In our case. The historical Sebastian was a courageous Christian who rebelled against the Roman regime..

89). which results in the fact that his analysis leaves no room for another experience or response of a (contemporary) beholder. If we follow this line of argument. the so-called homosexuality in Renaissance Italy (Florence) had not so much to do with sexual or erotic preferences. active role. as is the 13 . the painting was removed to another (non-public) place where only men were allowed to look at it (Freedberg 1989: 346-348). 23. and the boys played the passive. makes clear that paintings may arouse (strong) responses that cannot simply be reduced to some theoretical conceptions. who criticizes art history for paralyzing a work by means of rigid historical categories. he reports the story of women in the 16th century who felt sexual aroused by looking at a painting by Fra Bartolomeo that was on display in the San Marco church in Florence. As described in detail by Michael Rocke (1996). According to Freedberg. they were sodomized. we might want to say that. Same-sex relations in the Renaissance were rather called “sodomy”or “pedastry”and were based on strict social roles between male adults and boys under 18 years old. These “carnal”pictures of Christ stress the then prevailing idea of the “humanation” of God. it should be considered as symbolic (Steinberg 1983: 35). and that it is not simply limited to being subject of a homoerotic gaze. He interprets historical images on the basis of historical theological notions. What I find interesting in this specific story is the very fact that it concerns a female response to the work. they sodomized. feminine role. It only came into being in the 18th century. Drawing on a text of Vasari. and the divine erection represents nothing else than Christ’s immortality (Steinberg 1983: 10.incarnation and resurrection. also in the case of Sebastian. According to Rocke. these kind of stories that make visible the various responses to a (historical) work are ignored by art history. It is a good example of making a work of art “anodyne”. David Freedberg. Although Christ’s sexuality and nudity is represented in a realistic way. However. I am not inclined to endorse Steinberg’s approach. It is a fine example of the fact that male nudity and beauty can provoke all kind of sexual or erotic responses. there could be certain symbolic reasons for stressing his homosexuality. The most important reason for this is that he provides a strict nonanachronistic interpretation. homosexuality as opposed to heterosexuality is a sexual practice that did not exist as such in the 15th century. Another reason for being careful in interpreting too quickly Sebastian in terms of a homosexual hero is that the term “homosexual” can very easily be used in a non-productive anachronistic way. After some women had confessed this “sin”. The adults played the masculine.

In other words. and my shame by means of which my voyeurism is exposed. It is based upon a certain intentional relation between image and beholder. What then constitutes the eroticism in this painting? According to a phenomenological interpretation of this work. But. It instead 14 . it is rather the specific position of the body in space than its outspoken nudity or sexuality that is important here. which means that it does right to the historical dimension of a work. Antonello’s painting undoubtedly has a certain erotic sense. Antonello provides us a rather modest picture. This eroticism can barely be reduced to an outspoken represented sexuality. however. can no longer be an eidetic in our present conception of homosexuality. This is the tension between the feeling of dominating the spectacle as voyeur and the feeling of being submitted to the gaze of the painting itself. In so doing.e. for it does not look for the essence of the work of art in general. in an anachronistic way. it means that we have to concentrate on the meaning of shame. phenomenology can make visible a tension within the gaze. If we compare it with other representation of Sebastian. like El Greco’s (1576-79) or Alfred Coumes’(1974) we can even say that Antonello’s Sebastian does not explicitly represent nudity. i. And it is very likely that I am much more vulnerable than Sebastian. the specific erotic meaning of this image is constituted within the iconic reversibility between image and beholder. Within the iconic correlation. that shamelessly desires to watch a poorly dressed body. its iconicity. As we have seen. or the essence of art in general. my sado-erotic gaze that likes to linger on this tortured body is itself struck. as I have suggested above. its dimension of the non-representational – comes to the fore if we concentrate at the interaction between image and incarnated viewer. I would say that the specific “religious”dimension of this picture –its holiness. what is at stake here is a tension between my voyeuristic gaze. In fact. Conclusion Phenomenological iconography relates. It rather was a practice of social construction of male gender identity. Nor is it a specific idea of (homo) sexuality that is needed as background for an interpretation of this work. Such a phenomenology. In the case of Antonello’s Sebastian. I would thus propose to bracket the homosexual connotation of the figure of Sebastian. It is thus not a certain (historical) conception of theology that teaches us something about a specific religious dimension in this picture. as is the case in Steinberg’s interpretation. historical facts to the experience of a contemporary beholder.

while breaking away from its own historical framework. it brackets the entire history and facticity to render the intentional relation between image and beholder. Every work of art that may arouse an experience that is based on a certain reciprocal intentional relation – not necessarily the experience of shame – can be subject of a phenomenological analysis. What I have described above is thus a noneidetic phenomenology. the meaning of a work is not inherent in the work. it is not said that this painting will arouse shame in every possible beholder.reveals the essence as the icon of a singular work. An incomplete reduction. Of course. The only thing that I have explained in this essay is that if this painting arouses a feeling of shame. Even though this double picture of phenomenology might contradict the very idea of phenomenology as developed by Husserl. Needless to say. both eidetic and empirical. Our analysis of Antonello’s Sebastian has made clear that the meaning of this painting depends on the viewpoint of the beholder. “The most important lesson which the reduction teaches us is the impossibility of a complete reduction”(Merleau-Ponty 1945: xiv). It is only in this way that we may understand that a work of art should not be something anodyne. Essential to this phenomenology is its double structure: it is both transcendental and non-transcendental. or no responses at all. According to the phenomenological approach. On the one hand. the iconic meaning of this painting will remain disclosed. can account for the aesthetic experience of a specific work of art. With a reference to Jacques Derrida we can also call it an impure or “contaminated” phenomenology (Derrida 1990: vii). the painting may arouse totally other responses. This specific meaning of this artwork only comes to the fore if we take into account seriously the beholder’s receptivity and the ways in which responses are provoked. it remains within the facticity of the natural attitude. and such a philosophy is not appropriate for analyzing works of art. or more precisely. this (contemporary) experience can reveal an aspect that both exceeds and deepens historical analysis. in contrast. 15 . A complete reduction would imply a philosophy of a pure subject that is opposed to an object. eventually it corresponds exactly with what MerleauPonty has said about the phenomenological reduction in his Preface to his Phenomenology of Perception. The meaning of this painting is described as being iconic and this ontological meaning depends on the experience of shame. In those cases. but rather something that is still at work and that. the position of the beholder as forced by the painting. that leaves room for both historical descriptions and (contemporary) experiences. but originates from the relation between work and beholder. But on the other hand.

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