Iconic Presence. The Evidence of Images in Religion

Iconic production differs significantly across religious traditions, and yet it still relies on similar patterns that emerge through comparison. Iconic presence is first and foremost an investigation into how humans engage with images in practice, as Hans Belting demonstrates in his book Bild-Anthropologie (2001, An Anthropology of Images). The current project draws from both the histories of religious images as well as modern episodes in art history. Through a multidisciplinary approach, the example of Europe can be integrated into a broader anthropology of human engagement with images.
Hans Belting: Iconic Presence. The Evidence of Images in Religion (extensive description of the project in English)

Partner Institutes and Research Projects

1. Center for Literary and Cultural Research
Head Researcher: Sigrid Weigel
Associate Researcher: Johanna Abel
Collaborative Partner: Martin Treml

Iconic and Real Presence. Mediation in Religions

Iconic presence is presence in and as a picture. The physical presence of a picture (its mediality) indicates the symbolic presence that it depicts. In the context of religion and iconic ritual, the person pictured shares a specific kind of presence that bodies also possess. At the same time, the picture attests to an experience of absence. Iconic presence marks this temporal and constitutive absence insofar as the picture transforms absence, without negating it, into another sort of presence. In religious practices, iconic presence will on occasion assume an actual presence as, for instance, with reenactment performances of divine apparitions, in which the picture itself not only plays a role, but practically determines the course of events.

In more general terms, pictures in religious practices fulfill a desire for real presence, a presence that the pictures themselves evoke. The ›here and now‹ of the picture makes it possible to experience real presence through the senses. Rituals center on images that in turn appear as objects of ritual practices. Religious studies scholars refer to these practices collectively as mediation (B. Meyer 2014).

Corpus Christi plays and corporeal presence: the Hispanic auto sacramental in the mirror of an anthropology of images
Johanna Abel

The project is focused on Corpus Christi plays and their iconology from the baroque period in Spain (1600–1700). In these autos sacramentales, the sacrament of the Eucharist was put on public display in a multimedia spectacle. In their special mix of theology and poetry, the allegorical drama texts demonstrate how literary means generated presence in addition to ritual practices and imagery. While religious images were carried around in the Corpus Christi procession preceding the plays, their poetical conceptos were afterwards animated on stage as speaking and bodily performing allegories. The representation strategies of ritual and theatre to create live presence can be described as mediation. In this way the question can be discussed, how the production of iconic and stage presence and of Eucharistic real presence potentiate each other and whether they enter into competition.

At the centre of the analysis are three specific plays that demonstrate how embodied allegorization works on different levels of representation. The sources to be employed will be the drama texts, their ‘appearance reports’ (memorias de apariencias) documenting the effects of ‘presence machines’, and further archive material on pre-modern stage practice. Characteristic for the second phase of Spanish Golden Age, art and poetry ‑ especially painting and theatre ‑ were harmoniously fused (Curtius 1936). Calderón de la Barca, the most influential theologist writing religious theatre, borrowed numerous metaphors and concepts from painting and an “index pictorius” of his works is still a significant gap to be filled. Using the example of the Calderonian auto sacramental The true God Pan (1670), the tropes and mechanisms of spatialization are to be explored in the sense of a poetics of transubstantiation. Linguistical and dramatical means like prefiguration, incorporation in personae dramatis (i.e. La Idolatría) or the trans-mutation of images on stage, e.g. the picture of a lamb turning into a statue of the Immaculate Conception, are but some forms of sacramental representation the project aims to systematize.

Through Spain’s colonial expansion to the Americas and Asia, the iconicity of transubstantiation in Spanish feast and theatre culture became part of a worldwide image programme as a ›figure of the European‹. The classical auto sacramental The Divine Narcissus (1689) by Novohispanic author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz shows the global impact of the genre, taking the Eucharist as an opportunity to reflect transcultural image questions in general. The desire of images as the result of the absent body, image cult instauration to maintain the memory of a given symbolic heritage, the power of images and the changing order of sacrifice expressed in new images are all issues Sor Juana negotiates in her play through a performative imagology, and serve as theoretical parameters for the project.

In both works, the recurring metaphors for doubling, blurring and overlapping all aim to grasp enhanced perception. They have their predecessor in Lope de Vega’s auto sacramental The precious Pearl (1616). A complex and well documented set of stage props and mechanics show how the material culture of religious theatre used copies of the liturgical objects like the chalice and the host in ingenious ways to illustrate, transfer and train hermetic visionary experience. While Eucharistic presence turns bread into an invisible body, theatrical presentation by Lope turns the bread into a white flower inverting the colours of monstrance and host, further transfiguring its plain centre into the three-dimensional Pearl (Matthew 13: 45) that is to be obtained by the Merchant of Glory, the protagonist of his religious drama. How does the body of Christ appear on stage? By means of the three works, this project differentiates if, when and in which forms the sacralized body of the Christ figure and respectively the real bodies of the actors appear and approximate to the bodies of the public.


2. Center for Advanced Studies BildEvidenz. Geschichte und Ästhetik, Freie Universität Berlin
Chair: Klaus Krüger
Research Associate: Henry Kaap
Affiliated Researcher: Friederike Wille

Art and Religion in the Renaissance. The Case of Venice

The Mobile and Transregional Artist: On the Aesthetic Structure of Lorenzo Lotto’s Altar Pieces
Henry Kaap


3. Centrum raně středověkých studií (Center for Early Medieval Studies), Masarykovy Univerzity Brno
Head Researcher: Ivan Foletti
Research Associate: Zuzana Frantová

Walking to Places with Living Images

The Christian world worshipped what are in a way possessed images which performed miracles and played their role in the liturgy. From Rome to Fatima and to Constantinople such images »walked« across the public, urban space. Attention will be given to the phenomenon of the activation of static images which performed as a result of mediation and invited the movement of the viewers to meet them, especially in the context of pilgrimage. The presence of a holy place appears first as an idea and as a goal to be reached. Gradually, across a theatrical landscape, the pilgrim started to recognize images that were present (and virtually lived) at a sacred place. The moving pilgrim thus gave life to static objects, which took part in the dynamism of the movement as such. In this sense, an immobile image became – in the pilgrim's experience – a local icon that attracted ritual performance on the spot and turned into a living image existing in space (the site) and time (the pilgrim's visit), as formulated by Alexej Lidov (Lidov 2009, cf. also V. and E. Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture).

Repetitive images of pilgrimage churches: workshop praxis or rhetorical strategy?
Zuzana Frantová

See also:
Balzan Prize 2015 for Hans Belting

Ill. above: Francisco de Zurbarán, Santa Faz 1631, Nationalmuseum Stockholm (detail), in: Hans Belting: Das echte Bild. Bildfragen als Glaubensfragen, München 2006, 121.

Interdisciplinary Research Project funded by the International Balzan Prize Foundation 2015–2018
Head researcher(s): Hans Belting (Prizewinner and Head Researcher)


Logo der International Balzan Foundation


Interner Workshop
08 Mar 2019 · 11.00 am

Image and Performativity in Iconic Presence

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Seminarraum 303

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10 Jul 2018 · 6.15 pm

Hans Belting: BildPräsenz und Präsenz im Bild

Freie Universität Berlin, Kolleg-Forschergruppe BildEvidenz, Arnimalle 10, 14195 Berlin

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28 Nov 2017

Johanna Abel: From Ritual to Theatre. Spanish Corpus Christi-plays between procession and stage

Center for Early Medieval Studies, Masaryk University, Veveří 470/28, 602 00 Brno (CZ)

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Workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin
19 Jan 2017 – 20 Jan 2017

Iconic Presence, Real Presence and Sacred Art

Freie Universität Berlin, various venues

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