Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2024
Adam Jasienski Praying to Portraits: Audience, Identity, and the Inquisition in the Early Modern Hispanic World University Park: Penn State University Press, 2023. 232 pp.; 50 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. $119.00 (9780271093444)

Charles V never rode his horse into the 1547 battle of Mühlberg. Instead, he spent his time during that conflict on a litter suffering from gout. But Titian’s triumphal equestrian portrait of the king betrays no hint of weakness—physical or otherwise. The monarch sits aloft on a decorous steed, clad in armor, serenely looking beyond the picture plane. He exerts complete control over his horse, his body, and, of course, the spiritual purity of his kingdom (Mühlberg was a decisive victory over Protestant rebels). Politics and religion obliquely congeal in this homage to the king’s might. Nevertheless, it remains a false portrait, a depiction of a moment that never happened. While Adam Jasienski’s impressive monograph Praying to Portraits: Audience, Identity, and the Inquisition in the Early Modern Hispanic World does not address Titian’s painting of Charles V directly, it nonetheless provides a robust new framework for navigating the manifold tensions—between spirituality and selfhood, truth and invention, the particular and the universal—raised by images such as this, and which undergirds so much of early modern Hispanic portraiture.

Jasienski’s approach to portraiture in the early modern Spanish imperium is at once capacious and nuanced. He constructs and analyzes a corpus of what he terms “sacred portraits,” artworks that transcend divides between portraiture and religious painting. Jasienski skillfully guides readers through the gray zones of this artistic world, where profane iconic images could become sacred vessels. His argument is clear: “the early modern portrait—any early modern portrait—could become a sacred image” (2). As Jasienski reveals, early modern viewers (including demonic-possessed nuns from Madrid, Italian theologians, Zapotec insurgents, and, yes, even the king of Spain) saw portraits as rife with mutable potential that allowed them to mediate between different spheres of sacred and profane, secular and spiritual.

The early modern Spanish empire stretched from Madrid to Manila, and Jasienski attends to its impressive diversity through a range of visual and literary sources. In these pages, court painters, theologians, and art theorists converse with poets, playwrights, and above all, inquisitorial prosecutors. Indeed, he draws with particular frequency from Inquisition records, shedding light on art historical debates that took place between people of different social and ethnic statuses. “It was the censors,” Jasienski notes, “who revealed themselves to be some of the most astute viewers and critics of images, both religious and profane” (10). The Inquisition serves as an effective thread that helps connect the geographies and themes Jasienski traverses in this wide-ranging book.

In four chapters, Jasienski showcases the ubiquity of sacred portraiture in the early modern Spanish empire, analyzing it based on type. Chapter one, “Sacrificing the Self,” examines the moral ambiguity of “sanctified portraits” (also referred to as “portraits a lo divino”) that portray secular individuals as religious figures. Such images appear at odds with central tenets of Catholicism in which righteous humility is exemplified through the rejection of temporary earthly flesh in the pursuit of eternal heavenly reward. In other words, sanctified portraits—such as an early seventeenth-century painting of Margarita of Austria in the guise of the Virgin Mary—might appear more vain than virtuous. What could be less modest than an earthly Spanish queen aligning herself with heaven’s equivalent? But Jasienski challenges these interpretations, and others that claim royal examples of the portrait a lo divino visualize the Spanish Crown’s divine right to rule. Unlike their English and French counterparts, Spanish rulers neither promoted nor performed sacred kingship either ritualistically or symbolically. Jasienski, instead, approaches sanctified portraits as objects of devotion, focusing on their intended viewership and intimate context. Sitting in front of a sanctified portrait, patrons such as Margarita engaged in the spiritual and mental labor of self-abnegation, looking past her likeness to dissolve her selfhood into the universal communion of Christ.

Just as individuals were painted to look like saints, so too were saints painted to look like individuals. Such visual strategies, Jasienski argues, bolstered the artworks’ claims to veracity, divine presence, and mediating power. Chapter two, “True Portraits, Lying Portraits,” traces how images of saints laid claims to, legitimized, and even challenged conceptions of truth—both moral and political. Miraculously created images of Christ exemplified true portraiture and became the rubric by which early modern church officials evaluated portrayals of saints. Jasienski examines three case studies—the sixth-century saint Benedict of Nursia, the fifteenth-century Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola, and the sixteenth-century Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila—to reveal the roles that affect, authority, reproducibility, and beauty all played in verifying likeness. In approaching the last of these themes, Jasienski engages gender not only as an object of study but also as a lens for analysis. Unlike their male counterparts whose individualized, even unflattering, traits were captured as “virtuous imperfection[s]” (73), female saints, such as Teresa or Rose of Lima, often appeared with generic features that elided identifying markers like warts and wounds, respectively.

Nevertheless, individuated portraits of saints humanized heavenly bodies in ways that fostered devotion while also stoking new anxieties. Chapter three, “Repainting Portraits,” outlines how viewers, artists, and theorists alike understood and activated portraits’ plasticity—and the dangers that such activation entailed. Jasienski argues that visual manipulations indexed and ignited ontological transformations, turning secular portraits into religious icons. In the Escorial, the addition of a bejeweled crown and nails transformed a friar’s mother into Saint Helen, while the addition of angelic wings on a portrait of Juan de Palafox y Mendoza converted the bishop of Puebla into a divine being. A secular portrait functioning as a sacred object raised alarm bells for Inquisitors—who feared that newly converted populations, such as the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, would idolatrously revere the images themselves rather than their celestial prototypes. For instance, a 1651 Inquisition case regarding cultic devotions to Palafox reports that Nahuatl speakers owned portraits of Palafox. The extant written record does not explain how these Indigenous viewers understood the sacred portrait’s nature and power. Here, Jasienski shines in his careful conjecture, drawing on Nahua linguistics and religious practices to outline the range of responses that portraits could engender. His conclusions on the concept of “originality” are instructive not only to students of early modernity, but to art historians and conservationists more broadly. “Focusing on repainting as merely a hindrance to perceiving a picture’s original appearance,” Jasienski writes, “is to overlook important aspects of the painting’s social life, of historical practices of perception, and of the interactive and haptic forms of engaged looking that repainting represents” (109).

In his final chapter, “Portraits as Sacred Images,” Jasienski analyzes how iconography, viewership, context, and display together rendered portraits of the Spanish monarchy ambiguous, and could even threaten their power. Royal portraits and religious artworks, he writes, functioned in similar ways (125). Both were expected to elicit reverential responses, both were understood to index presence of beings enthroned elsewhere, and both were displayed in similar ways. Jasienski focuses on the importance of framing elements—above all, the baldachin—in signifying the royal status of a portrait’s subject especially in the Americas. Without the pomp of procession, the cloth of honor, the platform, and the canopy, a portrait of Charles V was, at best, vulnerable to misrecognition and, at worst, threatened with physical destruction. Jasienski’s expansive analysis, anchored by case studies from 1647 Naples and 1660 Tehuantepec (in what is today the state of Oaxaca), provides a rich theoretical contribution to studies of the “frame,” drawing into question the conceptual limits of a portrait’s objecthood.

The book concludes with historiographic reflections that sketch how modern art historical taxonomies and their accompanying valuations scrubbed portraiture of its spiritual qualities and confined it to the secular realm. Jasienski correctly writes that his analysis of portraiture and sacred art, while confined to the Spanish imperial world, can apply to examples in other corners of Europe including England, Italy, and Poland. In particular, Jasienski’s use of Inquisition records exemplifies the potential of this rich documentary collection to function as an early modern art historical archive. Praying to Portraits offers a model for how to navigate the shifting limits of art historical categories in what scholars have come to see as an increasingly fluid early modern world. But the methodological insights he distills are no less important for scholars working outside early modernity. Anyone concerned with questions of diverse (and even contesting) viewership, mutability in and of art, and mediations between the religious and the modern, will profit from Jasienski’s book. Guided by his insights, we can return to even so familiar a work as Titian’s equestrian portrait of Charles V and see it from a fresh perspective.

Nathalie Miraval
Yale University