Mitchell B. Merback
Department of the History of Art
Gilman Hall 181
The Johns Hopkins University
3400 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
Over the course of two decades as an art historian, my fields of interest and expertise have continued to evolve, as have my approaches to historical explanation and interpretation. Encouraged during my graduate days at the University of Chicago to keep one foot planted in the Middle Ages and the other in the Early Modern period, I have worked largely on German, Central European, and Netherlandish art and architecture of the period stretching from circa 1300 to 1550. The issues raised by Christian devotional and cultic imagery, especially during times of conflict, contestation, reform, and transformation, and the problem of art and violence, have always been leading preoccupations, directing me sometimes to case studies of paintings, at other times into the domain of prints; sometimes I lean toward works of demonstrable aesthetic value, other times I find myself traveling into the hinterlands of material culture and non-art, spectacle and performance. My first book, The Thief the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Chicago, 1999), focused on the intersections of late medieval Crucifixion imagery and the bloody rituals of criminal justice staged in town squares across Europe until the eighteenth century, and considered the impact these dramas of redemptive suffering had on the sensibilities of contemporary spectators.
Even before The Thief appeared in print a second project was underway, this one focused on the role played by anti-Jewish myths, accusations, and persecutions in the formation of a specific type of pilgrimage shrine: churches dedicated to Christ's Holy Blood (Heilig Blut) and especially its miraculous appearance when the Eucharist suffered attack. Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria (University of Chicago Press, 2013) culminates a decade-long engagement with the changing dynamic of Jewish-Christian relations in the German empire between the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the outbreak of the Reformation. In the book I devote close attention to the reverberations of intergroup conflict and persecutory mythmaking through religious culture generally, through the expanded culture of associational worship we call pilgrimage, and the forms of visual culture peculiar to it. Among several articles drawn from this project, one published in the Art Bulletin in 2005 received the Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize that year. Another contribution to understanding art's multifarious roles in the Christian-Jewish encounter came with a volume I edited in 2008, Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture (Brill, 2008).
Currently I am at work on several projects. One of them, tenatively titled Radical German Renaissance: Art, Dissent, and Freedom in the Era of Reform, concerns the careers of several painter-printmakers whose lives intersected in fateful ways with the radical religious movements unleashed during the early Reformation. Generously supported by fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Clark Art Institute, and the American Academy in Berlin, this project bore its first fruit in a lengthy article published in Renaissance Quarterly (Winter 2010), devoted to themes of paradox and the will's freedom in Sebald Beham's later art. In the meantime I have also been developing projects devoted to the changing character and function of that quintessential devotional image, the imago pietatis, or "Man of Sorrows"; as well as embarking on an investigation of "recognition" -- at its origins a concept from Aristotelean poetics -- as a theme and meta-theme of spiritual transformation in Christian art. Another new project, launched in 2013, will be devoted to the visual poetics of gift and mercy, core themes found in the carved altarpieces and wall paintings of a number of late Gothic chapels in the Austro-Italian Tyrol.
Before coming to Johns Hopkins in 2008 I taught at DePauw University in Indiana for fifteen years. Given the opportunity to teach broadly across the curriculum, I devised lecture courses on Romanesque, Gothic, Islamic and Northern Renaissance art, as well as seminars ranging from the history of the Christian devotional image, "Sin, Fear and Death in European Art," the history of Art Criticism in the 20th Century, and the history of Christian antisemitism. With my arrival at Hopkins I have begun developing new courses in German Renaissance Art, Early Modern Dutch and Flemish Painting, Passion iconography, Art and Medicine, and the Methodologies of Art History, as well as graduate seminars on Renaissance engravings, Dürer and Grünewald, the Man of Sorrows, and the art and anthropology of Christian pilgrimage.
Selected Project Links:
"Nobody Dares: Freedom, Dissent, Self-Knowing and other Possibilities in Sebald Beham's Impossible," Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 1037-1105.
Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism, ed. Herbert Kessler and David Nirenberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).