Mitchell B. Merback

Mitchell B. Merback

Arnell and Everett Land Professor

PhD, University of Chicago

Gilman 172

Focusing on German, Netherlandish, and Central European art from 1250 to 1550, my research and writing has converged on a number of key themes in European cultural history: criminal justice and public spectacles; pilgrimage and popular religion; relations between Christians and Jews; religious dissent and reform movements; and, more recently, the intersections of art, medicine, and therapeutic practices for the mind, body, and soul. A more or less constant preoccupation for me has been the phenomenology of the Christian devotional image -- how it works to generate meaning, and how it structures experience within specific contexts of use.

My first book, The Thief the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Reaktion Books, 1999), focused on intersections of late medieval Crucifixion imagery and the rituals of criminal justice, and considered the impact these dramas of redemptive suffering had on the sensibilities of spectators. The cultural history of pain expressions and pain experiences, an inherently interdisciplinary topic, continues to interest me, as do the many shifting perceptions and representations of violence before modernity.

Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria (University of Chicago Press, 2013) analyzes the role played by anti-Jewish myths, accusations, and on-the-ground persecutions in the formation of pilgrimage shrines to the Holy Blood (Heilig Blut) in the Holy Roman Empire before the Reformation. In the book I show how architecture, altarpieces, relics, votive objects, and printed propaganda worked together to shape perceptions of sanctity at eucharistic shrines. Another contribution to understanding art's multivalent role in the Christian-Jewish encounter is a volume I edited in 2008, Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture (Brill, 2008). I continue to write on key aspects of premodern pilgrimage.

My third book, Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (Zone Books, 2017) reopens the casebook on art history's most famous image of creativity in paralysis. Despite a century's worth of inconclusive interpretations, Melencolia still looks to many like a puzzle awaiting a solution. Against this tradition, my book works through the notion that there really is no "Dürer Code" to break -- and goes on to recuperate an overlooked therapeutic potential for images that perplex and, in so doing, exercise the mind.

Currently I am at work on two different projects. Recognitions: The Poetics of Tragic Witness in Northern European Art and Drama, 1250-1550 (working title), is a set of interlinked investigations into the dynamics of narrative disclosure in late medieval and Early Modern art; this work was supported in 2016-17 by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Also in development is Radical German Renaissance: Art, Dissent, and Freedom in the Era of Reform, which revisits the careers of Sebald and Barthel Beham, Nuremberg artists whose lives intersected in fateful ways with the sectarian movement of the early Reformation. Portions of each project have appeared recently in journals such as Renaissance Quarterly, Art Bulletin, and Art History.

Selected Projects 

Pilgrimage and Pogrom: Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria (Chicago, 2013)

"Nobody Dares: Freedom, Dissent, Self-Knowing and other Possibilities in Sebald Beham's Impossible,Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 1037-1105.

The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Chicago, 1999).

“Fount of Mercy, City of Blood: Cultic Anti-Judaism and the Pulkau Passion Altarpiece,” Art Bulletin 87, no. 4 (Dec. 2005): 589-642. 

Beyond the Yellow Badge: New Approaches to Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. Mitchell Merback (Brill, 2007).

Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism, ed. Herbert Kessler and David Nirenberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

"Pro remedio animae: Works of Mercy as Therapeutic Genre," in Peiraikos' Erben: Die Genese der Genremalerei bis 1500, ed. Birgit Ulrike Münch and Jürgen Müller (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2015), 97-124.

"Recognitions: Theme and Metatheme in Hans Burgkmair the Elder's Santa Croce in Gerusalemme of 1504," Art Bulletin 96, no. 3 (Sept. 2014): 288-318.

"The Man of Sorrows in Northern Europe: Ritual Metaphor and Therapeutic Exchange," in New Perspectives on the Man of Sorrows, ed. Catherine R. Puglisi and William L. Barcham (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications / Western Michigan University, 2013), 77-116.