Sunday, 17 July 2011

Breaking with the Baroque

'By the middle of the eighteenth century, there were signs that the appeal of graphic violence in Catholic Baroque culture was waning. Popular culture never lost its fascination with violence and crime, and the decrease in the number of public executions within the Habsburg realms cannot be taken as evidence that the public was less interested in these spectacles, rather, it demonstrated that the central government was starting to take a different view of public displays of physical punishment. What had changed was the sense of simultaneous distancing and identification with the sufferer that had characterized the Baroque encounter with violence. The distancing had originally made it possible to view animal baiting, or even the execution of a criminal, without the on-lookers experiencing any stirrings of empathy toward the sufferers, but curiosity or pleasure instead. Yet the pious Catholic also identified with the sufferings of saint or martyr because of the different moral context in which the torments were inflicted. Suffering of ordinary mortals or of saints, like the suffering of Jesus, could produce positive results for the sufferer or for others. Suffering blocked out the less important day-to-day world, and a meditation on denial and suffering invited the participant to enter another world where closeness to God was the reward for the act of distancing oneself from the material. The promoters of the Enlightenment did not share this view, but were much more concerned with the possibilities of happiness being achieved through less painful and non-supernatural means.

The breakdown of this seeming fusion of what appear to be polar opposites, empathy and distancing, was further fostered by a more dispassionate and analytical view of the body, in particular, the human body. The anatomical Wachsenpräparaten created in the 1780s for the Josephinum, the surgical institute established in Vienna by Joseph II, are the clearest demonstration of the break with the Baroque in the Habsburg world. Although their postures and the tasseled pillows on which some of them are displayed are reminiscent of the waxen figures in Baroque reliquaries, these figures are guardians of a mystery with no theological or moral implications. They are instead aids to instruction at a state-supported school that teaches a practical skill imparted by a scientist rather than a priest, where no clergy are employed and whose every detail bears the mark of enlightened despotism.'

According to Dr. Paul Shore, St. Louis University, in The Eagle and the Cross: Jesuits in Late Baroque Prague (Saint Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2002), p. 50-1.

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