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Štěpán Vácha

Imaginum elegantia. K estetické působivosti náboženského obrazu v českých zemích v 17. a 18. století

While the quality and European significance of Czech baroque art is unquestioned amongst art historians, the contemporaries for whom such works of art were created are not presumed to have possessed any deep aesthetic appreciation. Sacred images, viewed in fusion with baroque religiosity, are usually interpreted as having served only as tools of religious practice or as a medium of social communication or social representation. In the process of the inception and reception of this kind of instrumentalised image, other subjects are assigned rather the role of a conformist executor of a patron’s commission (the artist) or of a devout onlooker (the viewer); their aesthetic dispositions are of no interest. This study, which draws on the interpretive methods developed by Pamela Jones and Gabriela Wimböck, examines the response of the baroque-era public to religious art, and demonstrates that the aesthetic quality of an image (‘elegantia imaginum’) was indeed of importance. Information on this can be drawn from reports of worshippers’ responses to painting decorations in churches or to sculptures displayed in the public space (e.g. Charles Bridge). The issue is also examined from other perspectives: By what means in that period did a ‘work of art’ become a ‘devotional image’? Was this transformation spurred by the mass popularity of such work (in conjunction with the performance of miracles) and a targeted campaign, or by the reputation of a painter and the artistic treatment of themes? In connection to religious painting, there is further evidence how highly esteemed an artist was. He often sat on the committees that assessed the authenticity of supernatural phenomena observed in devotional images, and his piety and religious identity could serve as criteria by which an image became the subject of critical assessment. Sacred images were sometimes resistant to intervention from the artist, other times the creative act itself prompted the artist’s religious conversion. The modern concept of the sacred image, which derived its status from the tension in meaning between two different concepts, the traditional concept of the cult object (imago) and the early modern concept of the work of art (pictura), lost validity at the end of the eighteenth century, when religious art, divested of its aureole of sanctity, became also an object of scholarly (art-historical) interest.

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