Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Visual Arts


Glabush, Sky.


Abstract: The Medieval Genesis of a Mythology of Painting.

Author: Colin Dorward

Principal Advisor: Sky Glabush.

Advisory Committee: Dr. Kathryn Brush, Patrick Mahon.

This dissertation attempts to enrich awareness of the late antique and early medieval preconditions of art which fortified today’s capacity for painted representations to fulfill a demand for the presence of absent individuals, such as in the case of portraiture. Chapter one contextualizes this program of research in terms of my practice as an oil painter, where figuration plays a prominent role. Key aspects of my studio work are introduced, such as my commitment to working from observation, as well as more current methods where figuration is achieved through the accumulation of successive layers of paint. A selection of my paintings is analysed to illuminate interconnections between the studio practice and the program of historical research.

Chapter two presents a historical survey of concepts and events which contributed to a mythology asserting painting’s capacity to evoke the presence of missing individuals. The study begins in antiquity with key Old Testament sources that were to become vital in the formulation of Christian dialogue of representation. Next, the emergence of images in the Christian Church is reviewed and then brought to bear against a crisis of images which occurred in eighth and ninth-century Byzantium, known as the First Iconoclastic Controversy. In this complex political moment, the image’s efficacy as an aid to devotion and ability to present the divine was called into question. The iconophilic factions who eventually became the chroniclers of these debates incorporated a special type of image (that had already been in development for some four centuries) in their dogma. These legendary images, the so-called achieropoieta, were not made by human hands. Instead, they were of divine origin, usually formed by direct contact with a holy person (especially Christ, who left no corporal remains). The history of the prototypical acheiropoieta, known as the Image of Edessa, which first appeared in fourth-century legends, is closely examined. The survey of the acheiropoietic visage concludes with the surviving Mandylions of Christ, which are of uncertain origin, but nevertheless represent our closest link to what had become the preeminent portrait of Christ by the end of the first millennium.

At the core of this study lies the proposal that medieval traditions of imaging Christ fortified painting’s potential to evoke the presence of one who is not there, a condition of the medium which today feels axiomatic. In light of this proposal, chapter three looks beyond images of Christ, and an ancillary tradition, which commenced as the Image of Edessa entered its twilight at the beginning of the second millennium, is examined. It was then that a new kind of picture was introduced to the Christian milieu: that of the common-man who had died, but then returned to interact with the living, as a ghost. Like the visage of Christ which typically required the material substrate of a cloth to make its miraculous appearance, ghosts were also made visible by a piece of fabric, which in this case was their final vestment: the burial cloth. Following an examination of this iconographic continuity, a conclusion is offered in the presentation of a peculiar, and perhaps humorous, modern collision of the parallel iconographies of Christ and the ghost.

Included in

Painting Commons