A small gold-ground panel painting has been brought out of storage and placed upon an easel for my viewing in a curatorial office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this provisional display, at a temporal, geographical, and phenomenological remove from the original display setting (very likely the high altar of the Florentine Cathedral), this painting stimulates reflections about the historical spiritual imagination.
Attributed to the 14th-century artist Bernardo Daddi, the panel presents a clear dioramatic scene of the corporeal torture of third-century martyr St. Reparata, one of the patron saints of Florence and the saint to whom the Florentine Cathedral was then dedicated. Reparata, bared above the waist and bound to a stake, stands stoically, casting her eyes with loving trust upon Christ who appears in the heavens in the upper right. The saint is oblivious to the torture to which she is subjected—the burning of her right breast with a rectangular plate of fire-heated iron. To either side of the saint, fires are stoked and iron heated by laborers carrying out the orders of the Roman Emperor Decius positioned in an open loggia above. Decius communicates to a member of his guard, authorizing the grisly torment, extending his arm out toward the saint, while other members of the imperial guard stand by below.
The Met owns three of the panels that once made up the narrative predella at the base of the altarpiece representing St. Reparata’s torment and martyrdom. This particular panel has evidently been deemed too damaged, too unsightly to merit display in the galleries, in spite of the appeal of Daddi, a follower of Giotto, as an accomplished painter of religious subjects and a supreme storyteller. For someone (or more than one person), not too long after this painting was made, I would argue, took a sharp implement in hand and disfigured the antagonists of the early Christian heroine. The emperor, all three torturers, and the armed guardsmen have been defaced. They have lost the integrity of their painted faces by means of repetitive frenzied slashes and gouges that cut through the paint and gesso layers of the panel. The face in 14th-century Italian painting was a critical locus of expressive and communicative features, of vital sensory organs (eyes, mouth, nose, ears), and of human individuation. These scratched markings visually dehumanize and de-animate the figures, effecting a kind of representational un-making.
There is a second order of disfiguration, a contrapuntal intervention, that required more precise and careful handiwork on the part of the panel scratcher(s). Neat, deep lines cleanly sever the feet of all three men directly involved in the burning of Reparata’s saintly flesh (fig. 5). These dismembering cuts are significant. They inform us that these acts of scratching operated as a form of retributive justice and punishment against the historical individuals who participated in the saint’s torture, people who would have been understood in the 14th century to be “living” their afterlives in the subterranean regions of Hell. Their bodies here have been punished by a hyperbolic heaping of corporeal punishments that were meted out in the Florentine criminal justice system for a range of proscribed acts at the time—decapitation, and the loss of eyes, ears, feet, and hands.
This kind of intentional scratching is, in fact, notably present in panel paintings, particularly in scenes of saintly torment and martyrdom, including works that hang in museum galleries rather than on storage screens. Painting conservators are tasked with concealing such participatory markings (usually described as “vandalism” in conservation reports) in order to make the panel paintings saleable for the market or exhibition-worthy in museum contexts. Close looking, however, rewards the modern-day viewer with insight into an earlier historical form of interactive embodied spiritual engagement with visual art. Scratching interventions made by late medieval and early modern beholders on altarpieces displayed in churches were evidently a licit manifestation of Christian piety and an opportunity for expressing devotional agency.