If Kris Martin may be said to have reformulated this legend for our own time,
then one may also identify his own phoenix with those images that, in Wittenberg
five centuries ago, had themselves initially been reduced to ashes, but
were thereafter to rise again, and still have not ceased to attest to their validity.
If Kris Martin may be said to have
reformulated this legend for our own time, then one may also identify his own phoenix
with those images that, in Wittenberg five centuries ago, had themselves initially been reduced to ashes, but were thereafter to rise again, and still have not ceased to attest
to their validity.
© Image Leo Seidel
In the twelfth century it became an annual tradition for penitential preachers to call for the staging, on Ash Wednesday, of a bonfire of the vanities, both as a token of repentance and as a ritual dissolution of the distinction between the rich and the poor. Of particular note here was a concern to remind the members of each congregation of the prohibition of all extravagance in dress; for it was this above all that testified to a prevailing social inequality. But other objects that seemed to attest an intolerable disdain, among the well-to-do, for the requisite frugality would likewise be committed to the flames. Sometimes to be found among these were works of art. The foreground of a painting of around 1480, depicting an episode from the life of the penitential preacher Johannes Capistranus, features just such a bonfire of the vanities, to which are being sacrificed the now spurned tokens of the life of the ruling classes.
In Florence in 1494, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola began to achieve some success in encouraging agitation of this sort in tandem with his fiery demands for ecclesiastical reform. Over the following years this was to issue socio-cultural upheaval in a radical form. When he had succeeded in disrupting Medici control of the city, he was able, in 1497–98, to stage several bonfires that surpassed anything of the sort seen so far. Huge, stepped wooden pyramids were set up in the city’s main square and, inserted all over these, from the base to the top, were all manner of “vanities” – carnival masks and costumes, texts (from Classical Antiquity and the work of contemporary Humanists), every sort of make-up and means of selfadornment, musical instruments, children’s toys, works of art and, finally, depictions of carnival and of the Devil – destined to be consumed by the flames. After his campaign had suffered a good many setbacks, both within and beyond Florence, Savonarola’s rhetoric lost its persuasive power; and, after the advent of a new administrative regime, he and two of his closest companions were executed: first they were hanged, then their corpses were burnt on a pyre erected in that same city square in which the bonfires had only recently been staged.The use and the critique of images The presence of works of art at the very top of such bonfires attests to the particular significance attributed to images. Christianity in its early period was no less marked by a prohibition of images than was Judaism or, later, Islam. The initial prohibition was only to be removed through a highly complex historical process. Of crucial importance throughout was a firm belief that the interaction between an individual and an image encountered in a Christian context consisted not in worship, but purely in contemplation. The difficulty, however, of drawing a clear distinction between such contemplation and instances of idolatry led repeatedly thereafter to the reimposition of forms of prohibition, so as to discourage behaviour that was deemed to be un-Christian, thereby posing a challenge to prevailing practice. Around 1420, the Hussites – followers of the reformist preacher and martyr, Jan Hus – attacked, in a positively declamatory fashion, what they perceived as a pernicious cult of images within the Roman Catholic Church. A century later – and exactly five hundred years ago, in 1522 – the first iconoclastic actions of the European Reformation took place in Wittenberg. Scholars have recently begun to question how far these actions had been consciously and deliberately set in action (as had long been assumed) and how far their impact was exaggerated in order to impart greater significance to Martin Luther’s turn against the iconoclasts. It is, in either case, indisputable that a text by Andreas Karlstadt, printed in 1522, was to prove of considerable importance for the position of Luther himself. A satirical text published in the same year presents Luther as the enemy of the image: on its titlepage he is shown as a jester tending the fire that is already consuming a statue of the Virgin Mary. The more Luther sought to counter this impression, the more readily he was viewed as himself an iconoclast. And yet, in his own sermon against the iconoclasts, he had unambiguously asserted: “Your folly will be apparent to all”.
© Stills from the video footage forming part of Kris Martin, Phoenix St Matthäus, Berlin, 2022
The Judaic prohibition of images that had applied also to the Early Christians was, among the latter, specifically concerned with an avoidance of idolatry; and it did not constrain the other ways in which images might be used. But it was to prove impossible to overcome the nonetheless persisting problem inherent in such a distinction. Of particular significance here was the fact that Christian teaching recognized no absolute contradiction between the soul and the body. Were images to be prohibited, this would eliminate an incomparable means of mediating between the two. It was, therefore, precisely this connection that drew the attention to the radical champions of an undefiled spirituality. Given that it was demonstrably through the organs of sight that individuals accessed images, it was often the eyes, as depicted there, that were pierced or scratched out: the fate of a record of the Mass of Saint Gregory, from Münster, which had fallen into the hands of local Anabaptists. As dramatically rendered in a scene of the iconoclastic actions set in motion by Huldrych Zwingli in Bern in 1524,10 the most effective means of destroying images remained their inclusion among those items destined for addition to a bonfire of the vanities.
THE ASHES AND THE PHOENIX
At first glance, Kris Martin’s video installation might well appear to belong within the tradition of such conflagrations enacted in the name of an enhanced spirituality. But Martin here in fact takes his starting point in a practice that had endured, in all probability, since the twelfth century: the burning of papyrus rolls used during the preceding year and no longer required. Such a form of conflagration, at once poignant and routine, recurs in Martin’s own work in the form of video footage of the burning of items that feature within, or may readily be associated with, the celebration of Holy Communion, among them bread, signifying the body of Christ; the feathers of a dove, incarnation of the Holy Ghost, the burning of which is fraught with particular significance; a fish, as the primal Christian symbol; bundles of human hair, which burn with an uncanny ferocity; and finally two of the pedestals of a bed, as tokens of the site of the three fundamental life-stages of birth, love and death. In view of the religious significance with which each of these objects is here imbued, it would be easy to gain the impression that what Martin intended is a symbolic reiteration of the disturbances of five hundred years ago: the attacks, in Wittenberg, on the means of affirming a connection between spirit and matter, or the excesses of the most radical of the Münster Anabaptists, who found even the physical embodiment of the Holy Scriptures unacceptable and who, accordingly, committed printed Bibles to the flames.Within the video installation at St Matthäus, however, the textual aspects are inscribed to either side of the choir, as if these wall surfaces here represented the foreheads of the faithful, upon which, on Ash Wednesday, a cross would traditionally be smudged with ashes. By this means, the church building itself becomes a visual embodiment of the congregation gathered there. Simply through thus incorporating into his work the wall at the altar end of the nave, Martin achieves a compelling embodiment of its conceptual aspects. But all of these are encompassed within the title: Phoenix. Yet again, one is likely to begin by detecting an intensified thrust towards the spiritual: the transformed ashes have now themselves discarded the visuality of the sign in order to assume the pure intellectuality of the concept. But here the word alludes to that graphic quality that Luther, in repudiating iconoclasm, had termed the prerequisite for every thought. The phoenix, as depicted in the emblem book of Johannes Camerarius, is shown arising, as a creature reborn, out of the flames that had consumed it: “For me death betokens life, / The bird that is born out of itself, by that same means restores itself: dying even as it lives, returning to life even as it dies.”
According to the Physiologus, a bestiary compiled in Alexandria in the Hellenistic era, the phoenix, a bird as beautiful as a peacock and equipped with both a crown and an orb, flies, once every five hundred years, from India to the Lebanon, then on to Heliopolis. There, it is consumed by fire upon an altar and thus reduced to ashes; but, the very next day, it arises from these in the guise of a worm. After a further three days it has grown into a fully fledged bird and, as such, it then flies back to India. If Kris Martin may be said to have reformulated this legend for our own time, then one may also identify his own phoenix with those images that, in Wittenberg five centuries ago, had themselves initially been reduced to ashes, but were thereafter to rise again, and still have not ceased to attest to their validity. Kris Martin’s work thereby takes its place within a tradition in which ashes, as the artist’s medium, are invested with a particular dignity. His conflagration video – notwithstanding the presence of the image of ashes and the notion of the phoenix – cannot be understood as a token of the dissolution of all that is material and corporeal; it attests, rather, to a perpetually reanimated visual embodiment that emerges from its own destruction, by analogy with the Resurrection of Christ.
© Image Leo Seidel
One of Kris Martin’s principal earlier works comprises a hand written text, 1,494 pages in length, which he executed over a period of four months. In producing this, he followed, almost word for word, an English translation (from the Russian) of a preexisting work: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel of the late 1860s, The Idiot. The outcome of this doubtless also deeply meditative exercise was, however, more than a mere copy of the printed text. For, whenever Martin encountered the name of the book’s principal character – the titular “idiot,” Prince Myshkin – he replaced this name with his own. Martin’s own name also appears, almost as if it were an author’s signature, at the very end of the text, on the final page. The term “idiot” was used – by Dostoevsky, and by Martin after him – as it was in its original form, in Greek Antiquity. It signifies one who stands outside human society, refusing to participate in its pervasive insensitivity and malice. The “idiot” of Dostoevsky’s novel has repeatedly been interpreted as an allegory of Christ; but, in Martin’s hand-written copy, the equating of the “idiot” with the artist makes of the artist himself such an allegory. And, with this further step, Martin enters the tradition of the artist as a “second God” (alter Deus), as epitomized in the guarded formulation of Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait. One of the key scenes in the novel is to be found in the fourth chapter of Part II. It features a discussion of a painting produced exactly five hundred years ago, at the time of the iconoclastic upheavals in Wittenberg: the remarkable depiction of The Dead Christ in His Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger, now in the Kunstmuseum in Basel. When Dostoevsky was himself in Basel, in August 1867, and encountered this painting for the first time, he was deeply disturbed by it. The corpse, rendered with a brutal honesty as it lies on a white cloth, tells in every detail of the ordeal and the hopeless isolation of death. As Dostoevsky’s wife later recalled, she had had to drag him away from staring at the painting, for fear that the prolonged sight of it might trigger in him an epileptic fit.
In the aforementioned scene in the novel, Prince Myshkin, when visiting the house of his new acquaintance, the wealthy merchant Rogozhin, is prompted by the presence of an engraved copy of the Holbein picture to remark on the possible impact of suddenly coming upon such a composition: “A man could even lose his faith!” In the longer term, as is revealed by his participation in a further discussion of the Holbein painting, which occurs in chapter 6 of part III, he will persist in seeing this impact as less likely to consist in the negation of a man’s faith in Christ than in an urgent inducement to scrutinize that faith, and perhaps – through the unconditionality of compassion – to reaffirm it. In the eyes of Ippolit Terentyev, a young nihilist who dominates this and the preceding chapter, and who recalls his own encounter with the engraving in Rogozhin’s house, this image, in its defiant omission of consoling aesthetic qualities, leaves one with no option but to recognise the futility of persisting in a belief that even Christ could defy the omnipotence of “dark, insolent” death. It was in much the same fashion that the iconoclastic Wittenberg upheavals of 1522 and Holbein’s painting of that year gave rise to a recognition that it was through its own negation that the image was, as it were, akin to the phoenix. The image in itself, aware of its own ultimate destruction and accommodating that fate within its own formation, was the theme addressed in 1983 by Werner Hofmann in his unforgettable Hamburg exhibition Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst (Luther and his impact on the visual arts). This show argued that the emergence and endurance of modern art in its entirety might be interpreted as a reflection of triumph over the prohibitions of centuries past. In this view, even instances of creative selfdestruction, such as Lucio Fontana’s slit canvases, themselves bore witness to a critical triumph over iconoclasm. Once this had been achieved, a context for the most profoundly contradictory formal possibilities was established – not through what was permitted to images, but through what mastery over their negation had itself allowed.
And yet, in the West, we now find that we are again living in an age of iconoclasm, be it latent or overt. This relatively recent development has emerged in connection with a sense of guilt for wrongs committed in the past, and it is manifest in a contemporary equivalent of destructive “repentance.” One’s first, intuitive reaction to news of the dramatic events in the southwestern English port city of Bristol in June 2020 – the violent removal from its plinth of the statue of Edward Colston, long revered as a local philanthropist, but latterly deplored on account of a close association with the transatlantic slave trade – was more than likely to have been positive, if not altogether approving. This, however, may well have been followed by the shocked recognition that the iconoclasts in this case had, in the impetuosity of their actions, in fact discarded everything that had been learnt and gained since the iconoclastic outrages committed in the 1520s. It is of particular significance that there was barely any discussion of the bronze figure of Colston as the work of the sculptor John Cassidy, or of the possibilities offered by discourse attuned to the critical aspect of political iconology of the sort evolved and established by the work of Martin Warnke. When the greater power of a symbol resides in the contradictions it may be found to contain – Colston the philanthropist / Colston the slave-trader – far more is to be lost than can be gained through a hot-headed refusal to take account of such complexities. In our time barely any symbol is more frequently called into question than the Christian cross. All the more remarkable, then, was Kris Martin’s recent installation Summit, which playfully yet profoundly juxtaposes the sublimity of the mountain peak with the delicate imperturbability of the cross placed upon it as complementary aspects of an imagined landscape no less vulnerable than it is enduring.
© Hans Holbeind.J., Der Leichnam Christi im Grabe, 1521/22, Öl auf Lindenholz, Kunstmuseum Basel
When the cross as a symbol is discussed it is often the case that almost no attention is paid to a fundamental aspect of historical context: the fact that it was initially as a token of suffering that it emerged and was then rapidly adopted around the globe. This is made abundantly clear in a painting of around 1630, in which the world is depicted as an almost impenetrably dense forest and thicket of crucifixes. It is now difficult to convey to those not directly engaged in the debate the extent to which objections raised to the presence of a cross on the dome over the principal entrance of the reconstructed Berlin Stadtschloss that now houses the Humboldt-Forum were the outcome of an almost willful narrowing of vision. In an outstanding essay on this subject, Friedrich Dieckmann was, however, able to show that the cross, in this particular case, could by no means be associated with an apparently dictatorial form of rule, for it implicitly placed all those wielding temporal power under the authority of the inscription that the dome also bore. The three Founding Directors, for their part, had proposed that the large lettering created by the Norwegian sculptor Lars Ramberg, for erection on the roof of the former Palast der Republik, and spelling out the word “ZWEIFEL” (Doubt), be reproduced on a smaller scale and then positioned in front of the Humboldt-Forum in order, by this means, to place under enduring scrutiny the guiding principle of that institution: the pursuit of certitudes of every sort. The fundamental consideration here was that doubt was to be understood as itself integral to belief. A trust in God that has never been troubled by any sense of inner crisis can prove dangerous. Christ, as described in the Bible, might Himself be viewed as an embodiment of this principle. For there we are told that, convulsed with agony in the last moments before His death upon the Cross, He cried out to His Father, bewailing His abandonment. Among the celebrated artists who have depicted the Crucifixion, it is Michelangelo who devised what is probably the most radical rendering of that moment. In a drawing now known only through a close copy, he depicted Christ’s right hand, nailed to the end of the cross beam, as if it were making a gesture of the sort that would usually accompany the utterance of a malediction. The agonizing fulfillment of Christ’s mission thus becomes an accusatory attack on the context in which it occurs. But, as Wolfram Hogrebe has observed, it is only within this element of doubt that is to be found a “proof” of God’s existence: “Nemo contra deus nisi deus ipse” (No-one against God unless it be God Himself). It is in this context that Kris Martin’s work takes its own stand on the questions raised by the image. The credibility of his own declaration – that he feels drawn to “a meditative engagement with the values of Christian faith” – may be tested through both doubting and questioning the authority of the images he has himself created. The tradition of the bonfire of the vanities is related to a notion of sacrifice that, during the last three decades, was scornfully dismissed or, at best, invoked in a spirit of irony, as a concept deriving from the prehistory of what we then took to be a world fundamentally at peace. It is only with the advent of war on a scale and of a type that we had come to regard as impossible that we recognize, in our dismay, the negligence, the sense of entitlement and the sheer greed to which our myopia had condemned us. And so the bonfire of the vanities has again moved much closer to us than we would have wished. But Kris Martin’s work has served to prepare us for its disconcerting proximity.