Every day, at the Institute for Advanced Study and elsewhere, scientists and scholars are exploring the frontiers of knowledge, from the structure of the universe to the patterns of human thought. But what is the shortest path from A to B, if you do not know where B is? History teaches us that the first step is often a step sideways, away from the beaten path. Successful research is therefore an endless cycle of imagination and concentration, of playing and thinking. However, in a time that stimulates and rewards mostly short-term thinking and direct applications, the opportunity to freely explore such original ideas is getting more and more constrained. These limits to science devalue our society and hamper the long-term solutions of the world’s most pressing problems. A possible way out could be a broader understanding and appreciation of the fundamental values of the pursuit of knowledge, such as experimentation, imagination, reflection, criticism, and openness, in particular among younger generations.
Late medieval and Renaissance painters in northern Europe took pride in characterizing the forms of attention specific to the votive encounter. Amidst the hubbub of the Crucifixion, certain witnesses to the event are shown poised between acceptance and rejection of the dying man as the Christ of prophecy. These figures allowed beholders to measure their own response to Jesus’s paradoxical identity along a spectrum between seeing and blindness, between discipleship and reprobacy. Captured in the dawning of their comprehension, such characters embodied that passage from ignorance to knowledge that Aristotle, in The Poetics, called “recognition” (anagnôrisis). In this lecture, Mitchell Merback, Associate Professor of Art History at Johns Hopkins University, argues that to speak of a Christian poetics of disclosure in early modern art requires first understanding how recognition was elevated to a grand theme—and a galvanizing meta-theme—in the brilliantly naturalistic art produced north of the Alps.
This lecture is part of a series on art history cosponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study and the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.