Is this sound historical method?

I’m taking a break from reading a certain book on “visual hermeneutics”—the interpretation of images—and I’m about ready to find and kill the author. As an example of how a picture can be interpreted in different ways, the author quotes a description of an 8th-century icon:

[. . .] But the most important aspect of the icon is the presence of the reigning pope at the Virgin’s feet. For this mingling of the living and the dead plucks the Virgin out of an inaccessible heaven and brings her within the reach of the one appointed emissary on earth who, like an emperor’s minister in Constantinople, can grasp his master’s foot and be assured his wishes will be granted. In consequence, the legitimacy of the pope as the channel and interpreter of the divine will on earth is affirmed.

The author then gives this bizarre gloss:

This interpretation is political, emphasizing that the direct proximity of the pope to the Virgin stresses the immense power of the pope. This contemporary viewer interprets the painting through her interest in exposing “the Church” as domineering, oppressive, and self-aggrandizing. (p. 31)

Where to begin? Does the fact that the pope is prostrated before the Virgin indicate his “immense power”? How likely is it that the “contemporary viewer” who wrote the description of the icon was a “she”? And how likely is it that this 8th-century female viewer was trying to “expose” “the Church” as “domineering, etc.”? Does anyone smell the 20th-century author projecting her own ideas onto the past here?


3 Responses to “Is this sound historical method?”

  1. Evan Says:

    Ahh, don’t you see how the clever the author is with his comments? He is putting you into a hermeneutic quandry by forcing the you to ask hermeuntic questions about his own hermeneutic treatment of the painting. There is the original interpretation, then the author’s gloss, and then your interpretation of the gloss asking questions about the nature of interpretation. And now my interpretation. I love endless hermeneutics!

    Did Jim mention that William is reediting the Mr. T/Bush puppet videos? We also recorded a commentary track for the dvd.

  2. Curly Says:

    The author here is a she, a professor at Harvard Divinity School (at least that’s where she was in the 1980s, when this book came out).

    Yeah, I’m REAL impressed by the author’s cleverness. My answer to her game of endless hermeneutics is that I’m gonna take these bootses that I wear and send one of them up where the sun don’t shine.

    Speaking of T: That is excellent news. I would gladly have the DVD I made superceded by one with audio commentary, etc. If the disc has Be Somebody + all the appearances + commentary, where can you go from there?

  3. Evan Says:

    No Be Somebody, just the puppet movies and the appearances (from the orginal source video). Commentary only for the puppet movies. You will again to get hear such classics as ‘Looks like there’s no one home, I guess I’ll knock again’ and “If you don’t know, you can’t know.” Plus T dressed up as a Leprechaun and Santa! And yes, Jim and I briefly reprise our roles after 14 years, puppets on hand, to record a special introduction. Oh, how my T voice has deteriorated over the years.

    And there is a blooper reel too!

    Hopefully we will get it soon and you can provide a hermeneutics of oppression that obviously is waiting to be revealed.

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