The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1400–1750)

In the early modern period—that is, the centuries following the Middle Ages—works of art were thought to have such power that they affected the viewer physically. In some ways, this concept is still familiar to us: visual imagery can make us laugh, blush or even feel the sting of tears. Other responses, however, are less recognizable. In both Europe and Latin America, images were believed to heal or to injure. Theories of vision suggested that through the process of perception, images could literally stamp themselves onto the mind of the viewer.

The Expressive Body examines the ways in which the human form has provoked powerful responses, from the physiological to the mystical. For viewers in the 15th to 18th centuries, these physical effects were assumed to be part of the experience of looking at and interpreting art objects. From erotic works produced for wealthy patrons to venerated statues of the wounded Christ in local chapels, representations of the body stimulated visceral and often self-reflexive reactions of desire, compassion or aversion.

Viewers experienced art objects in multisensory ways, by caressing sculptures, handling prints and kissing sacred images. But even a glance could have potential consequences. Medical theory suggested that gazing at representations of beautiful lovers could lead to the conception of handsome and healthy children, while spiritual practice encouraged meditating on the portrayal of a tortured martyr in order to empathize with his or her torment.

Indeed, works of art could be dangerously convincing, blurring the line between real and represented bodies. In the story of Apelles, the favorite painter of Alexander the Great, the artist painted a beautiful portrait of Campaspe, Alexander’s mistress. The representation was so flattering that Alexander chose the painting over Campaspe herself. Francesco Trevisani’s clever 1720 depiction of this apocryphal episode, which would have amused 18th-century Roman patrons, makes an argument for the beguiling power of painting. Trevisani represents a languid Campaspe alongside Apelles’s own painting, cheekily aligning himself with the legendary artist, and the viewer with Alexander. Titillating images like this one were pleasurable to look at, though they sometimes came with a moralizing message. In Jan Massys’s lush depiction of the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders (1564), the viewer’s lustful impulses at seeing virtuous Susanna’s nude body are checked by the grotesque portrayal of leering old men, triggering shame in addition to desire. SHOW MORE

Religious images likewise had palpable effects, but to devotional ends. For instance, the Head of Christ from 18th-century Mexico invites worshippers to meditate on the physicality of Christ’s pain, brutally represented by his lacerated flesh and his lips parted in agony, subtly exposing delicately carved teeth. These details become all the more arresting in their three-dimensionality, mimicking the scale and appearance of a human head, and making the representation of the suffering Christ feel inescapably real. Polychrome sculptures like this one were common, but they caused anxiety among some religious reformers who feared that the sculptures would prompt too much empathy in viewers, leading them to treat the inert representations as living idols.

The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1400­–1750) displays over 60 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures from the Norton Simon’s collections, many of which have never been on view. At the time of their production, these depictions of the human figure stirred something essential in viewers. This exhibition reveals the historical potency of the represented body to move the mind through the flesh, and it invites us to examine our own responses to these works today. SHOW LESS