Art history has eaten its own head. This is at least the conclusion of Christopher Wood’s exhaustively researched 2019 book A History of Art History. “Ongoing self-castigation is the very shape of the Enlightenment project,” Wood tells us. “However, anyone today who dares to…take up again the illiberal call for calls for remystification and recovery of trust in myth or ritual—anyone who dares to exit the Enlightenment—is vilified.”
The college seniors majoring in art history with whom I read Wood’s book felt rather defeated by this conclusion, which might, in fact, be the desired effect. “Actually I’d be delighted if art history dissolved,” writes James Elkins in the journal Image. “Most calls for the end of the discipline have to do with acknowledging structural racism, accommodating popular culture, or paying proper attention to settler colonialism. I’m in favor of pursuing all three of those to the point where the discipline falls apart.”
Elkins does offer a fourth possibility: “to take faith seriously.” Similarly, Wood provides (in my reading) at least three escape hatches—genuine Hinduism, Gnosticism, and (amazingly enough) the theology of Karl Barth. The upshot of such pessimistic accounts seems rather undeniable: Unless art history draws on something other than its relatively shallow Enlightenment roots, this delicate flower in the garden of the humanities will probably not survive.
But if Christopher Wood’s A History of Art History reveals art history to be a tender bloom, Thomas Pfau’s Incomprehensible Certainty shows the history of the image to be something of a giant sequoia, one more than capable of withstanding the gusts currently shaking the groves of academe. Art history, in fact, appears to be no more than a decorative parasite on a much larger organism. For Pfau, a professor of English at Duke University, “the concept of the image (imago, eikon) is distinguished from (though not opposed to) its historically and materially contingent instantiation as ‘picture’ (Greek Eidolon; Latin Pictura; German Gemälde, Kunstbild).” Which is to say that while the image is “a catalyst of focused attention and a source of open-ended reflection,” a mere picture remains only a “specialized form of representation.”
A true image, Pfau continues, “demands a form of kenosis, of self-suspension,” while pictures invite “projection of the self.” An image, unlike a picture, can actually be an agent, one which “confronts, but, potentially, also reconstitutes and transforms its beholder.” Experiencing images in this way, however, requires resisting the “muddy stream of optical data…imperceptibly percolating into consciousness,” so often through our phones. We must, instead, permit the image to crystalize into an “experience” that constitutes a distinctive “event.”
If this sounds metaphysical or almost religious, that is because it is. Pfau, who also holds an appointment at Duke Divinity School, proudly announces his “unrepentant openness to metaphysical questions and…implicit rejection of a hermeneutics of suspicion.” Thus inclined, he sets out in Incomprehensible Certainty to explore in detail precisely the terrain the history of art declared off-limits in order to exist, terrain which art history’s late dilation into “visual culture” has yet to adequately traverse. The regime of mere aesthetics proceeds by the “quarantining of the image within a strictly immanent and sharply circumscribed pictorial rhetoric.” But for Pfau, “wherever we perceive organized visible form as an image we become aware of how the order of the visible is always ontologically—or, more precisely, analogically—linked to a numinous, and as such invisible, domain.”
Those familiar with his equally ambitious 2013 book Minding the Modern will know how hard Pfau labored in preparation for an undertaking of the scope of Incomprehensible Certainty. Without succumbing to medieval nostalgia or facile varieties of “declinism,” he explicated in Minding the Modern a constriction of cognition in the modern age, one that a robust concept of the image is designed to alleviate. Incomprehensible Certainty might therefore be understood as the positive response to the necessarily critical project of Minding the Modern. Like a good architect, Pfau cleared the ground before constructing his cathedral.
And he most certainly does not build it alone, masterfully commandeering the best writers from antiquity to the present, who collectively bear witness that “reflection can never fully emancipate itself from the phenomenon by which it was summoned and to whose experiential reality it responds.” Runners in this great relay race of images include Plato, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Henry Newman, Paul Cézanne, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Chief among them is Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose words “incomprehensible certainty” give this book its name. “What you look at hard,” Hopkins wrote, in what serves as a perfect summary of Pfau’s project, “seems to look hard at you.”
Incomprehensible Certainty begins with four chapters covering the image’s metaphysical foundation. If Plato himself had an iconoclastic streak, it is his late dialogue Sophist that offers the most enduring philosophy of the image, one in which “the world of phenomena does not betray but, on the contrary, fulfills Being.” Pfau proceeds toward the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in 787 in Nicaea, which Christianized this Platonic inheritance by defending the veneration of sacred icons in worship and built on the insight that Being could be fully manifested, without losing its mystery, in the face of Christ. Medieval eschatologies of the image that allow the “irruption of numinous, timeless meanings into human, time-bound existence” are then traced through Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, and Bonaventure, culminating in Julian of Norwich. As the Renaissance threatened to “show the visible and the invisible to be competing for the same epistemological space,” Nicholas of Cusa emerges as the vindicator of icons. Nicholas was right, of course, but his wisdom did not carry the day, as his rival, the Renaissance architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, helped initiate the constriction of the modern gaze. “The painter,” Alberti insisted, “is not concerned with things that are not visible.”
But rather than accept these modern conditions, Pfau traces a tradition of defiance in the book’s second part. The long revolt emanates from Goethe (who argued for “a primordial metaphysical kinship” with things), from John Ruskin (for whom “the whole visible creation is a mere perishable symbol of things eternal and true”), from Hopkins (who profoundly distrusts “the abstraction and generalization that runs through English letters”), and from Rilke (for whom “inner and outer experience must be precisely aligned”). But what especially marks Pfau’s scholarly style is his celebration of a main line of defiance in phenomenology. In particular, Pfau calls our attention to Edmund Husserl’s 1905 lectures on “image-consciousness,” which moved from the “‘perception of things’ (Dingwahrnehmung) and toward the experience of perception itself (Erlebniswahrnehmung).” Many consider Christian Neoplatonist metaphysics and phenomenology to be at odds, but perhaps this is only because they lack the breadth to understand them rightfully as complementary, as Pfau does.
Readers should not assume from the above sketch that Incomprehensible Certainty is a work of history. On the contrary, it is conceptually driven, and in each section of its first part Pfau artfully juxtaposes figures medieval and modern—Thomas Mann dances with John of Damascus, and Hopkins dovetails with Maximus the Confessor. Some might assume that a theologically informed account such as this is meant to pummel readers into confessional adherence. But Pfau’s account is far too sophisticated for that. It is for good reason that he ends his massive book with Rilke. Even if Rilke cannot “see the world as the true and impassible imago of its divine creator,” he nevertheless offers “guarded epiphanies [that] do not renounce numinous reality, but, in pointedly fragmentary lyric forms, keep it in play as the ultimate source, which modern existence can neither categorically disavow (skepticism) nor definitively possess (positivism).” It is hard to imagine a more apt description of the revelatory moments that genuine art affords, moments that happen as much outside ostensibly religious frameworks as within them.
To forestall criticism that the book deals primarily with European thought, Pfau could just as easily have made his case using Nubian murals from the Faras Cathedral, paintings of the Black Christ from Chicago, or images of Jesus as Shaman by the Ojibwe painter Norval Morrisseau. Likewise, I expect Shūsaku Endō could have performed the same service provided by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The readiness with which these diverse alternatives come to mind indicate that, far from precluding such connections, Incomprehensible Certainty invites them. “Non-Western” images indeed might be seen as the natural heirs to Pfau’s robust concept of the image, being that they have largely been less subject to modern constriction. Pfau’s focus on Western culture is therefore perfectly justifiable. If modernity is the ailment, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31).
In Pfau’s otherwise comprehensive account, there is a large gap from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, due to what the author describes as the period’s “pointedly uncurious and often antimetaphysical conception of the image.” I therefore humbly offer something to close that lacuna: In a book in which Protestants are frequently the foil (as they often are in Minding the Modern), it is of interest that even John Calvin, at least according to the distinguished historical theologian Randall Zachman, was “concern[ed] to see the self-revelation of God in terms of the combination of the Word of God that we hear and the living images of God that we behold,” a stance that “places him squarely within the broader catholic tradition from the time of the orthodox theologians of the early Church to his own day” (quoted in Zachman’s Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin). Pfau rightly complains that Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1603), a book of allegorical illustrations and emblems, was “prized for [its] glaring visibility, and subject to instantaneous decoding.” But Lutheran theologian Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1624), filled with complex images of the alchemical transformation of the heart, may have offered a psychologically subtle, sacred corollary to the Iconologia.
The sixteenth-century Lutheran mystic Valentin Weigel also fits the profile of Pfau’s image defenders, offering a chief way that Nicholas of Cusa’s theology of the image was sustained through the modern age. Drawing on Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, and the anonymously written treatise Theologia Germanica (famously prefaced by Martin Luther), Weigel developed a rich “teaching of the image” (Lehre von dem Bildnus) that comes very close to Pfau’s. Perhaps Incomprehensible Certainty might therefore be read alongside French historian and theologian Antoine Arjakovsky’s Towards an Ecumenical Metaphysics, also published this year. There have, after all, been many Catholic iconoclasts (an architectural repercussion of Vatican II) and Orthodox idolaters (using Marian icons to justify the invasion of Ukraine). So no Christian confession is blameless. I could not help but notice that Pfau’s legitimate castigation of “strict biblicism, and the murky, middlebrow Protestant theology” that compromised John Ruskin, is followed on the very next page by Pfau’s rightful complaint about the unimaginative (pun intended) “neo-Thomistic formulas” that compromised so much Roman Catholic theology of the same period. Art historian Alexander Nagel (The Controversy of Renaissance Art) has lately unfurled the visual repercussions of a “world of reforming activity [in Catholic Italy], some of it very sympathetic to Protestant positions.” Likewise, art historian Tara Hamling (Decorating the “Godly” Household) reveals that English Puritans proudly displayed elaborate reliefs of the Virgin Mary on the ceilings of their homes. To restore the image, the divided churches may therefore need to pool their resources.
Even so, we simply would not know the depth of those ecumenical resources without Thomas Pfau. “Humanistic inquiry never ought to content itself with abstract generalizations and high-altitude surveys of complex intellectual terrain,” Pfau writes, and likewise, no one reading this review should feel that this book has been adequately described. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” says the apostle, and the work required to read Incomprehensible Certainty is well worth the meal. Even though this book is enormous (785 pages in the hardcover edition), there are no wasted words or unnecessary digressions. If Pfau’s ability to sustain such clear and living prose over the course of so many pages is dumbfounding, he never makes his reader feel dumb—the book is as hospitable as it is demanding. No longer will my art history seniors need be content with publications that intimate that the discipline they have chosen to study, the discipline that introduced them to images that awakened their eyes and their hearts, is finished. The Enlightenment has many exits ramps.
But those who choose not to take on the challenge of reading Incomprehensible Certainty can still be of good cheer. If you have been wounded by the beauty of a river bend, transfixed by a chrysanthemum, mesmerized by the dignity of the humble human form or by the art that faithfully transmits such irreducible experiences, carry on. For attempts to curtail, downplay, deconstruct, obsessively quantify, or annihilate encounters with creation’s immeasurable plentitude have met their match.