Visual aggression: The Martyrs' cycle at Schwäbisch Gmünd

Assaf Pinkus*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The martyrs' cycle in the archivolts of the north choir portal of the Holy Cross Minster at Schwäbisch Gmünd (1351-70s) reveals a strikingly brutal parade of violence-decapitation, split skulls, mutilated organs, nails and teeth being torn out. Each of the martyrdom scenes is expropriated from the narrative sequence of the saints' vitae, epitomizing the moment of immediate violent action. Although such representations ostensibly allude to each saint's imitatio Christi, their visual semiotics suggest otherwise; the unusual iconography of these martyrs depicts them in effeminate, submissive postures, screaming and weeping, in contrast to their usual impassibility. While earlier studies have interpreted medieval violence imagery as either allegorical or reflecting interior thoughts, or have focused on its connection to the liturgy of punishment in early modern times, this article approaches the tortures depicted at Gmünd as concerned with violence as a moral problem. The visual aggression constituted by this monumental public art of extreme violence confronts the viewer somatically with intense brutality unsanctified by pictorial tradition or memory. The viewers' initial encounter with this series of deformed figures therefore must have been experienced as something new and violently shocking that postponed the moment of devotional immersion. Tracing the contemporary discourse on violence and cruelty, I contend that violence per se is what appears here as a subject of artistic speculation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-59
Number of pages17
JournalGESTA-International Center of Medieval Art
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2013


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