Professor Joseph Koerner has recently co-authored an article in CRITICAL INQUIRY (Volume 48, Issue 1) uncovering the backstory of a famous masterpiece of Renaissance painting. It's a story about religious violence, pictorial power, medieval Jewish legal commentary, and triumphalist histories of art.
This article draws together two works created in late fifteenth-century Mantua. Although radically different in kind, they were borne from the same acts of violence: Andrea Mantegna’s Madonna of Victory and a responsum about Jewish religious law by Rabbi Joseph Colon. Mantegna’s altarpiece, painted to commemorate the bloody battle of Fornova as a Gonzaga victory, was paid for by Daniele Norsa; Norsa, a Jewish banker, was accused of destroying a prior Christian icon and ordered to finance the new altarpiece as reparations for this crime, under threat of death. Colon’s responsum addressed the permissibility of creating a Christian image under duress—idolatry being one of the sins for which a Jew must sacrifice their life rather than transgressing. We explore the remarkable artistry and distinct craft practiced by the painter and the rabbi—image making in the one case, legal reasoning in the other—as modes of describing, interpreting, and creating reality. Both works address problems of religion and idolatry, faith and coercion, victory and violence, and triumph and lament. Together they reveal the dynamics of a fascinating iconoclash, a conflict of culture waged over the struggle between making and breaking images.