Finding Beauty in Gruesome Paintings

Jun 16, 2015

Art can be described by endless adjectives: beautiful, poignant, unique, surprising… grotesque? According to Dr. Mitzi Kirkland-Ives, associate professor of art and design at Missouri State University, pre-modern European art was rarely produced with the primary intention of being beautiful. She recently co-edited a book, “Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650,” that explores the function of torture in art of the early modern or late medieval period.

In order to be closer to Jesus or to understand the persecution of the saints, many early European Christians began to scour texts for grisly details about Christ’s death, she noted. When writing prayers to help the devoted emulate the suffering of Christ and his saints, these details were often included. Artists also used these details to create images, which could be quite macabre, that would be paired with the series of prayers to be meditated upon. This imagery is the focus of Kirkland-Ives’ essay in the book.