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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The testimonial gesture : temporality and mediation in representations of John the Baptist Sackeroff, Samuel


In Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist (1513-1516), the figure of the Baptist is shown from the waist up, his form lit evenly against an opaque black background. Gazing expectantly at the viewer, the Baptist raises his right hand to point toward a referent located just beyond the painting’s frame, absent from the compositional space. Unavailable for direct inspection, this referent is accessible only by way of the Baptist’s mediating presence. Following his ostensive cue, we move toward the absent referent, investing in his presence as a credible ground for such movement, returning to his figure and finger to assure ourselves that our viewing is not in vain. In this thesis I will argue that the willingness to invest in the mediating presence of Leonardo’s Baptist is paradigmatic of what I will call the “testimonial mode of viewing,” a practice which became condensed in the Baptist’s extended index finger, a durable structural feature which I call the “testimonial gesture.” Providing a three-stage typology of representations of the Baptist, tracing the migration of his figure from the margins of mid to late 14th-century icons into the center of early 16th-century panel paintings, I will suggest that the testimonial mode of viewing emerged as a means of preserving the presence of the iconic referent in the face of what Hans Belting has called the “crisis of the image,” a rupture which threatened to displace the referent by relocating it either in the minds of artists or in context-bound periods. Challenging the model of rupture, I will argue that the testimonial mode of viewing constituted a nascent resource to which viewers appealed when confronted by the prospect of rupture in both devotional and secular circumstances in order to preserve the presence of the referent.

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