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Humanitarian Passions. The Survival of Christian Iconography in Contemporary Representations of Pain: a Visual Studies Approach

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Discovering the visual culture of humanitarianism

Researchers with the EU-funded HUMANITARIAN PASSIONS project turned to classical art and Christian iconography to understand humanitarian visual culture from an aesthetic and historical-artistic point of view.


To better understand the role that mass communication plays in contemporary humanitarian crises, researchers working within the EU-funded HUMANITARIAN PASSIONS project conducted an in-depth study of pain and how pain is depicted within Western iconography. To do so, researchers looked at the relationship between the images of contemporary humanitarianism and the iconography of the Passion and Works of Mercy found within Western art. ‘Our hypothesis was that Christian iconography constitutes a database of images that the media relies on when reporting on a crisis,’ says project researcher Francesco Zucconi. ‘By doing so, these crises convey a specific moral attitude to the audience.’ From this hypothesis, Zucconi, along with his colleague Giovanni Careri, set out on an elaborate investigation of humanitarian visual culture from an aesthetic and historical-artistic point of view. A storyline of assistance The research team relied heavily on the iconography of the Works of Mercy found in Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Seven Works of Mercy (1607), in addition to the general iconography associated with the Passion of the Christ. From this initial work, Zucconi and Careri were able to define the necessary framework for recognising the persistence, survival and reformulation of such themes as ‘feed the hungry’, ‘refresh the thirsty’, ‘clothe the naked’, ‘shelter the pilgrims’, ‘visit the sick’, ‘visit the imprisoned’ and ‘bury the dead’ in contemporary forms of humanitarian communication. ‘Here we were able to show how these forms of assistance, which are readily represented in the iconography of the Works of Mercy, constitute a typology for describing and understanding such a heterogeneous field of discourse as contemporary humanitarian communications,’ explains Zucconi. ‘This was the first time that the controversial question of the origins of humanitarianism was addressed with detailed reference to Christian iconography instead of through a social sciences lens.’ Next, researchers began to look for references to these typographies in contemporary disasters. They focused their attention on communication campaigns produced by the United Nations, Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, and Caritas Internationalis. ‘By examining the interrelationship between the immanence of gestures of pathos that materialise in catastrophic situations and the transcendence of the representative models by means of which suffering has been forged over centuries in the West, we investigated humanitarian communications as a form of secularisation of Christian iconography,’ says Zucconi. The visual culture of humanitarianism Although there have been various academic studies on the representation of pathos in Christian iconography, on media representations of suffering and on humanitarian communication, the existing literature lacks any current research regarding the point at which these fields intersect. ‘This project has helped overcome these rigid disciplinary divisions and to develop a new methodology that is capable of opening up the history of European art to matters concerning images in the contemporary world,’ says Zucconi. ‘In this regard, the project has fostered the development of a critical perspective on the history of the visual culture of humanitarianism.’


HUMANITARIAN PASSIONS, humanitarianism, Christianity, Christian iconography, Passion of the Christ, Seven Works of Mercy

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