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

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HumanitarianPassions (Humanitarian Passions. The Survival of Christian Iconography in Contemporary Representations of Pain: a Visual Studies Approach)

Reporting period: 2015-06-15 to 2017-06-14

During the twentieth century, media representation of wars, epidemics and natural disasters helped circulate that area of principles aimed at assisting civilian casualties and generically grouped together under the term “humanitarianism”. This project offers a contribution in regard to understanding the role played by mass communications in contemporary humanitarian crises, through a comparative study of representations of pain in the history of Western iconography. The research investigated images of suffering in their role as “social objects”, in order to contribute to the understanding of humanitarianism in its most controversial forms and to disseminate the values of peace and social cohesion through new forms of communication.
The project was well-placed in regard to leading to a greater understanding of the social, cultural, linguistic and political legacies of visual culture within Europe and globally, due to its implications for intercultural dialogue. The project contributed to the investigation of the challenges faced by cultural institutions with regard to the necessity to open culture and cultural heritage to new audiences.
The main objective was to analyse a corpus of humanitarian communications and to identify their models in the history of the iconography of past centuries. Specifically, the project investigated the relationship between the images of contemporary humanitarianism and the iconography of the Passion and works of mercy in the history of Western visual arts. The hypothesis was that Christian iconography constitutes a database of images upon which the media rely implicitly in order to create situations charged with pathos and suffering, and to suggest a moral attitude to the audience.
The general hypothesis was developed according to three sub-objectives.
In the starting phase of the research, an investigation of the organisation of the various themes linked to the Passion was carried out. The project studied the iconographic theme of the works of mercy, which finds its greatest expression in Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Seven Works of Mercy, 1607. The analysis of the iconography of the works of mercy offered a decisive contribution to the development of an archaeology of “humanitarian visual culture”. Through this preliminary iconographic investigation, followed by a careful historical exploration, it was possible to identify the main structures of the Passion and of mercy, thus defining the necessary framework in which to recognise their persistence, survival and reformulation in the contemporary forms of humanitarian communication.
The research continued with the investigation of several forms of quotation or implicit reference to Christian iconography in contemporary representations of disasters. The work of analysis focused on several communication campaigns produced by the United Nations, Médecins sans Frontières, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, and Caritas Internationalis.
The third sub-objective of the project was to investigate the way in which humanitarian communications have been re-interpreted and criticised by contemporary artists and filmmakers.
During the course of the project, the researcher attended numerous conferences at various universities and academic institutions. The provisional results of the research were presented at numerous international conferences and workshops. After the various monitoring initiatives, the project results were presented on May 13th 2017, within a public initiative organised at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris and entitled “Passions Humanitaires/Humanitarian Passions”. The event involved the participation of leading researchers in the fields of visual studies and humanitarianism.
At the end of the 24 months of research, two articles were published in international academic journals. Two other articles are under preparation. It is also planned to publish a book about “humanitarian visual culture” with an international publisher. In addition to using different profiles on social networks, the cultural blog Il lavoro culturale was used to develop a public discourse on humanitarian policies and practices and their media representations. A dedicated website was also created for reporting and presenting works relating to the research project.
Although there are various academic studies of 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. Historical-artistic studies of the iconography of the Passion and mercy have not yet developed a comparative approach to humanitarian communication. Similarly, in social science studies of humanitarianism, the analysis of “humanitarian visual culture” from a long-term historical perspective has been developed only to a minimal extent.
In other words, the research project helped to overcome 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. In this regard, the project has fostered the development of a critical perspective on the history of the visual culture of humanitarianism and has contributed to the development of new forms of communication.
The practice of comparing images in the history of the arts with those in mass communications, on which this project was based, constitutes a powerful tool for circulating values of solidarity and peace, and for developing a secular concept of humanitarian practice.
The project implementation involved organising workshops and publishing articles concerning “humanitarian visual culture”. The book proposal resulting from the project was accepted by an international publisher.
Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy (1607), Oil on canvas, Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples