THE IDIOSYNCRATIC ICONOGRAPHY of the high altar for the Dominican church in Bern has long resisted scholarly interpretation. Indeed, the seeming incoherence of the iconographic program has led recent scholars to call into question the authorship and location of the six surviving panels, rejecting outright that panels belonged together at all. My article, however, demonstrates that the unusual iconography represents an attempt by the Dominicans to commission an innovative program designed to salvage their tarnished reputation in the wake of an inquisitional trial that saw four of their brothers executed as heretics. Moreover, I argue that its perceived iconographic incoherence replicates a breakdown in the altar’s intended persuasive function; just as scholars could not decode its polemic four centuries on, it failed to cohere into a convincing argument for the friars’ redemption. The high altar thus offers an opportunity to reflect on what it means for a new iconography to come into being and, in turn, to lose its legibility for Reformation and modern viewers alike.
"The Dominican High Altar in Bern and the Failure of Iconography,"
Studies in Iconography: Vol. 43, Article 5.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/studies_in_iconography/vol43/iss1/5