Visions Across Time: The Birth of the Presepio

Harleen Kaur Bagga, M.A.

My dissertation contributes to a new theory of the life-size in religious art from the Italian peninsula. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, artists began to render bodies that were neither colossal nor miniature, but of dimensions that imitated life. This decision was not an arbitrary one. I demonstrate the relevance and effects of such life-sized figures by focusing on wooden polychrome sculptures in Neapolitan presepi (Nativities), in conversation with Gaudenzio Ferrari’s terracotta and wood figures at the Sacro Monte of Varallo. Moving beyond the more popular discussions on “life-like” (ad vivum/al vivo), the dissertation argues for the significance of the “life-size” to the creation of immersive spaces. These sites and objects demonstrate that immersion, which has become a hackneyed adjective in contemporary parlance, was a liquid concept. It related to baptism and submersion in the blood of Christ through sacramental confession. Immersion, i.e. the covering of the entire body in water, thus had its roots in Christological contexts. In this way, the project treats Renaissance life-sized sculptural tableaux as some of the forerunners of optically and phenomenologically immersive technologies, like cinema and virtual reality.

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