(active 1393-1410 in Valencia)

Retable of St George (detail)

c. 1400
Tempera on wood
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the age before analgesics or anesthetics death was sometimes better than life. The living body was often torn apart by terrible, unrelenting pain. Gothic artists registered these agonies by depicting the excruciating suffering of the saints.

In the later Middle Ages people were attuned to the body as a theater of torment, a site of incredible horror. In their large multipaneled altarpieces, Spanish painters of the International Gothic style were especially adept at evoking the rich textures and glowing surfaces of flesh as it was torn from bone and the lining of skin as it was ripped away by grinning, grotesque executioners. By the flickering of a thousand candles, bodies like that of St George glistened in all their gory glory and provided a locus of identification for all those whose sick bodies ached and who could enter into the voluptuous sufferings of the saints. Such images of death were produced in a culture ravaged by constant war and quite used to the public spectacle of corporal punishment meted out to miscreants in the public squares of towns. While the naked sexual body was consigned to the margins, the naked, sadistically tormented body, whether of Christ or the saints, was given center stage.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.