Enargeia – Energeia: The Heavenly Sounding Image in the Italian Renaissance

PhD defence by Lise Hindsberg




The PhD thesis deals with the representation of heavenly musicians in the naturalistic image of the Renaissance on the assumption that the relationship between image and music is more significant and more complex than has previously been assumed. The naturalistic representation was part of the change in pictorial style that marked the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In this change, which occurred during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, altarpieces that encompassed the lifelike representation of heavenly musicians are examples of a new way of rendering the absent present.

The thesis analyses the representation of music-making angels in Italian Renaissance altarpieces from the point of the ancient term enargeia (tr. vividness). Vividness is a conspicuous and recurrent topos in the history of art, but what happened in the Renaissance when the idea of vividness synthesised with a new naturalistic style? Not least, what was the effect of this synthesis when taking into consideration that the altarpiece is a devotional object? By taking an anthropological and phenomenological approach to the image, the thesis presents a new interpretation of the lifelike representation of heavenly musicians. As part of the analysis, the thesis examines the prevalence of the concept of enargeia in the image theory, image practice and image effect of the Italian Renaissance. By taking into consideration a diverse range of textual sources from both Antiquity and the Renaissance, it is shown how the experience of vividness gained new relevance during the Renaissance in combination with the naturalistic image. From these sources, the thesis attempts to clarify how the naturalistic image was meant to be perceived, especially by calling attention to the instances where the illusion of the “sounding” image was described as the height of vividness.

The thesis argues that the lifelike representation of heavenly musicians in Italian Renaissance altarpieces operated as the silent potentiality for a “sounding” experience of vividness. It shows how the “heavenly sounding” image emerged as a fluidity of boundary between the constructed space of the painting and the real space of the beholder. From the point of “visual” music and the role of real music and its performers in conjuring up the experience of vividness, the thesis reveals a new side to the animated image. Intended for the sacred space of the church, the altarpiece is a devotional object, and it is from this context that the thesis sheds new light upon the devotional use of visually produced enargeia. From the intersection between the vivid representation of the celestial musicians, the music that filled the church space and the memory and imagination of the beholder, the thesis shows how the “heavenly sounding” image was a means of tuning the soul of the beholder towards spiritual contemplation.

The thesis is structured around the analyses of three exhibitions at the SMK: Jakob Danielsen (1941), What Lies Unspoken (2017), and Kirchner and Nolde – Up for discussion (2021). The focus of the first part of the thesis is how and why colonial history has disappeared from the physical museum space, not least through the historical formations of the collection that separated “art” from “ethnography”. As Jakob Danielsen shows, this Greenlandic artist’s works were considered within tropes of primitivism as something that did not fit easily within the art museum. The second part of the thesis takes the notion of discomfort as its main focus. With a focus on two recent exhibitions at the SMK, the thesis examines the affective structures of colonial history in art museums. In particular, the thesis’ central argument is that colonial history appears as something uncomfortable within exhibitions and the museum space: both in terms of the “affective work” done by external collaborators and in terms of the practical work and decision-making in curatorial processes.


Assessment committee

  • Associate professor Mathias Danbolt, chair (University of Copenhagen)
  • Professor Ruth Webb (Université de Lille)
  • Professor Megan Holmes (University of Michigan)

Leader of the defence

  • Professor Michael Fjeldsøe (University of Copenhagen)

Copies of the dissertation will be available at

  • Copenhagen University Library, KUB Søndre Campus, Karen Blixens Plads 7
  • The Black Diamond, Søren Kierkegaards Plads 1