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MERBACK, Mitchell B.


Male. Education: University of Chicago, Ph.D.


Office—Art Department, 210 Peeler Art Center, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN 46135-0037. E-mail—[email protected].


DePauw University, Greencastle, IN, associate professor of art history.


Summer stipend, National Endowment for the Humanities, for "Sights of Desecration: Bleeding Host Pilgrimage, Passion Relics, and the Architectural Commemoration of 'Jewish Violence' at St. Salvator in Passau."


The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1999.


In The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, art historian Mitchell B. Merback questions why the artists of that era depicted the deaths of the two thieves who were crucified on either side of Jesus, in the particular ways they did.

Since most studies of Crucifixion iconography focus on the image of Jesus, Merback's "undertaking is strikingly original in subject matter as well as methodology and range," Richard Schechner wrote in TDR. Schechner also praised Merback's knowledge of "painting, anatomy, and social history."

Using this knowledge to analyze the types of injuries that artists depicted on the bodies of the two thieves, Merback was able to determine that the painters and sculptors were drawing from their experience with the medieval spectacle of public execution, which often included such grotesque tortures as "breaking on the wheel." The reason for integrating contemporary forms of execution, Merback theorizes, is to make the agonies suffered by the thieves more familiar to the viewers, so that they might be more firmly reminded of the choice presented to all Christians at the moment of death. Although both criminals die in a moment of excruciating pain, the one who repents of his sins and turns to Jesus in his last moments will shortly be released from his pain and will enter into the bliss of Heaven; the other, who curses Jesus, will go to Hell and be tortured eternally. "The author is at his most theoretically astute in this section, skillfully complicating the reality-representation nexus with the assertion that such motifs were not simply derived from contemporary procedures with a view to creating a mirror-image, but were adopted as aesthetic devices that served the workings of imagination," Robert Mills wrote in Art History.

Expanding outward from the imagery of execution, Merback also writes about the medieval executions themselves as spectacles and about the presumed reactions of their audiences. In this section, he "does a good job of explaining pain in the context of medieval life and philosophy," thought Library Journal contributor Karen Ellis. Then, in the epilogue, Merback expands his analysis to the modern-day death penalty in the United States and the debate about whether dor not such executions should be viewed by the public. This epilogue, History Today reviewer Jeremy Black commented, "serve[s] to remind us of the abiding importance of his subject." Black also praised The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel as "powerful and well-illustrated." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Miri Rubin concluded that the work "is a rich and learned book … whose lively contemplations make wellknown images of the past pulsate vibrantly, as they must have done for some who viewed them half a millennium ago."

Merback told CA: "My earliest intensive efforts in writing were occasioned by my earliest intensive efforts to have sex. Fortunately for me, my first serious girlfriend, herself an aspiring avant-garde poet, had an unending appreciation for the long love letters I would write during those interminable junior high Spanish classes, and she returned them with powerful and imaginative letters of her own. That's where writing first became a creative outlet for me. You can really put anything you want into a love letter—so long as it ends on a love-affirming note and is addressed to the right person—and it was in this genre that I first discovered my talent for utterly undisciplined writing. Learning the craft of disciplined writing took much longer. In college, at the same time I was discovering Nietzsche and Heidegger and learning how to think, I cultivated a highly convoluted, very Teutonic prose style. Only the sage advice of my esteemed American history professor, who told me I should read the New York Times and try to emulate the economy of expression found there, eventually saved me from my own long-windedness. Still, it took me a long time before I found a personal voice, one that was more than just an echo of the writers I admired. I still work on that, and I still write love letters to my wife when I travel.

"Since my historical and art-historical interests spring from my preoccupations as an erstwhile citizen of the world, I am always hoping that I can prod the people of eras long-past to tell my readers something new about what it means to be human. Although I am pretty much a failure as an activist, and though I recognize that historical scholarship is too often an escape from contemporary reality, I wish to see at least some portion of what I write become an intellectual support for those who agitate for change."



American Historical Review, October, 2000, Samuel Y. Edgerton, review of The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Art History, March, 2000, Robert Mills, review of The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel, pp. 139-140.

History Today, May, 2000, Jeremy Black, review of The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel, p. 55.

Library Journal, September 15, 1999, Karen Ellis, review of The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel, p. 76.

Renaissance Quarterly, autumn, 2000, Christopher F. Black, review of The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel, p. 897.

TDR, summer, 2001, Richard Schechner, review of The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel, pp. 169-171.

Times Literary Supplement, August 20, 1999, Miri Rubin, review of The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel, p. 24.


DePauw University Web Site, (February 3, 2004), "Mitchell Merback, Ph.D."

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Merback, Mitchell B.

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