Pillar-Biters: Columnar Devotion as a Trope and Reality in Early Modern Europe

When and Where

Friday, March 04, 2022 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Online Event


Daniel Jütte (New York University)


Friday, 4 March 2022, 2:00 p.m. (Toronto time) via Zoom. To attend this talk, please send email to Megan Armstrong at marmstr@mcmaster.ca and ask her to register you for the talk. One day before the event you will receive an email containing access information to the lecture.

A common motif in late medieval and early modern Northern European art is the “pillar-biter” – a man, or occasionally also a woman, biting into a column. The iconographic meaning has been established: the motif denoted religious hypocrisy and the dissimulation of piety. But why exactly did premodern Europeans associate religious hypocrisy with columns? This question leads into a larger (and largely unstudied) issue: an unease with columns that runs deep in the Christian tradition. The case of the pillar-biter motif can serve as a starting point for a broader discussion of this phenomenon. To the modern beholder, the column may seem a mere architectural element, but, as this talk argues, premodern viewers associated it with a host of religious and devotional practices that have since fallen into oblivion.

Daniel Jütte is Associate Professor of History at New York University. He is the author of The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History (Yale University Press, 2015), as well as The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400–1800 (Yale University Press, 2015; first German ed.
2011). His current book project is titled Transparency: The Material History of an Idea.


Toronto Renaissance and Reformation Colloquium