Monday, October 06, 2008

Late Medieval Piety, Vision, and Iconoclasm

Archangel Michael, by Pere Garcia (ca. 1470)

Last Friday was our 16th wedding anniversary, so I took the day off from work. Anne and I went into town and put in a couple of hours at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I hadn't been to the Gardner in a long, long time, primarily because it's so difficult to park around there. The Gardner is pretty well-known worldwide because several priceless paintings were stolen from there back in 1990 and have never resurfaced since - including Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer's The Concert.

The empty frames still stand in the places where those paintings were stolen from, but what struck Anne and I (and this is something I never noticed about the museum before) is how much of Mrs. Gardner's collection consisted of religious pieces from both the Early and High Renaissance. As we looked at the various paintings, altarpieces, triptychs, candle-holders, vestments, monstrances, stained-glass windows and other liturgical artifacts, we were thinking to ourselves that many of these objects belonged more properly in a church, and we were wondering how the various collectors whom Mrs. Gardner had bought the pieces from had originally happened to come by them. We asked one of the museum guides, and she explained that a lot of them were obtained in private hands after the stripping of the altars and the destruction of churches that occured during the religious wars that swept through Europe following the Reformation.

A few years ago, Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid debated a Calvinist apologist in front of a mixed Catholic/Protestant audience on The Communion of Saints, including the topic of the veneration of saints and images. At one point in the debate, Patrick held up a crucifix and invited anyone in the audience who felt as if the object was idolatrous to come up on stage and to spit on it or trample it underfoot. Nobody took him up on the offer. Their forebears in the 1500s were not so shy about it. Why is that?

I posted once about Paula Fredriksen and her caution concerning the dangers of anachronism. When we look back at the events of history, we shouldn't always assume that people who lived centuries ago saw things in quite the same terms that we do. There are things that concern us today that were of little or no interest to them and vice-versa. In fact, they often perceived reality itself quite differently... I happened to notice today a Cambridge Journal abstract of an article by Christopher Joby of the Theology Department at the University of Durham (UK). I found it to be very interesting, and it may shed light on the question. I don't know enough about it to know for sure.
There are several ways whereby medieval theories of vision may have contributed to the rise of practices some saw as idolatrous. A feature of much medieval art is the rise of naturalistic representation. This process was facilitated by the use of linear perspective, based ultimately on Euclid's visual cone. We are told its application led viewers to confuse a representation with its object.

The theory of extramission influenced medieval piety profoundly.

First, by suggesting that the eye emits a ray and ‘touches’ its object, it led worshippers to believe that seeing the Eucharistic host had a salvific effect. This may have led them to think that seeing images of saints or God had a similar effect.

Second, by implying that the subject was active in the process of seeing, it underpinned Augustine's theory of vision, whereby one trained the eye to access the invisible through the visible. However, as he was aware, the untrained eye could linger on physical objects and want to possess them.

Finally, there was much debate about how visual information was mediated. Some argued that it was transmitted by intermediate bodies. The parallels between their language and that used by iconophobes to describe the images they rejected are striking and merit further investigation. Others argued that the viewer had direct access to the object. This understanding, when combined with the idea that seeing equates to knowing, may have led worshippers to believe that seeing an image of God meant they might in some sense know him.
View works by various artists at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.


Liam said...

Interesting stuff, Jeff. Very different from the eighth-century Byzantine conflict and the writings of John of Damascus, where the questions were not about seeing, rather about reproduction of prototypes.

Late medieval theories of vision seem very strange to us, and once you know about them, they change the way you approach a lot of culture from the period -- not only art, but poetry as well. The glance of the beloved is thought of as having a real physical effect, etc., and is part of a developed physiology of love.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Didn't Roger Bacon, the Franciscan at Oxford, do a study on perspective and develop a theology based upon the spiritual properties of light? The guy was sort of like the Leonardo Da Vinci of the 13th century.

Garpu said...

Huh, interesting. I know in discussions of historical performance practices, one criticism of it is that we don't really know how people perceived music back then. Sure, people can write about it, and we've got a good idea from the doctorine of affections, but you can't ever be certain of the psychology of what people were hearing. (And the criticism goes on to say that we shouldn't bother with playing older music on older instruments. I think there's still some benefit to playing Renaissance music on actual Renaissance instruments, as opposed to modern ones, but that's me.)

crystal said...

Neat painting!

Happy anniversary, Jeff :)

This stuff is really interesting. I had a post a while ago about the way icons were used, also madalas in hinduism and Buddhism, to induce a change in the viewer - E8 - a modern mandala?

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

I like hearing old music on the original instruments. There's a shop on Rte in 9 Brookline that makes them and fixes them, The Von Huene Workshop.

Thanks, Crystal!

Like a Mandala? A painting that's used in meditation to help bring about enlightenment

Yes, it sounds very much like the same thing, doesn't it?