Voice and Wisdom in Early Italian Art

  • Matthew G. Shoaf
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In later medieval Europe, categorical distinctions between the senses of sight and hearing informed the way that thinkers understood responses to art. Thirteenth-century theologians Saints Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, for example, judged seeing images of Christ and the saints superior to hearing about them for the purpose of aiding memory and arousing devotion.1 In the fourteenth century, early commentators on Dante’s Commedia, responding to a well-known passage in the poem about sculptures that appear to speak and sing, underscored the wonder of that enlivened quality by explaining that speech is normally grasped through hearing, not through sight.2 It does not follow, however, that medieval artists strictly segregated the senses, or that medieval art conveyed nothing about auditory experience. Indeed, sculptors and painters in Dante’s time empowered images to make claims on sound. These claims are especially evident where images addressed their audiences as the beholders of voices.


Open Mouth Fourteenth Century Visible Speech Auditory Experience Human Voice 
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© Irit Ruth Kleiman 2015

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  • Matthew G. Shoaf

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