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Introduction: Medieval Vision in Perspective

  • Suzannah Biernoff
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

T he recent proliferation of books and articles devoted to vision and visuality has prompted speculation of a ‘pictorial turn’ or ‘paradigm shift in the cultural imaginary of our age’.2 Yet despite this interest, and the expanding body of scholarship it has produced, the medieval period has remained curiously under-represented. To quote Jeffrey Hamburger, ‘the relation between medieval and modern modes of vision remains vexed, in large measure because, the history of optics and perspective aside, it remains virtually unexamined’.3 This book will, I hope, enable such historical comparisons to be made. But before we turn our attention to the Middle Ages, it seems salutary to reflect on the visuality of modern historiography. Where medieval vision is concerned, I believe we are dealing less with a scholarly oversight than with an historical blind spot. There are at least three plausible reasons why historians and theorists of vision may have neglected medieval texts or images. The first has to do with the critical apparatus available to the contemporary theorist. Recent work on visuality has been dominated by a Lacanian paradigm in which the visual gestalt—the mirror image for example—signifies the bounded subject of modern culture.

Keywords

Thirteenth Century Linear Perspective Perceptual Consciousness Visual Culture Visual Metaphor 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    M. Jay,’Vision in Context: Reflections and Refractions’, in Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Sight , ed. T. Brennan and M. Jay (New York: Routledge, 1996), 3. As Jay notes, the term ‘optical unconscious’ was first used by Walter Benjamin, and serves as the title for R. E. Krauss’s recent book The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1993).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jay’Vision in Context’, 3, referring to W. J. T. Mitchell’s ‘The Pictorial Turn’, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). The following titles are evidence—though by no means exhaustive—of this burgeoning interest in vision: Languages of Visuality: Crossings between Science, Art, Politics and Literature , ed. B. Allert (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996); Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision , ed. D. M. Levin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Sites of Vision: the Discursive Construction of Sight in the History of Philosophy ed. D. M. Levin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997); Vision and Visuality ed. H. Foster, DIA Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture 2 (Seattle: Bay 1988); Vision in Context , ed. Brennan and Jay; Visual Culture , ed. C. Jencks (London: Routledge, 1995); J. Crary Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); M. Jay Downcast Eyes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); and V. Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: a Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    J. F. Hamburger, Nuns as Artists: the Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). A few notable excursions into the subject are Jay’s introductory comments on medieval vision in Downcast Eyes (of which more will be said later), and Janet Martin Soskice’s essay on ‘Sight and Vision in Medieval Christian Thought’ in Vision in Context. Soskice does not, however, include medieval optics in her analysis. Suzanne Lewis goes further than most in relating medieval theories of vision and cognition to the visual culture of the late Middle Ages, while at the same time engaging with current thinking on visuality and textuality. See her Reading Images: Narrative Discourse and Reception in the Thirteenth-Century Illuminated Apocalypse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    U. Eco, ‘Living in the New Middle Ages’, Travels in Hyperreality trans. W. Weaver (London: Picador, 1987), 73–85.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    M. Camille, The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), xxvii.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    M. A. Holly, ‘Vision and Revision in the History of Art’, Theory Between the Disciplines: Authority/Vision/Politics ed. M. K. and M. A. Cheetham (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 157.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    At the culturalist end of the spectrum, for example, Marx W. Wartofsky insists that ‘human vision is itself an artefact, produced by other artefacts, namely pictures’. From ‘Picturing and Representing’, in Perception and Pictorial Representation , ed. C. F. Nodine and D. F. Fisher (New York: Praeger, 1979), quoted in Jay, Downcast Eyes 5.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    See, for example, S. Y. Edgerton, Jr, The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1975) and J. White, The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space 3rd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987). Although neither of these works purports to be a history of vision, both authors single out Renaissance perspectivism as evidence of a change in the way people actually viewed the phenomenal world.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    I am quoting D. M. Levin, The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation (New York: Routledge, 1988), 164. His argument is discussed at greater length later in this chapter.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    ‘The life of medieval Christendom is permeated in all aspects by religious images’, writes Huizinga, and as a consequence, ‘everything intended to awaken a consciousness of God rigidifies into terrible banality…’ J. Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages , trans. R. J. Payton and U. Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 174. Hans Belting’s comment about the late medieval ‘need to see’ provides the point of departure for Chapter 6.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    S. Ringbom, ‘Devotional Images and Imaginative Devotions: Notes on the Place of Art in Late Medieval Private Piety’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts , 73 (1969): 159–66.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    T. Brennan, ‘“The Contexts of Vision” from a Specific Standpoint’, Vision in Context , ed. Brennan and Jay, 219. See, for example, Freud’s comments in ‘Instincts and Their Vicissitudes’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud , ed. J. Strachey, trans. J. Strachey et al., 24 vols (London: Hogarth, 1957), 14: 109–40.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    M. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible , ed. C. Lefort, trans. A. Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), in particular Chapter 4: ‘The Intertwining—the Chiasm’, 130–55. Lewis similarly compares Merleau-Ponty’s ‘ontology of embodied vision’ to the medieval notion of continuity between the phenomenal world (the visible realm) and language (the invisible), Reading Images 9. While I think the comparison is illuminating (on both sides), it is important to acknowledge Merleau-Ponty’s resistance to the kind of causal thinking inherent in the idea of an original (invisible) creator and a secondary (visible) creation.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    In Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty makes the body the ‘meaningful core’ not only of the ‘biological world’, but also the ‘the cultural world’. M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception , trans. C. Smith (London: Routledge, 1962), 146.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    The relationship between nature and culture has been taken up by a number of Australian feminists in an attempt to rethink sexual difference somewhere between the untenable positions of biological essentialism (‘nature’) on the one side, and radical culturalism on the other. Elizabeth Grosz, for example, has described the body as ‘a hinge or threshold between nature and culture’ (8). As such, the body (and the same could be said of vision, as a bodily process) cannot be regarded as an historical constant, an organism that science simply gets better at describing: ‘the body is not inert or fixed. It is pliable and plastic material’ (3). Grosz,’Notes Towards a Corporeal Feminism’, Australian Feminist Studies 5 (Summer 1987). More recently, Sue Best has explored the ‘intertwining’ or ‘imbrication’ of feminine terms and the female body via Derrida, Irigaray and Merleau-Ponty. Best, ‘Sexualising Space’, in Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities of Feminism , ed. E. Grosz and E. Probyn (London: Routledge, 1995), 181–94. Bodies and texts, actuality and discourse, can in this way be conceptualised as inextricable, without collapsing one term into the other (i.e., making nature a product of culture, or seeing culture as built upon the immemorial bedrock of nature).Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    I have not mentioned Gothic architecture here, as it is not discussed at any length in this book. It would, however, be possible to extend my argument in Chapter 5 (on redemptive vision) through a spatial and optical analysis of ecclesiastical architecture. Otto von Simson gestures in this direction in his discussion of light in The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order Bollingen Series 48, 2nd ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1962), 50–8. A broader, and more recent, survey of the relationship between medieval visuality and Gothic architecture is provided by Michael Camille in Gothic Art:Visions and Revelations of the Medieval World (London: Orion, 1996): ‘New Visions of Space’, 27–68.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    Febvre locates the turning point at the end of the sixteenth century, Mandrou somewhat later: ‘Until at least the eighteenth century, touch remained…the master sense.’ R. Mandrou, Introduction à la France moderne 1500–1640: Essai de Psychologie historique quoted by Jay, Downcast Eyes , 35.Google Scholar
  18. 25.
    L. Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais trans. B. Gottlieb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), quoted in Jay, Downcast Eyes 34.Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    This conceptualisation of medieval art (symbolic, the ‘Bible of the illiterate’) in contrast to Renaissance art (naturalistic, emotionally appealing, grounded in direct observation) is fairly common. For example, in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), Panofsky writes of the ‘curtain’ of tradition intervening between the medieval artist/viewer and the visual world, in contrast to the Renaissance doctrine of ‘experience…as the root of art’ (321). An interesting variation on the theme is proposed by Jean Paris, who describes the passage from Byzantine icons to Renaissance painting as the ‘transformation of a sacred surface [deflecting our transgressive look] into a profane volume’, Painting and Linguistics (Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University, 1975), 69. The interpolation is Levin’s (Opening of Vision 114), amplifying Paris’s point that prior to the Renaissance, one was ‘seen’ by sacred images of Christ, the Virgin and the saints, rather than ‘seeing’ them as objects.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    M. Heidegger, ‘The Age of the World Picture’, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays trans. W. Lovitt (New York: Harper, 1977), 131, discussed in Levin, Opening of Vision 257–9.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    Murray Krieger observes similarly that Gombrich, in contrasting Renaissance naturalism to the ‘pictographs’ or ‘conceptual images’ of medieval art, invokes a model of historical progress in which the development of illusionistic art represents ‘a gradual movement to an absolutely true (that is, more “correct”) representation, one that requires fewer codes for us to see it’. Krieger, ‘The Ambiguities of Representation and Illusion: an E. H. Gombrich Retrospective’, Critical Inquiry 11.2 (Dec. 1984): 189. The text he is referring to is Gombrich’s ‘Illusion and Art’, in Illusion in Nature and Art , ed. R. L. Gregory and E. H. Gombrich (London: Duckworth, 1973). See also E. H. Gombrich, ‘The “What” and the “How”: Perspective Representation and the Phenomenal World’, in Logic and Art: Essays in Honour of Nelson Goodman ed. R. Rudner and I. Scheffler (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972). In this essay Gombrich contends that as well as representing what we see with a high degree of accuracy (i.e., the objective world), perspective pictures approximate the perceptual process itself: how we see. For these reasons, he argues, perspective representation is widely regarded as ‘better’ (truer, more natural) than other methods (148).Google Scholar
  22. 42.
    Edgerton, Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective 21. W V. Dunning paraphrases this argument (without crediting Edgerton) in Changing Images of Pictorial Space: a History of Spatial Illusion in Painting (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 12–13.Google Scholar
  23. 43.
    The inability to distinguish figure from ground—or the tendency to integrate them—has been identified as a feminine characteristic in several spatial studies. See, for example, I. M. Young, ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ in Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 153. Edgerton’s conceptualisation of the medieval artist—and the ‘neurotic’ paradigm generally—could be read as implicitly feminine, by virtue of the traditional alignment of femininity with subjectivism and the emotions (as against male reason), and maternal non-differentiation (versus masculine individualism).Google Scholar
  24. 47.
    C. Erickson, The Medieval Vision: Essays in History and Perception (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 33.Google Scholar
  25. 51.
    N. Klassen, Chaucer on Love, Knowledge and Sight Chaucer Studies XXI (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995), 24.Google Scholar
  26. 56.
    D. Boyarin, ‘The Eye in the Torah: Ocular Desire in Midrashic Hermeneutic’, Critical Inquiry 16 (Spring 1990): 532–50.Google Scholar

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© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

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  • Suzannah Biernoff

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