Introduction: Medieval Vision in Perspective

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


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.


Thirteenth Century Linear Perspective Perceptual Consciousness Visual Culture Visual Metaphor 
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    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
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    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
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    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
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© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

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  • Suzannah Biernoff

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