03.05.16, Nelson, Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance

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Axel Bolvig

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.016


Nelson, Robert, ed.. Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance. Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism.. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 264. ISBN: 0-512-65222-7.

Reviewed by:
Axel Bolvig
University of Copenhagen

The jacket illustration shows "Votive Statues from the Square Temple, Tell Asma ca. 2750-2400 B.C.E." -- or does it? It is a print in colour of a photography of an arranged selection consisting of five of the nine statues which can be seen on the back in a smaller size. At least two of these statues are represented in another photographic arrangement in black and white consisting of 12 statues (26). These considerations might seem of minor relevance to an important volume about visuality but one must reflect on how our way of seeing since Daguerre and Talbot has changed from a direct gaze to an indirect look through a lens, yes indeed on a printed illustration. Historians and art-historians tend to share the view of Roland Barthes that "dans la photographie, en effet -- du moins au niveau du message litterál -- le rapport des signifiés et des signifiants n'est pas de ÇtransformationÈ mais d'ÇenregistrementÈ, et l'absence de code renforce évidemment le mythe du Ç naturel È photographique : la scéne est là...' ("Rhétorique de l'image," Communications 4 [1964]: 46). But the original scene is not there. Publishers, editors, authors and readers: all use photos and prints without heavy reservations as an acceptable substitute for original visual source material. Our forefathers never or at least very seldom experienced their images through reproductions. Their gaze was direct.

The volume contains nine articles including a very informative introduction by Robert S. Nelson. The project originates from a conference at the University of California in 1995. Undoubtedly some readers will find that the subjects of eight different articles are too disparate. Others, including myself, find the dispersion in time and space inspiring. Maybe one cannot compare reflections of visuality in the ancient Near East with those of say modern Senegal or medieval Europe. But each article opens the eyes of the reader. He or she will from now on be better equipped to understand the function and perception of images in the age before René Decartes whose experiments are treated in the introduction. In this Robert S. Nelson points at vital problems such as what constituted normal vision? And the distinction between "natural" vision and the "social" visuality, the latter being the keyword of the present volume.

Chapter 1: Irene J. Winter, "The Eyes have it. Votive Statuary, Gilgamesh's Axe, and Cathected Viewing in the Ancient Near East" (22-44). The Mesopotamian votive statues with enlarged, staring eyes were originally placed in shrines in direct visual contact with the resident deity. Understandably the author is exited: "The panoply of statues...as photographed for the University of Chicago...gives an almost eerie sense of absolute and focussed attention" (22). But do we really deal with an un-coded photographic message enabling us to analyse these old statues? And if so we must accept being in the same position as the deity and not the donors represented by the statues, which in a way constitutes another setting for visuality. The question is not in focus because the author concentrates on ancient Mesopotamian texts and here as everywhere we as (art) historians are (too) dependant of the "views" of a literate philosophical oriented elite and not the bodily oriented beholder (yet see my comments at chapter 3 on Hostius). Winter concentrates on the visual experience in poetic literature in which there was a well-developed vocabulary for seeing. The relationship between being on view and visual assessment is well established in the literature. Winter offers many examples that underline the emphasis of "being see-worthy" which means being magnificent and beautiful. Through seeing, value is perceived, satisfaction ascertained, and admiration obtained. But is this surprising except for the inclusion of deity's regard (the goddess Nanâ is "joyous in her regard (of) the work")? Was visuality restricted to pleasure and admiration? What about power, propaganda, threat, war-scenes, private and distorted subjects? Interesting is the observation of varieties of viewing. For the gods, seeing is the point of departure for active engagement, whereas for the populace the act of seeing is the end experience.

Chapter 2: Jas Elsner, "Between Mimesis and Divine Power -- visuality in the Greco-Roman World" (45-69). Elsner exemplifies "the extent of antiquity's 'Renaissance'" visuality with two descriptions by Achilles Tatius and Philostratus of two different realizations of the mythological tale of Perseus and Andromeda. Tatius' description is an excessive response to a work of art indulging the readers in an intense sexual fantasy. The viewer implied by Philostratus is offered the sight of lovers transfixed. This kind of visuality is put up against "Visuality and the sacred" which is established by the confrontation with the direct gaze of the deity, yes indeed the reciprocal gaze which leads to "a kind of epiphanic fulfilment." On the contrary because there is no contact in the regime of naturalist representation, there is no contact, only longing and nostalgia (61). One could add that the main part of Tatius' description is written in the past tense ("She was chained up waiting for death..."). To my mind using the past tense in a description is creating a distance between spectator and the contents of the image.

Chapter 3: Shadi Bartsch, "The Philosopher as Narcissus. Vision, Sexuality, and Self-Knowledge in Classical Antiquity," (70-97). Narcissus looked into a pool and was stricken with Eros. Who did he fall in love with? By this famous example the author starts examining philosophical texts concerning mirroring. For all of us to reflect is to think and the cogito ergo sum demands a turning of the mind upon itself. But what do we do with Eros? Bartsch leads us through philosophic considerations about the gaze upon and from the mirror from Pre-Socratic Greece to Roman Stoicism. The gaze mirrored upon the self leads to self-knowledge -- "know thyself." Thus Seneca argued that what the mirror shows the viewer is the hidden truth about him- or herself. Shadi Bartsch then deals with an opposite thought about the mirror's function. Democritus believed that the image reflected on the cornea signified the presence of the image of the real object in the eye. The reflected image of a mirror was an effect of the presence of the viewing subject. The image in the mirror was a sign with no referent. The mirror serves as the symbol of vanity. This leads to the contradictory strains about the mirror: self-improvement versus self-delusion. Both intromission and extramission have roots far back in time. Referring to Narcissus Bartsch then takes a step further to an eroticised notion of how sight works. Theorists of intromission are explicit about the penetration of the eyes by simulacra. Plato's Phaedrus brings together elements of intromission, Eros and arousal. So the vision of beauty is both an erotically phenomenon and a factor in the establishment of self-knowledge. The author confronts two versions of the Narcissus story: Did he fall in love with himself mirrored in the spring or did he not recognize his own image? In Ovid both versions are present because he transformed the Narcissus story into a story of coming to know the self. Narcissus has looked into the eyes of one who loves him -- himself -- and he has seen himself. The author argues that Ovid here seems to invoke an extramission theory. Coming so far this reviewer thought: what about the vision of ordinary man? Do these philosophical considerations reflect the vision of others than the mentioned theorists? And Bartsch then ends up with an exiting answer by introducing Seneca's story about Hostius who lived and slept amid self-reflection: he had walled his bedroom with magnifying mirrors under which he held orgies with both men and women. Hostius felt no impetus toward higher forms of knowledge. The ethical questions posed by Roman Stoicists like "Is gazing upon the self inseparable from narcissism? And how can the subject viewing himself make objectively wise choices"? Hostius would answer "Who cares." After reading Shadi Bartsch a sceptic like myself confess: Now I do care. And being a medievalist I shall reconsider my view on the use of mirrors in medieval imagery. Referring to my remarks in the introduction one might need some reflections about the un-coded mirrored image compared to artificial images, be it portraits of self-portraits.

Chapter 4: Georgia Frank, "The Pilgrim's Gaze in the age Before Icons" (98-115). Frank demonstrates how late antique pilgrimage transformed Christian attitude towards the divine. The Christians travelled to Jerusalem to see, touch and smell the holy places and by this they contributed to a larger visual piety. Seeing the holy places generated genuine understanding of scriptures. Puzzling is it that the pilgrims only tell little about what they actually saw. "The eye of faith" transforms the viewer into a spectator at, and even a participant in, an event from the biblical past. "Whereas tourists see the markers of the biblical events, pilgrims 'linger" to see the event itself" (101). What does it mean to see an event of the past? The reader is inclined to see the pilgrim travelling back in time, to be a participant of holy stories. To my mind the opposite is a more realistic explanation. By the gaze of pilgrims and in fact everybody the past vanishes into the present. The explanation also has to do with the fact that text is a function of time whereas vision is a function of space, which already Pope Gregory emphasized (see 176-77). Experiencing and/or describing a site or an image almost always will be in the present tense thus forcing the described an actual presence. This presence is apparent in the places and the relics. The rapid display of relics is a factor in pilgrim's desire to touch the holy so much that vision became less important to later pilgrims. This might seem in contrast to Christian writers stressing the superiority of sight as opposed to the animalistic touch but as the author notes, when pilgrims reached out to touch a sacred stone or a fragment of the True Cross, that gesture did not invert the sensorium. "To see and touch, then, were not exclusive activities, but rather convergent senses" (108).

Chapter 5: Eugene Y. Wang, "Watching the Steps. Peripatetic Vision in Medieval China," (116-142). To obtain vision in medieval China two modes of visualization prevailed: sitting and walking. One involved sitting as the ideal pose. The seated meditator gazing at the sun suggests an optical reflex (sympathetic resonance) and the illusionism of the spatial recession prompt a mental sauntering into the pictorial depth (mental peripatetic). The physical world can be dematerialised into phantoms by the evocative power of the seated or walking meditator (illustrations 12a and b). The states of bodily stasis and of mental sauntering fit both the Buddhist and Daoist practices of visualization. People in medieval China seemed to be aware of the different qualities of visions from sitting as opposed to walking. Thus a person circumambulating a pagoda "would acquire bountiful fortunes" (124). Circumambulating requires practicing so that the mind might be "polished like a water surface or a mirror on which a myriad of images would appear" (127). An interesting example of Wang's is "The Shadow Cave" in which Buddha spent one night but his shadow has remained there ever since. The parable of the Shadow Cave shifts its reference to any imaginary grotto conjured up in the adept's inner mind. Consequently to visualize a Buddha icon is to evoke the mental topography of a cave and envision oneself "entering the grotto" (133). It would be interesting for the reader to know if the ideal poses -- sitting and walking -- just are restricted to Buddhist evoking a mental topography or if they had a decisive effect on secular vision.

Chapter 6: Robert S. Nelson, "To Say and to See, Ekphrasis and Vision in Byzantium" (143-168). The starting point of Nelson is a sentence from 1963 of Cyril Mango that while we appreciate Byzantine art for not being naturalistic the Byzantines themselves regarded it as highly naturalistic. To this the author argues that the Byzantines described their religious images as "life-like," which does not mean naturalistic but living or alive. Byzantine authors evoked works of celebrated artists but the problem is that these texts do not conform to what we see when looking at this art. Pointing at the rhetorical conventions of Byzantine (and our) descriptions of art Nelson focuses on the problem that there is a conflict between what we say we see and what they said the saw (144). By analysing the sermon of the Patriarch Photios, delivered in Hagia Sophia in 867, the author wants to find clues to optical perception. The occasion for the speech was the inauguration of the mosaic of Mary and her child. Nelson elaborates the set up of the view that Photios and his congregation had of the mosaic as opposed to the use of photos in modern (art) historical accountings (fig. 21). "Such a photo, taken straight-on from scaffolding, erects another scaffolding around the medieval image, turning it, first, into a photograph, a system of representation in our world,..." (147-48). The Byzantines assembled in the church did not see the mosaic as (art) historians do today. To my mind this is crucial mostly because we all today live in accordance with the famous statement of the film director Eisenstein "I am a camera." Even Nelson cannot omit the fact that we are the children of Daguerre and Talbot when using a black and white two-dimensional half-page photo as an illustration of what the clergy saw when staying immediately below the mosaic. Of course Nelson is fully aware of our problematic dependence of Photographs: "unlike the omnipresent photographic eye of our world, vision in Byzantium was not merely mechanistic or physical. It was also moral and situational" (158).

Chapter 7: Cynthia Hahn, "Visio Dei. Changes in Medieval Visuality" (169-196). The difference between early and later Western medieval images has to do with the shift of the vision of the divine from the momentary and the glance to the prolonged gaze. Based on a selective treatment of visual material Hahn focuses on the changes in the perceived possibilities of vision. To illustrate thirteenth-century vision the author chooses Life of St Alban written and illustrated by Matthew Paris. Alban sees the cross in a dream, he spies the monk praying before the cross and finally the monk teaches Alban holding the cross in his hands. The transcendental signifier does exist in the Middle Ages and Hahn suggests that it may be found (not in Lacan's phallus but) in the representation of the cross. To explain this, the author then turns to early medieval devotion to the cross, exemplified by four images. The Gregorian tradition that relate to vision in the early Middle Ages has to do with the capacity of visual imagery. The true wonders are seen through "acts of faith and abundant prayers" (177). Hahn's thesis is that the common ground of access to vision and to the divine is in images of the cross. In an illustration c. 900 Romanus in a disputation with his tormentor is depicted holding a cross in his hand. In early medieval epistemology corporeal things of this world are indicators of the divine. They are symbols that have no meaning if not read with faith. Hahn refers to Paulinus of Nola who "allows that the rustics might 'gape' at Old Testament frescoes, but his own vision in adoration of the cross is a meditative gaze..." (178). It could be interesting to ask how Romanus' tormentor perceived the cross. With fear? With hate? With indifference? Without recognition? The difference between early and later Western medieval images is clearly demonstrated. In the early Middle Ages the use of corporeal vision was bound to acts of faith, touch and even bodily prostration. In the later Middle Ages a new relationship between viewer and the image is recommended. Narratives become particularistic, affective and emotional. Unfortunately we shall never get an adequate answer to a question posed by Cynthia Hahn commenting on Matthew Paris' illustrations: "What would any sort of "average" viewer have made of his results?"

Chapter 8: Michael Camille, "Before the Gaze. The Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing" (197-223). Since he was a graduate student, Michael Camille has had in his memory the Cambridge diagram, which presents a model of visuality as it was understood during the later Middle Ages (I grieve to announce that Michael is now dead). It is a depiction of a man's head and is an illustration to a tract consisting of excerpts of Avicenna's eleventh-century encyclopaedia often referred to as De anima (c. 1310). According to the text the diagram illustrates 'how the head of man is structured' (198). In the brain five faculties are depicted (virtus is the Latin expression). The faculty in the anterior cell is labelled the sensus communis. The sensations felt in this organ cannot be retained for long just as water lacks the power of retaining an imprint. The second faculty, ymaginatio vel formalis, preserves the senses received by sensus communis. Linked to the second cell are two senses labelled cogitative vel formalis and estimativa. The first of these faculties combines some of the things in ymaginatio with others and divides some from others, according to its wishes. The estimative function "is able to 'perceive the non-sensible intentions, like the faculty which judges that the wolf is to be avoided and the child is to be loved'" (200-201). Finally at the back of the head is "the storehouse of the intellect" (201). Camille wants to locate this image in an effort to bridge two discourses of visuality: the vision as it was written about by thirteenth-century philosophers and as it is studied today by art-historians, and the vision as it is materialized by medieval image makers and as it is studied today by art-historians. Very distinctly Camille hits the nail on its head: "If there is one crucial underlying idea behind this image and its model for perception of all images, it is the activity of the vision, understood not as a passive process but as an active one involving the body and the whole person" (202). The Cambridge diagram assumes the intromission theory of perception. The transformation form extramission to intromission had its impact upon the way images were made and viewed. As a result of extramission in earlier medieval image making the notion of likeness was not strong because the gaze produced the object. The intromission model stressed the power of the images themselves. It placed the world of nature and the world of art at the same footing. The former was placed in a new relation to the viewer as objects of senses that could be known. It is an interesting way of explaining the change in medieval artistic expression.

Chapter 9: Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts, "Displaying Secrets. Visual Piety in Senegal" (224-251). Michael Camille writes that just as photography defines our way of seeing for medievals it was the impression made by metal matrix in wax that replicated processes of transformation and defined form making (210). This chapter is directly referring to the use of photographs, or more correctly one photograph of Sheikh Amadu Bamba, taken 1913. Bamba was a Sufi mystic and saint. Among the many religious paintings, portraits of Bamba are by far the most common, and they are all of them based upon this single photograph. As a wrestler of the Senegalese national team once said: "for me, He is there. I don't see the image, I see the sainted man" (234). To my mind it is similar to many devotional images throughout history. It is not the quality or size that matter but what the image represents. Discussing the photograph the authors refer to Susan Sontag's exiting theories. They quote: photographs are "inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy" (234). It seems to fit perfectly to the intense visual paraphrases of the old photograph. One is tempted to refer to another approach made by Karl Pawek: "Es ist photographiert worden -- also existiert es!" (Klaus Waller: Fotographie und Zeitung. Die alltaegliche Manipulation [1982], 21). The photograph of Bamba is also a documentation of his physical existence. And its historical authenticity is underlined by Roland Barthes in his "La chamber claire" when fixing the term "interfuit" to the photograph. In this connexion he compares the photograph with the Turin Shroud, which opens up to a lot of religious aspects (see e.g. Robin Cormack, Painting the Soul. Icons, Death Masks and Shrouds [1977], 115-132). Even if the photograph invites to deduction, speculation, and fantasy the authors make, so is my understanding, an over-interpretation. It is questionable if Bamba is stepping forth. In 1913 photographic equipment prohibited any movement and Bamba is standing still casting a sharp shadow. It raises a question. If according to a local Senegalese "no one should ever make a three-dimensional sculpture of the saint..., for it would cast a shadow and therefore possess a soul of its own" (237) how do we understand the shadow on the photograph? And how do we interpret it when Bamba himself is "the shadow of the Prophet Mohammed"? Being a Dane, I cannot resist hinting at the fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen "The Shadow." In the story the shadow takes control over the real person!

Oedipus blinded himself in despair. He had seen too much and desired the wrong. It can be seen as a response to the words of a Coptic preacher: "What the eye sees it appropriates." After reading this book I better understand why Oedipus did it. In a modern paraphrase: after having read the book you encounter the visual past not in the Lancanian way but with your "eyes wide open."

Article Details

Author Biography

Axel Bolvig

University of Copenhagen