03.09.08, Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment

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Thomas E. A. Dale

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.008


Biernoff, Suzannah. Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. x, 248. ISBN: 0-333-96120-X.

Reviewed by:
Thomas E. A. Dale
Elvehjem Museum

Visuality has recently come into vogue in medieval studies. The late Michael Camille, for example, recast the history of Gothic art as new ways of seeing and visualizing, ranging from light-filled ecclesiastical architecture to the palpable representation of mystical visions and the illusion of space in painting. Artists were responding in part, he believed, to innovations in optical theory and the valorization of sight as a primary mediator of knowledge (Gothic Art: Visions and Revelations of the Medieval World [New York, 1996]). As Robert Nelson characterizes it, visuality entails the study of the underlying contexts--philosophical, religious, literary, political and artistic, as well as scientific--that lead to the construction of different theories and practices of seeing in different societies (Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance [Cambridge/ New York, 2000], 1-21). It is thus an interdisciplinary field that draws as much from philosophy and religion as it does from history of science and art history. As a methodology, the study of visuality also aspires to engage in contemporary theoretical debates. This is certainly the case in Suzannah Biernoff's provocative volume under review.

Focusing on a crucial watershed in the history of Western optics after 1200, Biernoff seeks to understand the pronounced "need to see" expressed in scientific and theological writings as well as in the marked increase in the production and use of religious images. She argues that the intense scrutiny given to the physiology of sight during this period was predicated on the belief that corporeal vision was intimately connected to intellectual and spiritual vision. Problematizing the conventional paradigm of visuality, which emphasizes the objectification of sight and the distance between the eye and its object, Biernoff further explains that medieval seeing entails a more dynamic model of "reciprocal vision" in which the eye was both a receptive, passive organ and an active extension of the sensible soul.

Biernoff lays out her argument in three parts, each comprising two chapters. The first, "Carnal Vision", surveys medieval theologies of the body and the flesh. Part II, "Perspectiva", considers the scientific theories of vision in the thirteenth century. Part III, "Redemption", focuses on the salutary connections between physical and spiritual seeing and on the role of visual images as access to knowledge of the divine.

In Chapter 1 ("Flesh") Biernoff rehearses the essential distinction made by patristic and medieval commentators between body (corpus) as a psychosomatic unity and site of redemption, and flesh (caro), which is primarily understood as the site of carnal desire and fallen nature. Building upon the seminal works on the body by Caroline Walker Bynum and Joan Cadden, Biernoff emphasizes a certain ambivalence in the gendering of the body. While the body and flesh itself are both symbolically feminine, and are considered the receptive matter into which the active male seed is injected, the body also contains the soul which is gendered male, reigning in God-like fashion over the fleshly body. On the other hand, the feminine gender can also be active rather than passive, when it comes to sexual appetite. Here, as elsewhere, Biernoff highlights underlying tensions within medieval theory.

Chapter 2 ("The Eye of the Flesh") focuses on the connection between sight and carnal desire. The Genesis narrative of the Fall is the primary biblical source that accounts for medieval understanding of the flesh as gendered feminine, but it also connects sight and fleshly desire. Medieval interpretations of Genesis, especially from the twelfth century on, highlight the visual implications of the biblical text, interpreting Eve's gaze at the forbidden fruit as proof of the potential negative impact of seeingPthe entrance of sin through the eyes. This understanding of the Fall reveals that seeing is understood as "an active extension of one's soul to the object" and a "physical act". (43) Another biblical passage, Matthew 5:28-9 ("Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery in his heart...") strengthened medieval notions of the sexuality of sight. For the patristic commentators Jerome and Ambrose, and later medieval theologians such as Peter Abelard, the eyes were both receptive organs, vulnerable to the entry of sexual desire emanating from women, and aggressive organs that actively sought out the object of their desire. Biernoff also shows compelling parallels from profane literature. In the twelfth-century French romance of Eneas, for example, the heroine Lavine is wounded in her eyes by Love's "phallic gaze," while she herself feasts her virginal eyes on the hero Eneas. Penetrating her eye, Love causes Lavine's body to be moved and inflamed sexually. Biernoff traces this notion of an erotically aggressive eye to ancient writers such as Plato. (50)

In Part II, Biernoff turns to scientific theories of optics in the thirteenth century. Here she relies heavily on the scholarship of David C. Lindberg. Focusing on the Franciscan Roger Bacon (d. 1292) in Chapter 3 ("Scientific Visions"), she shows that his innovative synthesis of previous optical theory shares with medieval theology and literature a certain ambivalence toward sight. Bacon drew extensively on the optical theories of the eleventh-century Islamic writer, Alhazen, but also assimilated newly rediscovered texts of Aristotle. He accepted the concept of intromission, whereby the forms or species of objects were thought to be perceived by a passive eye in the form of rays emanating from the original object through the adjacent medium of the air. Each point on the surface of the object had a corresponding one in the eye, joined by straight rays to form a Euclidean visual cone or pyramid with its apex at the eye. At the same time, however, Bacon argued that extramission played a role, in that the eye of the beholder emitted rays to excite the medium and permit the visible object to stimulate sight. Of particular importance for Biernoff, Bacon argues that the species, though not objects themselves, do take on "corporeal form" in the transparent medium of the air and physically effect a change in the humors of the observer's eye. Sight is thus embodied. Another crucial aspect for Biernoff is the claim that physical and intellectual vision are intimately connected. Bacon establishes the internal senses within the brain--common sense, imagination, estimation, memory and cogitation--as intermediaries between the material world and the immaterial powers of the soul that help evaluate sensory information and arrive at truth.

In Chapter 4 ("The Optical Body"), Biernoff explores further the affinities between Bacon's optical theory and what she terms carnal vision. She shows that Bacon emphasizes the palpable, physical nature of the relationship between viewer and object to the extent that sight comes to resemble touch. Here she takes up the thread of an argument made in Part I, that sight is closely linked to sexual desire, by virtue of the notion of reciprocal vision. Sight only occurs when the species emitted by objects are aided and excited by the species of the eye itself. What is more, Bacon regards the process of perception as a bodily operation of the perceiving subject, which results in a mutual assimilation of the subject and its object. On this basis, Biernoff argues that medieval visuality has been fundamentally misunderstood by modern interpreters who present his perspectival vision as the foundation of objective science. She also takes issue with contemporary optical theory of Evelyn Keller and Christine Grontkowski who assert as normative a disembodied eye. Distinguishing sight from the other senses, they assume that vision connects us to the intellectual or "specular" self, while the other senses engage us with the corporeal and felt self. Such a dichotomy is resisted by Bacon, however. He understands sight as a fundamentally corporeal phenomenon, in which the sensitive humors and membranes of the eye are susceptible to physical and emotional change. The viewing subject is thus moved by what he/she sees, physically and emotionally, causing both pleasure and pain. Biernoff further contends that Bacon assimilates perception to physical conception. Describing the inner layer of the eyeball or uvea, he explains that the posterior section is known as the secundina "because it is similar to the afterbirth"; likewise, in discussing the nutritive humors Bacon uses what she terms "sexual language." Yet, as Biernoff herself admits, Bacon never actually uses the language of sexual reproduction as explicitly as another Franciscan, Peter of John Olivi, does: the latter describes how internal senses "conceive" sensible species within the "capacious and material sinew" and likewise how the memorative species are produced in the "material womb of the intellect". (99-100) What is more, Bacon's espousal of "reciprocal vision" in which the eye is both active and passive further complicates Biernoff's analysis of his gendering of sight. The feminized eye, the receptive matter that is "impregnated" by the species through intromission, can also itself be "phallic" in its stimulation of the species that are emitted from the object.

The third and final part ("Redemption") turns to the visual techniques that were thought to illuminate the mind and ultimately bring it into communion with God. In Chapter 5 ("The Custody of the Senses"), Biernoff discusses two interrelated practices advocated by monastic writers to mitigate the negative aspects of vision and foster the journey from corporeal to spiritual seeing: enclosure and analogy as means of transcendence. Taking Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermon on Conversion as her point of departure, Biernoff argues that the architecture of the monastery was designed both metaphorically and physically as the enclosure or censorship of vision, the walls and windows protective custodians or vulnerable apertures like the eyes themselves. For Bernard, the road to conversion began with the recognition and visual examination of one's faults; then, he advocated a period of enforced enclosure during which the eye is cleansed by tears and its sight is sharpened in preparation to comprehend the "most serene light". Expanding on Bernard's model, Peter of Limoges (d. 1306), in his Exposition on Optics for Preachers, emphasizes that one need not simply shut the apertures to block out unhelpful exterior things; rather one should use the internal senses to cultivate a "moral eye." Here, in keeping with Bacon's analysis, it is suggested that the outer and inner senses lie on a perceptual continuum. Thus, the gaze may be shifted from the material to the immaterial form of sight, by exercising the censorship and judgement of the internal senses. The mind's eye leads the soul to truths that are finally no longer dependent upon physical images. This use of the material world as the means to transcend corporeal sight is directly linked to the concept of anagogy, the ultimate of four exegetical modes which writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including William Durandus, understood as the "upward-leading principle" by which the material or intelligible could signify the invisible and heavenly. Perhaps the most celebrated application of this principle is witnessed in Abbot Suger's elegy on the luminous new architecture and lavish metalwork furnishings of his abbey at Saint-Denis.

Biernoff argues that the process of transcendence can also be understood in the sexually charged language of sublimation. Following Julia Kristeva's adaptation of the Freudian concept, Biernoff defines sublimation as the attempt to control the abject, to convert carnality or sexual instincts into something purer, and to lift oneself up and beyond the abject towards its opposite, the sublime. A primary medieval example is provided by Bernard of Clairvaux's Commentary on the Song of Songs. Bernard encourages his listeners to identify with the bridegroom's physical desire for the bride only to sublimate this erotic awakening into the desire for divine love. More generally, the sublimation of ocular desire through successive levels of seeing and understanding is a means by which the soul's gaze attempts to transcend vision and fleshly desire in favor of contemplation of the divine. Ultimately, Biernoff concludes that transcendence is a misnomer, however, for the sublimated gaze remains on the material threshold between self and other, humanity and divinity.

Chapter 6, "Ocular Communion", finally brings the author to consider the promotion of visual images and visibility as means to redemption in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although she accepts Hans Belting's premise that visual images came to be understood as a necessary proof and locus of the existence of God and the saints during this period, she takes him to task for not explaining why visibility should be a privileged signifier or site of divine reality. For her, the answer lies in optical theory and the notion of embodied sight. She substantiates her theory that the visual image offers the opportunity for "bodily participation in the divine" by recalling the examples of saints who made active use of sculpted or painted crucifixes as a vehicle of corporeal union with, and imitation of Christ: Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and Angela of Foligno. She argues, contrary to Belting, that the images stimulate more than a mere "psychological dialogue". Rather, the viewing of images produces bodily effects (e.g. the stigmata of Francis) parallel to those described in optical theory.

Turning to the first of two visual images of Christ to be considered, the eucharistic host, Biernoff underlines the enhanced role of beholding the host in the thirteenth century following the proclamation of the doctrine of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Not only was the host elevated at the words of the consecration in order to make visible the moment of transubstantiation; as Miri Rubin has shown, this dramatic performance of the eucharist also made possible a form of communion with Christ by sight--a visual substitute for tasting Christ. Ocular communion of this kind was also made possible by the display of the consecrated host in ostensoria or monstrances.

Her second example, the Man of Sorrows, complements the eucharistic image in its emphasis on the human presence of Christ. This representation of the half-length suffering body of Christ, staring out at the viewer, has been explained by Belting as a new form of condensed historia designed to engage the viewer in his or her devotional practices. For Biernoff the devotional relationship is not merely established by compositional means, but is informed by the optical principle of the reciprocal gaze. She also argues that the body and gaze of Christ are sexualized, especially in images such as those illustrating an allegory of the Song of Songs in the manuscript known as the Rothschild Canticles (Beinecke Library, Yale University MS 404). In an image familiar to most medievalists from Jeffrey Hamburger's scholarship, a nun fulfills the role of Sponsa to Christ, hurling a lance to wound Christ on the opposite page (fols. 18v-19r). Hamburger has already shown how this image complements the literature of bridal mysticism drawing on Song of Songs 4:9 ("You have wounded my heart with one glance of your eyes") to stimulate devotion to the Sacred Heart. The wound is the entrance to the Sacred Heart and the access to the invisible wound of spiritual love. Biernoff goes further to suggest that the image acts out in sacred terms the sexualized exchanges of glances described in the romance tradition, reversing gender roles to present the nun's penetrating gaze as phallic, that of Christ as feminized and vulnerable. Corporeal vision thus brings the nun into ocular communion with Christ. Vision, Biernoff emphasizes, had become for female mystics such as Gertrude of Helfta the primary means of feeling, knowing and even tasting God. Biernoff concludes on the basis of these examples that the thirteenth century witnesses not so much a rediscovery or reawakening of vision and the visual, so much as a "reorientation and discursive elaboration of the visual sense" that made it possible and even desirable to behold and feel God in the flesh.

While much of Biernoff's material is familiar, the great virtue of this book is that it synthesizes research in different disciplines and sets the question of how medieval vision is constructed in theory and practice within a contemporary theoretical framework. Her essential argument that sight and embodiment are intimately connected in thirteenth-century theory and practice is clearly demonstrated in the rich array of theological, scientific, literary texts and images she adduces.

A bold new synthesis of such broad, interdisciplinary reach, is bound to provoke strong critical reactions from distinctive disciplinary perspectives. As an art historian specializing in Romanesque, I am prompted to re-think the ways in which we understand the viewing of medieval art in the century before the great scientific breakthroughs in Western optical theory after 1200. Biernoff draws extensively on twelfth-century writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux in establishing the theological background for the embodiment of vision in the thirteenth century; she also shows the affective powers ascribed to sight and the concept of reciprocal gaze in twelfth- century romance; yet, she seems to imply--at least by omission--that the engaged viewing practices associated with pictorial images were essentially new in the thirteenth century. I would argue that the ecstatic responses to images by later medieval visionaries seeking corporeal union with Christ and the saints discussed in Chapter 6 are surely anticipated by twelfth century monastic culture as well as by images themselves. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is said to have prayed before an image of the crucified Christ, which came alive and embraced him, and to have been offered milk from the breasts of the Virgin Mary after fervent prayer before a statue of the Virgin (see David Freedberg, The Power of Images [Chicago, 1989], 305-307). Similarly, Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129) describes two highly erotic encounters with a large sculpted crucifix which reciprocates his own caresses and kisses (see Richard C. Trexler, "Gendering Jesus Crucified," in Iconography at the Crossroads, ed. Brendan Cassidy [Princeton, 1993], 107-118, esp. 108; and Jacqueline Jung, "Rupert's Raptures: Monumental Crucifixes and the Religious Imagination in Twelfth-Century Germany," in Abstracts / College Art Association Conference, 89th Annual Conference, Chicago, 2001, 96-97). In each case, these visions were stimulated by the experience of palpable, sculpted images. Given the general consensus that the twelfth century saw the emergence of a more insistently somatic spirituality, one might ask whether a more corporeal understanding of vision also accounts for the re-emergence of monumental stone sculpture as a major form of religious art in the Romanesque. Not only are the majestic visions of the Book of Revelation unveiled in corporeal form; so too are the monstrous phantasms of dreams and the demonic temptations of the female flesh (see Thomas Dale, "Monsters, Corporeal Deformities and Phantasms in the Romanesque Cloister of St-Michel de Cuxa," Art Bulletin 83, no. 3 [2001]: 402-436). While the consideration of Romanesque visuality may lie beyond the scope of the book under review, the author could certainly strengthen her argument for the relationship between viewing practices and theory after 1200 by referring to a wider range of pictorial examples than she does. Surely one of the most significant changes in the religious art of the thirteenth century is the rise of the altarpiece: a direct response to the emphasis on transubstantiation and the concept of optical communion (e.g. Kees van der Ploeg, "How Liturgical is a Medieval Altarpiece," in Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento, ed. Victor M. Schmidt [Washington, D.C., 2002], 103-121). The enhanced role of visibility in the eucharistic liturgy, discussed in chapter 6, would find a particularly eloquent pictorial commentary in Pacino da Bonaguida's remarkable Beato Chiarito Tabernacle, ca. 1340 (Getty Museum, Los Angeles; recently discussed in Klaus Krueger, "Medium and Imagination: Aesthetic Aspects of Trecento Panel Painting," in Italian Panel Painting, 57-81, esp. 73-75, figs. 29-34). In the central panel of this devotional triptych, the Communion of the Apostles is translated into a radiant low-relief panel--an image within an image suggesting an altarpiece itself--with Christ at the center and rays of light extending from his body to the mouths of each of the apostles; a thirteenth ray extends to the eucharistic wafer in the scene below as the priest offers it to Beato Chiarito; and to the right, in another scene the beato beholds a figure of Christ within the rays of light emanating from the elevated host at the moment of transubstantiation. One could hardly find a more apt demonstration of the connection between seeing and knowing the real presence.

The link between physical and spiritual sight and the impact of optical diagrams is revealed quite literally through golden rays of light connecting viewers and objects within the pictorial field--e.g. Lippo Memmi's "Glorification of Saint Thomas Aquinas", ca. 1340-45 (Camille, op. cit., fig. 13). One could also add the numerous images of Francis receiving the Stigmata (e.g. Giotto's fresco above the entrance to the Bardi Chapel at Santa Croce in Florence) in which rays of light visually connect and serve to imprint the wounds of the seraphic Christ upon the hands feet and side of the saint, thus clarifying the author's argument concerning the link between seeing and feeling. At the same time, as Marvin Trachtenberg has recently shown, both the represention of space in painting and the planning of public space and architecture in Trecento Italy are predicated on the new scientific theories of perspectiva and the concept of an engaged eye (The Domininion of the Eye. Urbanism, Art, and Power in Early Modern Florence [New York/Cambridge, 1997]).

Another important body of visual evidence that would enhance the Biernoff's argument comprises illustrated treatises that advocate certain postures or gestures of prayer. In the Dominican milieu, for example, manuscripts of the late 13th- century treatise De modo orandi corporaliter sancti Dominici include pictorial images that complement the text to provide visual models of prayer gestures. The reader/viewer is encouraged to corporeally assimilate himself to Saint Dominic's models of efficacious prayer and meditation (see William Hood, "Saint Dominic's manners of praying: gestures in Fra Angelico's cell frescoes at S. Marco," Art Bulletin 68 [1986] 195-206). The fact that these and so many of the other visual images mentioned above come from the mendicant milieu might prompt the author to consider a more direct connection between visual practice and optical theory within this particular religious community as a partial explanation for the new visuality after 1200.

While the author covers a tremendous range of primary and secondary sources and is generally up-to-date, there are a few notable omissions of recent scholarship. For William Durandus' text (126, nn. 84-86) Biernoff should cite the recent edition by A. Davril et T. M. Thibodeau in Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaevalis, vols. 140, 140A, 140B, (Turnholt, 1995f). On Abbot Suger's visual aesthetics and anagogy (126- 127, nn. 87-89), in addition to Panofsky, reference should be made to the essays in Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium, ed. Paula Gerson (New York, 1986), as well as to Conrad Rudolph, Artistic Change at St-Denis: Abbot Suger's Program and the Early Twelfth-Century Controversy over Art (Princeton, 1990). On the application of Freudian sublimation to Bernard's Sermon on the Song of Songs (129-132), Jean Leclercq's pathbreaking study on monastic psychology should be studied: A Second Look at Bernard of Clairvaux (Kalamazoo, 1990), esp. 103-27. Perhaps too recent to be known to the author at the time of her publication is the volume referred to at the beginning of this review edited by Robert Nelson: essays by Michael Camille, Cynthia Hahn, Robert Nelson and Jas Elsner all show that visuality has now come to the forefront of scholarship in the history of medieval art.

Without diminishing the essential validity of Biernoff's argument, these comments highlight the kind of valuable reconsideration of medieval visuality that the book under review should provoke. By engaging in current debates over the nature of vision, Biernoff has shown how medieval ways of seeing challenge contemporary notions of objective, ocular- centric theories of vision as normative.

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Thomas E. A. Dale

Elvehjem Museum