In March of 2007 Central European University's Medieval Studies Department and Program of Religious Studies held a workshop on "The Supernatural and Its Visual Representation in the Middle Ages." The meeting had as its focus visual representations and material objects from the cultures created by Western and Eastern Christianity and the Arabic and Jewish communities. These representations belong to the world of supernatural or divine phenomena and persons, religious practice, cult images, miracles, divine interventions, and satanic powers. Twenty-seven papers or posters were presented at the conference and nine of them appear (in one form or another) in this collection: Norbert Schnitzler, "The Beam of Grace and the Ocular Paradigm: Some Remarks on the Relation between Late Medieval Theology and Art"; Gerhard Jaritz, "Visual Images of the Supernatural in the Late Middle Ages, or, How to Make the Entities Recognizable that Are not Part of Our Natural World"; Alexander E. Makhov, "...In diversas figuras nequitiae: The Devil's Image from the Viewpoint of Rhetoric"; Helmut Hundsbichler, "Devils in Visual Proximity"; Béla Zsolt Szakács, "Supernatural Figures Incognito"; Maria Crǎciun, "Guardians or Avengers? Depictions of Angels in Transylvanian Altarpieces from the Late Medieval Period"; Zsófia Buda, "Heavenly Envoys: Angels in Jewish Art"; György E. Szönyi, "The Reincarnations of Enoch from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance"; and Anna Maria Gruia, "Images to Influence the Supernatural: Apotropaic Representations on Medieval Stove Tiles."
Norbert Schnitzler's "The Beam of Grace and the Ocular Paradigm: Some Remarks on the Relation between Late Medieval Theology and Art" has a three-fold plan: some comments on the writings of medieval experts in optics, a discussion on Peter of Limoges' Liber de oculo morali, and an analysis of what Schnitzler terms as the "optical paradigm" (6), which is the process through which religious truth was combined with visual evidence. Since it argues that our interest in the visual, in painting, in human eyesight was spurred on by the study of the divine, this essay is a good start to the collection. Indeed, Peter of Limoges even asserts that human cognition is able to censure or separate indecent images received through the optical nerves; there is a physiological basis for humans to act properly. Additionally, Schnitzler also references Antoninus' Summa theologica and Geometria spiritualis because of their observations on painting, morality, and science. Gerhard Jaritz' "Visual Images of the Supernatural in the Late Middle Ages, or, How to Make the Entities Recognizable that Are not Part of Our Natural World" continues the discussion on the interplay between the visual, the process of perception, and religion. However, Jaritz narrows the focus by concentrating on how the viewer recognizes the "supernatural" characters in the art and the message contained therein. It is very clear that the "supernatural" was part of nature and thus familiar to the spectator. Even images of the devil were part of the natural world and should not have caused any disruption from the norm--generally the supernatural and preternatural appeared as "a combination of well-known natural beings, objects, actions, and realities combined in an abnormal or, at least unusual, way" (25) and were "relevant parts of the natural space of late medieval society" (28).
Jaritz does note, however, that the devil or devils could take on disguises and could turn up in the images "in ways that one did not expect," (23) which forms part of the topic covered in Alexander E. Makhov's "...In diversas figuras nequitiae: The Devil's Image from the Viewpoint of Rhetoric." Makhov concentrates on the depictions of the devil that might be viewed as "unnatural" or not being part of the natural space of medieval society. This "unnatural" representation would include "different parts of man, animals, and insects…in a strange, unnatural way" (30). Makhov proceeds to compare this combination with the (per)turbatio ordinis of Classical rhetoric and the ontological meaning of the devil's extraneity as found in Christian demonology; in other words, "the devil is remote from the world's order just as a rhetorical figure is remote from the natural order of speech" (31). Yet, rhetoric and the ornamentation found within it can lead to beauty, and this same type of antinomous structure may account for the artistic use of the devil's deformity and disorder in Romanesque cathedrals and monasteries where one can find, in the words of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, deformis formositas, ac formosa deformitas" (48). The representation of the devil also forms the core of the Helmut Hundsbichler's "Devils in Visual Proximity." The author categorizes proximities as undesirable, unnoticed, controlled, and calculating based on the represented and visual interplay between the devil and a protagonist. Being able to determine that level of proximity allows the medieval Christian observer to read the visual evidence and to develop a habit of mind "of self-reflection and self-control," (73) which brings to the forefront the realization that the devil, although a supernatural being, is not an entity out of the norm but rather present in practical life.
In "Supernatural Figures Incognito" by Béla Zsolt Szakács (primarily using the Hungarian Angevin Legendary) addresses the problem that often arises when the viewer is not able to identify the characters in a work of art. This can be quite troublesome when the character is a supernatural entity in disguise that is not recognized by the participant in the narrative. For example, the devil or his ilk often tend to appear with various outer shells that can resemble dogs, human corpses, black birds, children, beautiful women, positive supernatural figures, etc. Indeed, the "representation of a supernatural figure incognito is especially difficult: he or she should be identifiable and at the same time his or her veiled character should be indicated" (90). The identification can be almost impossible without the proper clues. Maria Crǎciun in "Guardians or Avengers? Depictions of Angels in Transylvanian Altarpieces from the Late Medieval Period" is much more concrete and definitive in how to identify supernatural entities; in this analysis the entities are angels. For example, Crǎciun includes angels that have devotional poses that are meant to be models for viewers; angels that are messengers, prophets, and heralds; those that belong to the Andachtsbilder category; angels wearing vestments that symbolize the Eucharist; warrantors of the divine nature of the Christ Child; mediators of the divine who make the divine accessible to humans; foreshadowers of the events of Christ's life; angels in the Dormition, Assumption, Nativity, Glorification, Passion, Resurrection scenes; intercessors for their protégés; and as psychostasis or psychopomps. As for the ways in which one can identify angels, Crǎciun notes that these supernatural beings may wear armor or are clad in long flowing robes, have fixed wings or halos, are of indeterminate sex or age (although most are represented as youths), perhaps with blond or light brown hair (usually shoulder length), clean-shaven, but in most or all cases the angels are anthropomorphic. Zsófia Buda's "Heavenly Envoys: Angels in Jewish Art" changes the religion of the angelic depictions from the Christian to Jewish faith (the number of artistic representations are quite limited). In the latter angels are, among other things, servants or agents of God; first appear as being winged in Late Antique Jewish art as an amalgam of iconographical models from the Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures; incorporeal and simultaneously anthropomorphic, but some depictions have angels taking on the guise of an animal (therefore Jewish angels can be non-human or semi-human); and may reflect some Christian influence.
The last two essays, György E. Szönyi's "The Reincarnations of Enoch from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance" and Anna Maria Gruia's "Images to Influence the Supernatural: Apotropaic Representations on Medieval Stove Tiles" seem to be somewhat out of place in this collection. Szönyi's essay focuses on Enoch and what is known about him in apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature and in various humanistic works. Attention is paid to the iconography of Enoch, but not much else. Gruia examines and inventories the manifold uses of medieval stove tiles and the representations (pentagrams, orant figures, open hands, masks, birds, crosses, sirens) found on these artifacts with the apotropaic function of the tiles as the main area of discussion.
Let me end by noting that the editor, Jaritz, has brought together an extremely interesting collection of essays, but as often happens in conference proceedings, some of the essays are stronger than others. A good number of the illustrations are not clear enough and may cause the reader problems when attempting to follow the narrative that accompanies the art work. However, notwithstanding the unevenness in the quality of some of the essays and the trouble with some of the reproduced figures, the editor and his contributors are to be congratulated for this project.