Courses Past

The Body as Medium in Medieval Art and Culture

HSAR 593a, Graduate Seminar
Thursdays, 1:30-3:20

Since the publication of pioneering studies by Caroline Walker Bynum in the late 1980s, the European Middle Ages has come to be recognized not as an “age of spirituality” but as an emphatically body-oriented culture. The paradoxical bodies of Christ (at once wholly divine and wholly human) and his Virgin Mother were the subject of extensive speculation, scrutiny, and loving devotion in literature, theology, and art; the fragmented remains of the saints were housed in glittering containers for the faithful to venerate; and the living bodies of charismatic men and women became both the vehicles for their own communion with the divine and objects themselves for the devotional (or skeptical) gazes of others. It is the latter facet of medieval visual culture to which this seminar is dedicated.

Although we will of course look closely at works of art in various media (especially manuscript painting and sculpture), in which bodies function as representational signs, our main objective will be to understand the variety of ways in which active, living bodies could serve as communicative media in spheres both public and private, religious and secular. This will, in the end, allow us to add what may be considered medieval “performance art” and “body art” to the familiar canon of art historical materials for this period while also allowing us to explore the intersections of art, religion, and scientific inquiry.

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