Courses Past

The Body in Medieval Art

Undergraduate seminar: HSAR 428a

Despite its reputation as an “age of spirituality” piously committed to the rejection of earthly things, the Western Middle Ages (ca. 900-1450) was a period of profound ambivalence when it came to the material world. The human body, above all, was the site of massive contradictions: despised for its uncontrollability and messiness, its sexual impulses and pressure for nourishment, it also formed the tangible, visible link between fallen humanity and the Christian God and was thus beloved as a vehicle of salvation. This seminar examines various approaches to embodiment manifested in the visual arts produced in northern and central Europe between around 900 and 1450. Among the subjects we will investigate are: the veneration of actual remnants of holy bodies, enshrined in sumptuous containers; the iconography of death, Resurrection, and the afterlife; the depiction of bodies and bodily processes in medical handbooks; the use of the expressive sculpted body as a communicative tool for sparking empathy and modeling behavior. Placing such visual arts into dialogue with medieval texts (e.g., saints’ lives, visionary accounts, devotional treatises) will provide further insights into the continuities and tensions in historical attitudes toward the flesh. Readings will include works by Caroline Walker Bynum, Michael Camille, Madeline Caviness, Jeffrey Hamburger, C. Stephen Jaeger, Mitchell Merback, Kathryn Park, Leo Steinberg, and others. Students with a reading knowledge of French or German are especially welcome.

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