Courses Past

Visions and Art in Medieval Europe

Graduate seminar: HSAR 587b
Visions and Art in Medieval Europe

From the Book of Revelation to the Showings of Julian of Norwich (d. 1423), accounts of visions in the Christian tradition were inextricably intertwined with the visual arts. If the former text, a complex narrative in which the seer was swept into a different world, provided inspiration – and challenges – to generations of medieval artists, the latter, detailing an intensely private affair within the seer’s own body, drew on existing artistic motifs to make sense of the encounter between person and divine. Between these temporal and conceptual extremes there lay a wide range of visionary reports from men and women of various social stations, and an equally wide range of visual arts, in diverse media and with diverse functions, that gave shape to or attempted to reproduce those experiences. This seminar examines medieval visionary texts in conjunction with contemporaneous images, aiming to understand the range of representational practices that helped people externalize and communicate unusual interior perceptions. We will address such questions as the changes in visionary experiences over time, the role of language and literacy in the communication of such experiences, the impact of gender on visions, the varieties and functions of other senses (especially touch and taste) in medieval visions, and the impact of visionary reports on the development of art. We will begin by addressing the theoretical, cognitive, and anthropological facets of visionary experience before turning to medieval primary sources such as saints’ lives, accounts of otherworld journeys, miracle books, sermons, monastic chronicles, and individually composed vision-books (e.g., by Hildegard of Bingen, Bridget of Sweden, Henry Suso, and Julian of Norwich), as well as historical interpretations by William Christian, Peter Dinzelbacher, Jeffrey Hamburger, Barbara Newman, Jean-Claude Schmitt and others. The visual material will include both depictions of visions (such as Apocalypse manuscripts, paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony, and renderings of Hildegard’s visions) and images that played a role in sparking visionary experience (such as Marian statues, crucifixes, Man of Sorrows images, and Baby Jesus dolls). Reading knowledge of German or French is essential; competence in Latin is strongly recommended.

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