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Members' Research Report Archive

The Five Senses and Medieval Art

Martina Bagnoli, The Walters Art Museum

Scholar in Residence, August 13–September 30, 2012

During my time at CASVA I laid the groundwork for my next exhibition project, which focuses on the five senses. The exhibition is not intended to be an iconographic survey of representations of the senses in medieval art, though of course these will feature. Rather, it will be an investigation of the way in which medieval art engaged and in turn was engaged by the senses.

This research is rooted in my previous work on reliquaries, which looked at the value of materials and craftsmanship as vehicles for the sacred. Beyond their role as attributes of spiritual power, however, materials and techniques were used to elicit a sensory response from the viewer. Church ornaments as well as devotional objects stand out for their cross-sensory nature: many held fragrant substances (wine, myrrh, incense, oil); they were made of different materials in a number of elaborate techniques; and they carried colorful images arranged in complicated narratives. Although many of these objects were intended to perform some degree of physical interaction with the viewer, the nature of that interaction is problematic. Following classical philosophy, and especially Aristotle, medieval theories of cognition recognized the importance of sensory perception as the basis of intellectual discernment. Understood to be the windows through which humans could achieve perception of a higher order, the senses had to be disciplined because as, Saint Augustine famously argued, “while the ear enjoys the harmonious chant of the sacred psalm, it also likes the song of the minstrel.” Accordingly, it was through sensory perception that mankind could know God, and, at the same time, lose him forever. Thus disciplining the senses was an important aspect of Christian practice, especially in the later Middle Ages, when the focus on Christ’s Passion placed the body at the center of religious discourse. Within this context, how do we account for an art as overtly sensual as that of the medieval period? What role did medieval approaches to phenomenology play in mysticism? How was this reflected in art?

My project springs from these questions. In particular, I explore the way in which art navigates the distinction between the bodily and the spiritual senses and how that relationship changed over time. In the later Middle Ages, as devotion shifted from an apprehension of the Trinity to that of Christ in his humanity, the dualism of bodily and spiritual senses promoted by the early church fathers began to fade. Gordon Rudy has shown how the sanctification of Christ’s human body, on one hand, and the desire to emulate him, on the other, drove some twelfth-century theologians, among them Bernard of Clairvaux, to use sensory language to describe the mystical union with God. Their writings often blurred the distinction between the bodily and the spiritual. This tendency became more pronounced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially in the writings of Franciscan mystics such as Bonaventure.

The ambiguity of sensory language and the tension between body and soul in the search for God is reflected in the art of the medieval period, though this trend lasted well into the Renaissance. It is in fact best expressed by the paintings of Carlo Crivelli (1430/1435–c. 1495), whose Lamentation over the Dead Christ, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, signed and dated 1485, is a good case in point. Crivelli stands at the juncture of colliding artistic paradigms: the old medieval one, dedicated to memory, and the new Renaissance one, committed to mimesis. Crivelli’s heightened illusionism does not ask the viewer to obliterate the distinction between the image and what it intends to represent. Quite to the contrary, it compels us to look beyond the surface, pointing to a slippage between the picture as a painted story and its nature as imago (sign of a reality beyond). Mesmerized by Crivelli’s luscious and sculpted surfaces, the viewer is compelled to consume the image, devouring it visually but also straining to touch the robe of Mary Magdalen and to taste the fruit so tantalizingly hanging above John the Evangelist’s open mouth. Images of the Lamentation were commonly associated with the Eucharist. As a memorial of Christ’s Passion, the Eucharist was celebrated in late medieval sermons as a way to renew the covenant with God and promote unity with him through the senses, especially taste. Here, Crivelli’s indexical illusionism and copious ornamentation invite the viewer to delight in divine sweetness.

Center 33 (includes image not shown here)