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
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
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