- Visualizing Medieval Performance: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts
The authors in this collection use performance theory to examine how a diverse range of visual media from across medieval periods and geographies engaged people in performative encounters. Elina Gertsman situates the sixteen essays as interdisciplinary efforts that use performance theory to “reconsider the interconnections between medieval theater, images, texts, and practices of viewing, reading, listening, and enacting” (2). The volume reveals performance’s integral role in all aspects of life in the Middle Ages, while also demonstrating specific ways in which the medieval cultural context and worldview had an impact on performance practices and their reception.
The essays in part 1 attempt to recover lost performances by analyzing the materialities that remain. Moving beyond a purely visual or structural analysis, Christina Maranci uses epigraphic and liturgical evidence to explore how ritual performances may have transformed the function and meaning of early Armenian church exteriors. The essays by Richard Emmerson and Pamela Sheingorn both suggest how a manuscript’s word/image dynamic can generate performative experiences. Drawing upon the theories of Richard Schechner and Victor Turner, Emmerson examines how various elements—mise en page, framing devices, gestural depictions—perform for the reader/viewer. Sheingorn employs phenomenology to argue that a manuscript’s visual program may have engaged the reader’s/viewer’s bodily senses in encounters that resemble the solo performance of affective devotion. Gertsman uses Erving Goffman’s theory to suggest how art objects, specifically Madonna sculptures that open to reveal carved and painted images, can stage performances. Gertsman argues that the repeated act of opening the sculpture not only reenacts Christ’s birth, but also that the images and consecrated Eucharist inside the sculpture lead the viewer through a performance of Christ’s sacrifice. She contends that repeated interactions with this dynamic object embedded devotional memory into the user’s body.
Part 2 interrogates accounts of female devotion from perspectives that, in Mary Suydam’s words, aim to develop an intellectually rigorous “methodology that incorporates imagination in regard to narratives of past performances” (155). Beverly Mayne Kienzle analyzes an account of Hildegard of Bingen’s preaching, as well as two of her homilies, in order to identify different performative strategies suggested within this textual evidence. Carolyn Muessig examines how the different public, and very physical, Passion “performances” by three holy women and one male preacher may have evoked the Passion’s “actuality and its sacramental effectiveness” more powerfully than words alone (137). Muessig’s work illustrates the “transformative and public nature of late medieval devotion” (129), and suggests how Passion enactments could manifest female authority. These themes continue in Suydam’s essay, which considers the written accounts of Beguine visionary experiences as “staged texts” participating in a “web of cultural performances” (154). Her approach to these texts acknowledges all those who encountered them (copyists, preservers, readers, audiences) as contributors to their performativity.
In the next essay, Mary Frohlich uses Michel de Certeau’s notions of rupture and space/place to suggest how Teresa of Avila’s storytelling opened “a radical new space for Christian performance” (162). While Descartes’s cogito “presupposes content about which one is thinking,” Christian mystics living in this same period emphasized volo (“I will [not be without You]”) (163). With volo, “the mystic bets his or her whole self on God, regardless of any occurrences in the past, present, or future” (163). Consequently, Certeau interpreted volo as a unique performative that created permeable dynamic space [End Page 491] by eliminating circumstances. Frohlich traces volo’s emergence in Teresa’s autobiographical texts, showing that although Teresa initially experienced “ruptures,” she was ultimately able to create a shared space with Christ and experience volo. Furthermore, Teresa resolved her struggle with the theological ideal of contemplative emptiness without corporeality once she recognized an emptiness “of radical hospitality” (171).
The next four essays explore ways that medieval performances constructed identity. Jonathan Decter considers the coronation of the Jewish Exilarch, the person who served as mediator between the Jewish community and Baghdad’s Islamic government. Decter argues that this ceremony...