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Visions of Hagiography:
From the Gaze to Spiritual Vision in Medieval Lives of Saints

The Saintly Gaze

Medieval hagiography is obsessed with looking: seeing the saint’s broken body, being present at scenes of torture, or in witnessing gruesome martyrdoms, the power of the gaze is far stronger than words.1 As an audience, we are compelled to become active participants in the operation [End Page 103] of the gaze, as we come face to face with the gruesome but necessary corporeality of saintly experience. We see Bartholomew flayed, Agatha with her breasts severed, and Lawrence roasted slowly on a gridiron. These experiences are conditioned and mediated by the gaze, as the act of looking becomes a form not only of participation, but of approbation and conceptual validation. As witnesses, we are offered countless descriptions of the body becoming a focal point for developments in self-identity. We observe the endeavours of the early Christian martyrs as they attempt to imitate Christ, and as their corporeal integrity is fragmented and destroyed, the physical and the visible become powerful signifiers, transmuting private struggles into the public domain while allowing the broader Christian community to bear witness to the ineffable hand of the divine.

In many ways medieval religious life was equally obsessed. By the thirteenth century, spiritual thinkers such as St. Francis of Assisi, who advocated a return to the ideology at the heart of the New Testament, began to use seeing as a way of drawing the faithful closer to God. The first followers of Francis abandoned outward signs of wealth, the clothing which marked them as noblemen, and visibly embraced poverty before the masses by begging for their food and by putting on simple rough clothing, far removed from their habitual garb. They became in this way closer in spirit to the early desert fathers, such as Sts. Antony and Paul of Thebes, who fled from the iniquities of urban society in order to embrace a regime of strict ascetic withdrawal. Divested of worldly distractions, they could see God more clearly, while allowing others to see the workings of God through their endeavours. As is the case with the earlier historical vogue for martyrdom, the withering rigours of asceticism inscribed the body as a visual signifier of saintly suffering. Indeed, one of the most memorable moments in the legend of Paul of Thebes comes when the saint fixes Antony’s admiringly voyeuristic gaze on the devastations to which his corporeal body has been subjected: “¡Cata aquí aquél que buscaste con tan grant trabajo! ¡Cata aquí los mienbros podridos con vejez e cobiertos de mucha canez! ¡Cata aquí el onbre que se tornará en polvo muy en breve!”2 [End Page 104]

Living lives which had strong outward signals of poverty was one aspect of how seeing and making the internal visible externally were at the heart of the Franciscan message, a message which had much to do with the performativity of self.3 In Francis’s canticles, which celebrated the visible beauty of the earth, seeing God in creation was another way in which the faithful might be brought closer to God the Creator, while the manger that he constructed at Grecchio for the Nativity of Christ offered an example of appropriating the gaze.4 Francis’s manger was intended to encourage those present to act as witnesses at Christ’s birth and so to bring them into a relationship with the incarnate Christ by experiencing at first hand the hardship that he suffered. The saint’s words are reported by Thomas of Celano (ca.1185–1260):

For I wish to re-enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.

Francis’s new approach to seeing the Gospel events with his own bodily eyes spread quickly into Franciscan writing and informed the contemplative tradition of meditations on the life of Christ, which grew increasingly popular in the late Middle Ages. Because “to see was to become similar to the object” seen (Biernoff 137), encouraging the faithful to see themselves present at the events of Christ’s life made them ever more Christ-like.

St. Francis was also regarded as one who contemplated nature using creation as a “ladder by which one might mount up and embrace him who is all-good” (St. Bonaventure, cited by French and Cunningham 208). Franciscans [End Page 105] used seeing as a means to ecstasy.6 However, Francis’s emphasis on seeing, and particularly, on seeing God’s created world, led to other developments amongst his followers, who went on to develop seeing into a full-blown science of the gaze.

Medieval Optics and Vision

The central importance of seeing and creation to Franciscan thought led the followers of Francis to focus on understanding vision. The science of vision was developed in the Middle Ages by influential writers on optics such as Roger Bacon (1214/20–1292), Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1158– 1253), and Peter of Limoges (1240–1306) in his De oculo morali. Bacon in particular followed the ideas of the Moorish thinker Alhazen (ca. 965–1040). Alhazen’s Perspectiva was translated into Latin in the twelfth century and was influential in bringing the emission theory of Euclid and Ptolemy, and the combined emission-intromission theory of Plato and Galen, together with some statements by Aristotle, to the West (Lindberg 321). Emission theory of vision held that rays issue from the eye to enable it to perceive an object. Intromission theory is the reverse theory by which rays are emitted by the visible object “passing in a straight line to the centre of the observer’s eye” (Lindberg 329). Both are present in St. Isidore of Seville’s definition of vision, but are more fully developed in the universities. St. Isidore (560–636) calls the eyes “lights, for from them light emanates, or perhaps, because they keep light locked inside them; or perhaps because, in seeing, they reflect what they have received from outside” (Isidoro de Sevilla XI, 36; II, 19).7

The theory of optics and how objects were seen is important to understanding vision in both senses, both for the gaze and also for what was seen in dream visions. The two theories of vision caused medieval scientific thinkers difficulty, as they sought to reconcile them (Lindberg 339). Like Alhazen, Bacon employs the theory of the visual pyramid whose base coincided with the surface of the object and its apex in the centre of the eye (Biernoff 77). For [End Page 106] Bacon, sight was superior to the other senses. Following Franciscan tradition, he asserts that sight had an “affective component”, much as Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan argued some seven centuries later, because it enabled taking pleasure in what was seen.8 Sight was necessary for “knowledge of the natural universe” (Biernoff 63). It is hardly surprising then that seeing visions of the heavens opening or of heavenly beings, or of other realities, were believed to affirm eschatological knowledge, as they did for Beresford and Desing’s women saints.

Bacon’s theory develops how “species” (aspects, forms, or external appearances) operate, with its link to the Indo-European word for seeing, “spek” (Biernoff 74). The species impacted directly on the recipient and was capable of effecting an internal transformation; in other words, it “impresses” its form on the recipient (Biernoff 75).9 When a viewer cast his or her gaze on an object, Bacon believed that he or she was marked by the sight. Grosseteste develops the concept of the spiritual light, or “lux spiritualis”, which floods over objects rendering them discernible to the eye of the mind, or “oculus mentis” (Tachau “Seeing” 343–44). Juan de Mena, in his Contra los Siete Pecados Mortales, clearly shows how understanding of optics, extromission, and the function of species, is behind the gaze of [End Page 107] reason. Reason emits rays which pass through the air until they enter the eye of the Will. Mena provides a clear insight into the effect of looking on the person, particularly of looking on what was beneficial:

La se relumbrante cara y su gesto cristalino reparten lumbre muy clara por todo el aire vezino, tanto que pierde su tino la Voluntad y lo aniebla como quien de la tiniebla a nueva lumbre se vino.


Juan de Mena shows how the object seen gives off rays of light which are displaced through the air until they reach the eye of the beholder.

Faith and Vision

In the Middle Ages seeing had a number of different connotations. The Christian faith, within which the cult of the saints rests, is a narrative predicated on visual testimony, attested even from the time of the early Church.10 The biblical narrative of the Incarnation depended on bearing witness to Christ in the flesh — God made manifest on earth. Incarnation depends on the new-born child being manifest to diverse groups, drawn from the tribes of Israel and from among the Gentiles, such as the shepherds and the Magi. Even more crucially for the development of the Christian faith is the experience of seeing and giving testimony at the heart of the kerygma, the proclamation of religious truths. The Resurrection is attested over and over again by eye-witness accounts from the Apostles and disciples, and also from the early Church, such as when we are told in Acts that Stephen was commissioned as a martyr and Paul became an Apostle through seeing God’s glory. Conversely, propagating the teaching about the Resurrection rests on those who have not and cannot see their risen Saviour, and who express their faith through trusting the accounts of those who have done so.11 The centrality of eyewitness to the first stages of Christianity was one [End Page 108] that led the early Church to argue that seeing should be supreme among the senses.

Knowing through Seeing

Seeing in the Middle Ages therefore becomes a main highway to knowing, from the Greek theoria, since the root meaning of theoria is to gaze (Sawicki 11). Yet the gaze is never just fixed on an external object, for what is gazed upon becomes part of the gazer’s being. Thus, for example, the lives of the Katherine group make possible their vision and knowledge of the Trinity (Mills “Seeing Face to Face” 127) and their vision and the knowledge which comes from it constructs their lives: “Their life is a vision and knowledge of the blessed Trinity”.12

Vision as knowledge provider is also closely interrelated to the other four senses, with hearing the next most important (Burke 28).13 The eyes, as the mechanism through which vision takes place, then provide information for another sense, the mind, inner being, or soul, which St. Augustine (354–430) sometimes calls “oculus mentis”, the eyes of the soul, to process and attain knowledge.14 Augustine, in his De Trinitate libri quindecim, like Plotinus before him, demonstrates the correlation between seeing and knowing in a chapter entitled “mens et notitia” (the soul and knowledge). He describes the process by which the eyes of the mind acquire knowledge and, in so doing, they reveal a profound self-awareness of what their function is:

The mind therefore gathers knowledge of corporeal things through the bodily senses, in the same way of incorporeal things through itself. Therefore it knows itself through itself, in so far as it too is incorporeal.

(St. Augustine, De Trinitate IX, ii, 3; see also Vance 17)15 [End Page 109]

It is the “oculus mentis”, or eye of the mind, even though it has no substance, which synthesizes all the information the eyes provide. It gathers and discerns knowledge and Augustine sees it as the “sixth sense” (Vance 19). He repeats the same argument in his De libero arbitrio libri tres (II, 4), where he calls the inner sense “sensus interior”. Yet its function is the same, to detect and discern knowledge from multiple visions. From such a range of options, the inner sense selects at will:16

Likewise there are many different goods from which a person selects what he wants and by seeing and grasping it for his enjoyment, sets up the highest good for himself rightly and truly. Yet it can still happen that the light of wisdom itself, in which all these things can be seen and retained, is one and common to all wise people.

The eyes of the mind, thus, provide the means to initiate a journey towards the supreme being, by going beyond corporal reality, beyond a hierarchy of spiritual forms, and leading on a few occasions in this earthly life to seeing that heavenly being (Vance 19). From the soul, which is a triune entity consisting of a discerning eye, knowledge, and love, St. Augustine constructs the pattern for his Trinity.

What is visible and is exterior to the gazer can also function as a metaphor for the inner self. St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) creates a parallel between the macrocosm, everything under the dome of the sky, where the sun lights the heavens, and the microcosm, the body, in which the orb of the eye lights the body. Even so, the sun can be seen only in part (St. Bernard, 125, Sermon 31.2) and, for medieval thinkers, knowledge is similarly only partial this side of heaven.

Dream Vision as a Category of Seeing

Closely related to the discerning eye is the dream vision, which had enormous influence on medieval literature, notable examples being the Roman de la Rose, composed initially by Guillaume de Lorris in 1230 and completed [End Page 110] by Jean de Meun some forty-five years later, Chaucer’s three fourteenth-century dream allegories —the Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, and the Parlement of Fowles— and Bernat Metge’s Lo Somni, which was produced in 1399 and assumes the form of a dialogue between the author and the ghost of Joan I (†1396).17

Macrobius (active ca. 400) wrote his hugely influential Commentary on the Dream of Scipio which circulated in the early Middle Ages, containing a wide variety of subjects of interest to the medieval mind (39). In many manuscripts Macrobius is given the title oriniocensis, which William Harris Stahl plausibly suggests is a transliteration of oneirocrites an interpreter of dreams (42). Macrobius influenced astrology and geography (46), as well as medieval philosophy and scholastics (46).18 Macrobius defined five types of dream (87–91), and, of these, two, insomnium (nightmare or troubled dream) and visium (apparition or hallucination) stem from physical causes, such as drunkenness or overeating (Heiatt 27–28; see also Foehr-Janssens). He discerns three positive types of dream which provide the gift of “divination” (90): the enigmatic dream (Greek oneiros, Latin somnium), which had five subcategories —personal, alien, social, public, and universal (90)—, the prophetic vision (Greek, horama, Latin, visio) (90), and the oracular (Greek chrematismos, Latin oraculum). The final two categories had rather more negative characteristics. These were nightmare (Greek, enypnion, Latin, insomnium) and the apparition (Greek, phantasma, Latin visum). He asserts that nightmares and apparitions “are not worth interpreting” (89), and that nightmares were generally “deceitful” (Aeneid VI, 896, n7). Apparitions, he believes, “come on one in the moment between wakefulness and slumber”, and this liminality makes them untrustworthy (89). John of Salisbury (followed by his fourteenth-century French translator), distinguishes, as Macrobius does, between trustworthy dreams (songes, somnium; vision, visio; oracle, oraculum) and untrustworthy ones (ensonges, insomnium; [End Page 111] fantosmes, phantasma).19 However by the late medieval period, Macrobius’s impact had begun to wane as “the prevailing dream theory in the Schools was Aristotelian, and tended to emphasize the psychological origin and consequent non-significance of dreams” (Peden 67, cited in St. John 7).

What dreams revealed to the seer was knowledge. Dream visions were particularly applicable to religious matters because they had biblical authority, just as sight testimony has. Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10–22) revealed the ladder stretching from earth to heaven. God also continues to impart understanding of his plans in dreams. An angel spoke to St. Joseph in a dream and told him to journey to Egypt (Matthew 2:13–14), a subject that became popular in both literature and art, where it spawned parallel traditions.20 It is hardly surprising that many medieval poets thought of dream visions as vehicles for teaching because they radiated an authority which was dear to the medieval public (see Heiatt 20).

This fondness can be seen perhaps most clearly in literary forms such as the body and soul debate, which flourished in late medieval Castile. Although differences between the various extant versions are many, they typically depict the fate of a narrator whose insomnia or blindness functions as a correlative of his mental agitation. Accordingly, as he passes into the dream world, he finds himself trapped in a symbolic dream landscape replete with a rotting body and a soul in the form of a bird, or in some versions, a small child. As the parties accuse each other of all manner of transgression, [End Page 112] refusing to accept blame for their hellish torment, what emerges is a sense not simply of the difficulty of reconciling the demands of body and soul, but of the extent to which they serve as terrifying anticipatory projections of the narrator’s own future self. Realizing this, and waking with a start, he resolves to make amends, encouraging the audience by implication to look to their sins and take action accordingly. The dream in this way becomes a means of accessing, or indeed inventing, a new and better self, an identity purged of iniquity and validated by the incontrovertibly veridical quality of the oneiric.21

St. Bernard argues, however, that visions were for the privileged few, while contemplation of nature was open to all (129). His discouraging position on dream visions expresses his mistrust of visions, or rather that he considers that they are not for the multitude.

How Sight and Visions can be Misleading

Medieval authors concur in warning that the eyes might mislead. The devil, eager to undermine acts of saintly piety, is frequently presented in hagiographic tradition in a mischievous and calculating light, manipulating his victims by placing false visions before them. Several striking examples appear in the legend of St. Antony, the father of desert monasticism, who is confronted in the early years of his calling by a series of ocular temptations. In one of the most memorable, we see deeply into the saint’s mind, as he questions the relationship between sight and reality, persuading himself after a short deliberation that his senses have been deceived:22

Como andodiese una vez por el yermo, falló un grand plato de plata e dixo dentro en sí mesmo: ‘¿Quién traxo aq este plato, como non anden por aquí omes algunos? Ca si se cayera a algund caminero, non se le podiera asconder por la grandeza suya. E por ende engaño tuyo es aquéste, diablo, pero non podrás mudar la mi voluntad.’ E deziendo esto Sant Antón, desfízose el plato así como fumo. [End Page 113]

Medieval thinkers, despite recognizing seeing as the most important of the senses, thought some aspects of it less than appropriate for the good of the soul. There was a long tradition of emphasizing the “carnality of vision”, the very opposite of the knowledge of God’s creation, or knowledge for good, which Francis thought would be advanced through seeing. Many Fathers of the Church equate looking with lusting, including Origen (185–253/4), Lactantius (ca. 240–ca. 320), St. Ambrose (ca. 340–397), St. Jerome (340/2– 420), St. Augustine (354–430), St. Isidore (ca. 560–636), St. Bernard (1090– 1153), Hugh of St. Victor (1096–1141), Peter the Chanter (†1197), and Gerald of Wales (1146–1223), although looking has many positive attributes too for each of them (see Biernoff 46). For Lactantius (De opificio Dei, 8; PL 7, col. 33) the eye is a perfect member because there are two, a perfect number, whilst for St. Augustine, eyes enable the person seeing to connect with the perfect being, God, through his creation.

Despite the predication of knowing onto seeing, the awakening and opening of the eyes was also closely related to that type of knowledge which has always sprung from sin (Biernoff 42). St. Augustine thought that desiring and gazing on the fruit of the tree of knowledge became a prelude to the Fall, and that the gaze inexorably led to sinning (416). The relationship between the gaze and sin continues to strengthen in medieval religious writing. According to the Ancrene Wisse, a spiritual guide written in English for three anchoresses: “Of Eve our first mother, it is recorded that at the very beginning of her sin its entry was through her eyes” (cited in Biernoff 42) and her “fate is sealed with a look” (43). Here too, although now in secular literature, the gaze of Calisto on Melibea, the object of his desire, might be set, leading inexorably to a tragic end. For, as Burke (33) convincingly argues, the narrative thread of Celestina is predicated on the gaze.23

The eyes of the body place every soul in danger. Peter of Limoges (1240– 1306), a little-known thinker, whose work was well-known in the Middle Ages because it is present in many collections of exempla, argues that the seven deadly sins rely on the eyes as their principal instigator. Wrath agitates [End Page 114] the eye of reason (82). Peter allies the eyes to spiritual sloth (86), whilst the eyes of the avaricious are “strewn with the dust of worldly possessions” (91). Greed, fomented by the eyes, is insatiable: “The eyes feed the heart more than dishes do the stomach” (109). Excessive curiosity, fed by the eyes, can be pernicious to the wellbeing of the whole organism, and could lead to mad passions, such as the inflamed desire felt by Acteon when he saw Diana bathing, which, according to Peter of Limoges, was stoked by curiosity.24 The gaze leads direct to temptation. It is not just a woman’s beauty which is a snare for the unwary: “Or rather not the beauty of a woman but rather unchastened gazing” (St. John Chrysostom (347–407) [Homilies on the Statutes, XV], cited in Spearing 5).

Many medieval theologians and sermon-writers believe that keeping one’s eyes fixed on heaven reverses the “pull of carnal vision” (Biernoff 117). This idea lies behind the admonition of St. Vincent Ferrer to be aware of where one’s eyes were looking and to keep them under control. Peter of Limoges had written that those who judge others turn their mental eye into corporeal ones, for wise men are capable of judging themselves but know they cannot see into the secrets in the hearts of others (61, 64). Letting one’s eyes wander could also lead to behaviours such as judging others:

No andes vagando con los ojos de acá para allá, ni mires a nadie lo que hace ni cómo se comporta, antes bien, ten los ojos clavados en tierra, o levantados a lo alto, o cerrados, o fijos en el libro.


Ferrer emphasizes that in order to maintain an ordered approach when in church, the eyes should be kept lowered, or closed, or on the breviary. This becomes a standard topos in medieval hagiography, and a signifier of saintly modesty, with ocular attention fixed firmly on the ground below. Yet eyes could also be raised to heaven. This idea of averting the eyes from the vanity of things of the world has a long tradition, and St. Ambrose refers to it in his In Psalmum David CXVIII Expositio (PL 15 col. 1262).

Furthermore, many theologians believed that God must intervene in order to enable the eyes to see truly. St. Ambrose speaks of the good doctor, the [End Page 115] heavenly doctor, God, lifting a veil to permit the eyes of the body to see:

Adaperi oculos meos et considerabo mirabilia tua ... he says to the doctor of heaven: Open my eyes fully, Adaperi oculos meos. If the eye is out of sorts, it is easy to soothe all pain with a liquid eye salve: if truly the sharpness of the humour is covered by a cataract, more powerful remedies will be required. It is therefore just as for the eye of the body, any suffering of that kind, which becomes burdensome, is needed in the eye of the soul. Unless the good doctor lift away the veil

(St. Ambrose, In Psalmum David CXVIII Expositio, PL 15, cols. 1230–31)25

The gaze can deceive in this life unless God intervenes. St. Anselm (1033– 1109), writing his treatise On Truth, discusses how the senses, particularly seeing, can cause the mind to be deceived. He discusses two scientific topics, the first with biblical antecedents, which is looking through glass and seeing darkly. He also refers to seeing a stick in the water and the way in which refraction makes it look bent. However, Anselm imputes the error of judgement to the interior senses or to the judgement of the soul (158–59). Like Anselm, Peter of Limoges refers to two extraordinary phenomena which reveal how the eyes can be deceived. The first is about how the eye is unable to perceive certain things, such as mist, or how they are sometimes capable of double vision (18–19). He then brings out a number of elements to prove that the human eye, encumbered by the body, cannot see God (33).

St. Ambrose (In Psalmum), commenting on God’s protection of humankind, also makes the point that, during its earthly lifetime, the soul cannot see perfectly:

In the shadow of your wings protect me (Ps. 18.8). Also all the saints are in the shade as long as they are in their body: they do not see perfectly: they do not know perfectly but in part. Paul himself says: we know in part (I Cor. 13.9). He, the chosen vessel, to whom Christ gave back his vision and illuminated him with his grace; he did not see face to face but through a [End Page 116] mirror darkly.26

Taking up St. Paul’s exegesis of love from 1 Corinthians 13:1–13, he links human vision, which has to be set within the context of humanity’s relationship with the divine being, where seeing is loving, to St. Paul’s words in verse 12: “Now we see only in a reflection in a mirror”.

Rituals of Seeing

Seeing and its importance is nowhere better exemplified in medieval piety than in the development of eucharistic practice such as Augenkommunion or ocular communion (Bynum 208; Rubin; Biernoff 140–44). Seeing the elevated Host became more important than receiving it, which partly explains the late-medieval explosion of interest in artistic depictions of the Mass of St. Gregory. Seeing became a privileged signifier or site of divine reality, even though, as Twomey shows in this cluster, seeing did not prove sufficient for Mary Magdalene. For a deaf and dumb man, seeing the consecrated Host enables him to be cured by the Virgin Mary:

Pus isto viu un ome mui fremoso, Vestido ben come religioso, Que no levar foi no[n] foi mui pregiçoso Cab o altar u tangen-na campãa Do Corpus Domini.

(Afonso X el Sabio, I, 205, lines 35–40)

The miracle emphasizes the moment of transubstantiation, marked by the sanctuary bell, “tangen-na campãa”. For the deaf and dumb man, it seems to signify the “moment of epiphany of earth and heaven and a temporal realization of eternity within the community of Christ” (Beattie 175). This is a moment of healing when the human soul is transformed by its openness to the divine.

Seeing the consecrated Host, as well as seeing visions, particularly those of the risen Christ, often doubled as gustatory experiences. This can nowhere [End Page 117] better be seen than in the thinking of a number of medieval holy women.27 One of the principal topoi used by visionaries through the ages, and most particularly by women, was the concept of seeing with the eyes of the soul through which they tasted Christ’s body, just as St. Ambrose had before them:

Taste and see how good is the Lord, just like an apple (Ps. 33.8) and on the apple there is a bruise, but, even so, it is sweet (CANT II.3). He comes to the vineyard and sees the great grape of a size that two could barely lift. One who will come before and one who will come after. He tasted the mystery, he tasted it completely in Jesus, he tasted it in Caleb, who said to the people: We saw the land flowing with milk and honey (Num 13.28). Taste and see how good is the Lord.

(St. Ambrose, In Psalmum David CXVIII Expositio, PL 15, cols. 1256–57)28

It also functioned to their understanding of their relationship to Christ but also of their relationship to other members of his body. Angela of Foligno, for example, experienced a vision in which she saw herself, and others, drinking from the wound in Christ’s side (Elliott 27). Gertrude the Great of Helfta had a vision in which she saw how the members of her community “standing round the Lord, were drawing draughts of divine grace for themselves ... through the pipe which had been given to them” (Voaden 72). Vision had become the vehicle for taste. It was also a shared or community experience.

Becoming through Seeing

Late medieval preachers emphasized that a person became what they saw (Lentes 361; see also Bynum 208). Thus, seeing a holy image imprinted material holiness on the inner being, the imago Dei, of the person who saw [End Page 118] it (Lentes 362). Seeing the elevation of the Host brought the individual into relationship with the Passion of Christ. Another example is the way in which a Christian might internalize seeing the suffering of Christ, which could lead directly to imitating Christ. Peter, for example, argues that Christians should visualize Christ’s wounds because this will imprint the form of that suffering on the person contemplating (59–61):

Let each and every person enter the house of his conscience and consider Christ’s wounds with the eyes of his mind, so that in his own small measure he might conform himself to the suffering Christ.


For this reason, many contemplatives, particularly in the later Middle Ages, displayed the wounds of Christ on their own body. The stigmata came as a result of seeing Christ’s wounds, which then impressed on the body of the visionary. These wounds were then physically present and visible to others. St. Francis, the one who remade himself in the imago Dei to the fullest degree, received the stigmata (Amoni 150). Teresa de Cartagena mentions the afflictions Francis suffered, though not the stigmata (62).

Late medieval preachers also focused on the importance of gazing on events from the life of Christ or those of the saints, and their purpose was to make the observer more akin to the holy being he or she observed. In his sermon on Pentecost, for example, St. Vincent Ferrer constantly calls on those listening to see what he is saying: “més ara vejam si los apòstols hagueren aquesta abstinència corporal”; “veus com: cascú dels apòstols se guardaven que no fós superbiós”; “veus ací” (Sermons, I, 135; 137).

Becoming and changing identity, such as in a conversion, can also be impelled by seeing a holy person and recognizing how God acts through them. St. Augustine describes the moment of his conversion and when he saw the shining light of God, “lucebat in eo”, in the person of Simplicianus: “and you sent in my mind and it seemed good to go to Simplicanus, who seemed to me a good servant of yours and your grace shone in him” (Confessionum 8, [End Page 119] 1).30 The highest and most transformative type of seeing is, however, seeing God himself.

Contemplating the Divine Being

Mystics, such as St. Bernard, moved step by step to the highest level of seeing, contemplating God face to face. Seeing God requires the soul to prepare. John of Caulibus, in his widely disseminated guide to meditation, the Meditationes Vitae Christi, recommends seekers of the majesty of God to dare to look and to bring to the search a pure and simple eye. By this, he means that they should purify themselves in advance and should not be seeking their own glory (181). Looking on God’s majesty “with unveiled face” is transformative for, by looking, the contemplative becomes what he or she sees (182). St. Bernard describes how the seeker who sees God attains a special state of holiness as a result: “Those who contemplate him without ceasing are short of nothing, those whose wills are fixed on him have nothing more to desire” (II, 125).31 For that reason seeing God is often linked to a future time in heaven. St. Ambrose refers to seeing as part of the end times, when the soul will be face to face with God and will experience all the sweetness of transcendence:32

And they saw his face and his name was on their foreheads ... but it transcended all sweetness and gentleness, for they saw God face to face.

Yet for those not ready for the illuminating presence of God (because, as John of Caulibus indicates, God’s gaze illuminates every dark recess), the soul is advised to hide from the light in a hidden cleft of the rock, or in a dark recess, if it is not ready to bear God’s scrutiny. Seeing God is testing for the human soul. St. Ambrose, in his In Psalmum David CXVIII Expositio, adopts the words of Psalm 25:2 to express how Moses responded to meeting [End Page 120] God: “proba me et tenta me” (prove me and test me) (Ps. 25:2) and that was without seeing his face, for “nemo videbit faciem meam, et vivit” (for none will see my face and live) (PL 15, col. 1302).

For John of Caulibus, the cleft in the rock is, of course, the convent where the recipient of his Meditaciones will stay hidden from the world. Once the soul has purified itself then it dare show its face, for it will have so succeeded in healing its inner vision that it too is able “with unveiled face to gaze on the glory of God” (II Corinthians 3:18; John of Caulibus 173). At this moment the action of seeing is reciprocal. The soul sees and God sees it. For John, this is the highest stage of contemplation, which he calls “Contemplation of the majesty of God” (180–84). In this, he follows Bernard’s commentary on the same verse (St. Bernard, On the Song of Songs 126). Bernard also ranks contemplating God’s majesty as the highest form of contemplation in his treatise on consideration (Selected Works 171).33

Before arriving at the highest state of grace, John of Caulibus calls upon the soul “to gaze mentally on the grace of the saints” (172). He considers this the second stage of contemplation, which he calls meditation on the heavenly court (Ch. 52).34 Seeing the heavenly court is precisely what happens to Oria in her vision, as outlined by Aquilano in this cluster. The first and simplest stage, however, for seekers setting out to find God’s majesty is to contemplate the humanity of Christ (Ch. 51) and this may be by contemplating an image of the crucified Christ and his wounds, as described above, or by gazing on a crucifix showing Christ’s Passion. The medieval obsession with looking on holy images or contemplating the Eucharist is a way of gaining the benefits of seeing God, open to all.

The process of meditative contemplation is rendered in its perhaps most memorable and enduring literary form in Diego de San Pedro’s Pasión trovada, which Keith Whinnom, in his monographic study, dates to as early as 1474. In this work, which was printed and reprinted from the last decade [End Page 121] of the fifteenth century through to the mid-nineteenth, the physicality and humanity of Christ are presented as central aspects of doctrine, as readers are invited to focus their attentions on the untold details of the Passion. “Pues piensa agora, christiano”, the author bluntly implores.35 Shortly afterwards, the imperative becomes “contemplad”, as we are urged, in an act of vivid mental recreation, to focus our creative vision on the crude and vicious wounding caused by the nails that penetrate the flesh of Christ. In fact, the poet, as Whinnom rightly notes, devotes no fewer than seventy lines to the way in which Christ is laid out and fixed onto the Cross: no detail too trivial, or indeed too violent, to be lauded and memorized at length in verse.36

The divine body in this way becomes a sign, and in its broken glory, it functions as a symbol of triumph, a visual and somatic focus for the expression of everyday devotion. Yet it also, as Paul Binski, rightly shows, becomes a symbol of fragmentation, as body parts become scattered and synechdocal, eliciting individual prayers and meditations. This process reaches its natural culmination in the medieval fondness for the Instruments of the Passion or Arma Christi, which circulated as powerfully deconstructive reminders of the Son’s visual legacy. Their most notable appearance in Castilian literature is in Gómez Manrique’s Representación del nacimiento de Nuestro Señor, which was composed only a few years after Diego de San Pedro’s seminal treatment of the Passion. Crucially, the instruments appear to Christ not as an adult, but as he rests as a new-born babe in his mother’s arms. The focus of the drama falls accordingly on his humanity and vulnerability, presenting him as a visual focus for the expression of empathy and tearful mimetic identification.37

The act of contemplation, along with the concomitant expression and sharing of pain, becomes in this respect a powerful form of intersubjective [End Page 122] experience; one capable of allowing the community to coalesce around a central visual nucleus.38 Indeed, as Michael Camille rightly avers, the body of Christ served in the later Middle Ages as “visual propaganda aimed at an increasingly volatile mass of semi-illiterates yearning for access to the Word through the flesh of the image” (“The Image and the Self ” 77). As the stable, somatic centre of an increasingly unstable sense of Christian consciousness, Christ’s body became a measure of normative experience and a barometer for the expression of affective piety. Devotion, accordingly, as Paul Binksi shows, became increasingly iterative rather than developmental, producing acts of obsessive repetition and fetishizing scrutiny indicative of an inability, at the most profound level, to assimilate or understand the lessons of experience. Visual piety is often in this way marked not only by a sense of latent neurosis, but by the progressive transformation of its expression into acts of “sophisticated, obsessive-compulsive voyeurism” (126).

The Divine Gaze

Because the action of creation stemmed from the power of God’s gaze, when he saw unformed matter and shaped it into being, God’s seeing is immensely powerful in Christian thinking. Yet one aspect of God’s seeing and creating was the way in which he weighed, or judged, and gave approval to all he saw. St. Ambrose, in his commentary on Genesis, refers to God seeing and giving approval to his created world and in his commentary on “Et vidit Deus quia bonum” [And God saw it was good] (Hexaemeron libri sexti, 14, col. 166), he also takes the opportunity to add God’s approval of his beloved Son, in opposition to the Anti-Nicene factions. Seeing God’s creation can lead to an appreciation of the awesome presence of the divine, and this adds a subtlety to Calisto’s subversive words to Melibea: “En este veo, Melibea, la grandeza de Dios” (cited in Burke 33).

Medieval theologians also related God’s judgement of the world to his all-seeing eye, never ceasing to gaze on the world and on the sinners who occupied it. Peter of Limoges develops what he calls the “sevenfold eye of [End Page 123] the divine gaze”, taking as his starting point that the eye of God looks at everything, citing Ecclesiasticus 23: “His eye sees all things” (189). This all-seeing power of God is behind the expletive of the deaf and dumb man in Cantiga 69: “Se Deus me veja, esta claridade non é humãa” (Afonso X, el Sabio, I, 205).39 Indeed, hagiography is consonant on the interrelationship between saint and God.40 Without God’s gaze, there can be only a hero. Without the saint, there would be no object of God’s gaze.41

God’s gaze can bring about a number of effects. God’s gaze produces tears of penitence (Peter of Limoges 191) and this is apparent in Twomey’s discussion of the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene and St. Peter, as well as in Scarborough’s Mary of Egypt in this cluster. St. Bernard describes the all-seeing eye of God in his sermon on conversion as a terrible penetrating gaze, from which the sinner cannot hide. He argues that “all things lie bare to his eye” (Selected Works 80).42 For this reason, Peter holds that God’s gaze inspires awe. (Peter of Limoges 190). The final property of God’s sight is to lead those who see him to the everlasting kingdom of glory (Peter of Limoges 193).

Another important property of the divine eye is that of healing the infirmities of the soul:

Likewise if Christ, pure in his way of life –as it were white in colour– looks at a sinner with an eye of compassion, this not only means he will be healed, but it also brings it about, because if he were not to look at the sinner, he would die for all time.

God’s salvific eye has the power to convert, heal, and restore human beings. [End Page 124]

Visions of Hagiography

The essays in this cluster illustrate a range of approaches toward the gaze and spiritual vision. Connie L. Scarborough’s article analyses one of the two major female saints, Mary of Egypt, whose legends have been preserved in early Castilian verse. Its approach, which is informed by Lacanian theory, problematizes the relationship between identity and the gaze, showing how the text of the Vida de Santa María Egipciaca explores the act of looking from a variety of angles and perspectives. This work is complemented by Mark T. Aquilano’s contribution, which offers a detailed analysis of the dream vision in Gonzalo de Berceo’s Vida de Santa Oria, the only other female saint’s life to have been preserved in early Castilian verse. His approach, which is equally innovative, inflects existing Oria scholarship in relation to Kelly Bulkeley’s work on the concept of the root metaphor, offering a series of fresh interpretations of Oria’s visionary experience.

A different approach to Oria is taken in Matthew V. Desing’s essay, which scrutinizes the saint’s visions in order to probe the christianization of the anonymous thirteenth-century Libro de Apolonio. His research, which focuses on questions of death and liminality, underlines the extent to which hagiography and romance are woven from the same pious fibres, as in each instance a young female heroine is transported to a redemptive life in a separate realm, either as a result of visionary experience or of dream-like activity. The relationship between hagiography and romance is also explored by Heather L. Downey, who focuses on the role of visions and their relationship to the olfactory in the Fermoso cuento de una santa emperatrís que ovo en Roma & de su castidat, a tale of saintly female virtue preserved uniquely in Escorial h–I–13 (known also as the Libro de los huéspedes). A comparable melding of traditions is the subject of the essay by Florence Curtis, which offers a reinterpretation of the role and function of the vision in the Libro de Alexandre, arguing that the poet’s ultimate concern is the perspective on the individual’s earthly purpose. Accordingly, she explores how faith is key for the hero, and how the christianization of his visions, which structure and pace the narrative, reveal the disastrous misperception of the limits of his mind’s eye. [End Page 125]

Two articles focus on the expression of oneiric and visionary experience in the vast body of medieval prose hagiography, the overwhelming majority of which remains unedited. Sarah V. Buxton analyses experiences that are shared, and offers readings of three early Christian saints (Eustace, Thomas the Apostle, and Mary Magdalene) alongside a treatment of Elizabeth of Hungary, whose largely incommunicable visions serve as a crucial later counterpoint. The central contention is that, as some dreams cannot be interpreted or communicated alone or without help, they provide ways of examining and upholding bonds between husband and wife, and between human and holy. Andrew M. Beresford, in contrast, focuses on dreams of death, looking at ways in which dead saints are able to return to the world in order to request the burial of their corpses, and how in certain instances their intercession is able to validate and precipitate a process of willing submission to death. The article argues accordingly that dreams, visions, and other forms of human/divine communication can function in hagiography as discourses of ideological indoctrination, encouraging believers to eschew the ephemerality of worldly endeavour in order to embrace the absolute ontological certainty of the afterlife.

Two other articles focus on the function of vision in the cult of the Virgin Mary. Ryan D. Giles examines the opening tale of Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora, the Casulla de San Ildefonso, and analyses the significance of the miraculous seamless chasuble given as a gift by the Virgin as a reward for the saint’s loyal and unwavering service. The essay, which draws on representations of Mary, the medieval legend of Christ’s tunic, and the typology of Berceo’s introduction, shows how the chasuble is presented as a maternal enclosure that expels the unworthy while offering hope of rebirth and renewal to the devout. Lesley K. Twomey’s article develops the concept of the gaze with reference to two important women saints, Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, and to a devotional text written by a woman, the Vita Christi. She addresses different aspects of witness to seeing the body of the risen Christ, and shows how the author, a Poor Clare nun, Isabel de Villena, utilizes the tradition of Christ appearing to his mother, where adoration and touch are central, contrasting it to that of Mary Magdalene, who sees [End Page 126] but does not touch. Twomey also argues that, in the post-Resurrection appearances, each eucharistic in its intention, vision enables the past to be memorialized.

Andrew M. Beresford
University of Durham
Lesley K. Twomey
Northumbria University

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1. Margherita (360–62) provides examples from English hagiography and the Julian legend. See also Beresford (The Severed Breast) for Castilian examples, as well as Buxton and Beresford in this cluster.

3. See, for example, Wolf (17–29).

4. See also Twomey The Fabric for a discussion of the gaze in St. Francis’s writing, as well as in that of Isabel de Villena. For a study of the gaze in Hispano-medieval critical thinking and in one late-medieval Castilian text, see Burke, and for background, Miles and Camille “Before the Gaze”.

5. “Volo enim illius pueri memoriam agree, qui in Bethlem natus est, et infantilium necessitatum ejus incommoda, quomodo in praesepio reclinatus, quomodo astante bove, atque asino supra foenum positus extitit, utcumque corporeis occulis pervidere” (Amoni 134). The italics in the English edition of Thomas of Celano’s Vita Prima relate to biblical references highlighted by the editors. These are, respectively, Matthew 2:1, Luke 2:7, and John 20:4.

6. For an example of ecstasy in Franciscan writing, see Twomey in this cluster.

7. “Lumina, quod ex eis lumen manat, vel quod ex initio sui clausam teneat lucem, aut extrinsecus acceptam visui proponendo refundant”. All translations, unless otherwise stated, are the authors’ own.

8. Freud discusses scopophilia (the pleasure in seeing) in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (69–70). For Freud, the gaze is a curious and controlling look which, by imposing a sexualized identity, is able to produce a source of sexual gratification that can function independently of the erotogenic zones. The assumption is that as the eye completes the sexualized object through the fantasy revelation of its hidden parts, it produces libidinal excitement that can result in aberration. This theory has been adapted by Laura Mulvey, who divides the gaze into distinctive forms. Active or fetishistic scopophilia overlays a sexualized identity, and in so doing, produces a source of gratification, voyeuristically transforming woman into the “leit-motif of erotic spectacle” (11), or, if taken to an extreme, producing obsessive Peeping Toms, whose satisfaction is derived from watching an objectified other in an active and controlling way. Conversely, passive or narcissistic scopophilia functions by means of (mis)recognition, and can be related to the Mirror Stage (see Lacan 75–81, Homer 24–26). The essential point is that, in viewing an object, the subject experiences feelings of mimetic identification, recognizing and gaining pleasure from a sense of overarching homeomorphic correspondence. However, as subject and object remain discrete and separable entities, the inevitable rupture in imaginary union can produce feelings of fragmentation, alienation, and ultimately, conflict (see also Chaudhuri 31–44).

9. See also Tachau Vision (1–19); Burke (13).

10. On Christian witness, see Twomey in this cluster.

11. See Selby, on the corporate nature of Resurrection faith. Assent to Christ’s Resurrection was a prerequisite of baptism, entry to the body of believers.

12. De custodia interioris hominis [On safeguarding the inner self], cited and translated in Mills: “Vita eorum est visio et cognitio beatae Trinitatis” (“Seeing Face to Face” 127).

13. See both Downey and Twomey in this cluster for the interrelations of seeing with other senses, particularly hearing, touching, and smelling.

14. Augustine uses “mens” to refer to the soul. At other times he refers to it as “sensum interiorem” (interior sense).

15. “Mens ergo ipsa sicut corporearum rerum notitias per sensus corporis colligit, sic incorporearum per semetipsam. Ergo et se ipsam per se ipsam novit quoniam est incorporea”.

16. “Ita, etiamsi multa sunt bona eaque diversa, e quibus eligat quisque quod volet, idque videndo et tenendo ad fruendum summum sibi bonum recte vereque constituat; fieri tamen potest ut lux ipsa sapientiae, in qua haec videri et teneri possunt, omnibus sapientibus sit una communis”.

17. Corbellari laments the failure to catalogue dream literature, or rather literature which incorporates dreams, within a French medieval corpus and the same might be said for Hispanic literatures. Much less has dream literature been set in its rightful place alongside the gaze. See also Bodenham.

18. See Curtis in this cluster for dream vision and its links to other sciences, such as geography.

19. Foulechat’s translation in 1372 demonstrates continuing interest at the French court in dreams and their interpretation (149–52). John of Salisbury, PL 199, cols. 429–32. Dreams again conflate visual and auditory signals, see, for example, Rapaport’s study of the fantasme in psychoanalysis, as both a visual and heard phenomenon.

20. The Libre dels tres reys d’Orient follows Matthew closely (“Lleva, varón, e ve tu vía; / fuye con el niño e con María; / vete para Egipto, / que así lo manda el escripto” lines 85–89) although it thereafter freely interpolates information derived from the apocrypha. For the text, see Alvar, and for its manipulation of sources, Chaplin and Richardson. In the visual tradition, emphasis falls on the dynamic tradition of the journey as motif or the static tradition of resting. For notable examples in Spanish art, compare Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (oil on canvas, Bowes Museum, Co. Durham, ca. 1612) and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Flight into Egypt (oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1647–50). The depiction of Joseph’s dream is comparatively rare, although an excellent post-twelfth century example survives as a Capital in the Monasterio Viejo of San Juan de la Peña.

21. For a survey of ontological reinvention in the legends of the desert ascetics, see Beresford “Reformulating Identity”. For the body and soul debate, see Franchini.

22. Biblioteca Nacional 12688 (fol. 205rb). For an almost identical version, see Escorial h– III–22 (fols. 109ra–12va).

23. For a study of desire and its causal relationship with narrative outcomes, see Vitz (176– 212).

24. Peter of Limoges (110). See also, for “lust of looking”, Spearing (6).

25. “Adaperi oculos meos et considerabo mirabilia tua ... Dicit ergo ipse ad medicum venientem de coelo, Adaperi oculos meos. Si turbatus est oculus, facile dolor omnis sedatur collyrio: sin vero acies ejus humoris suffusione praetexitur, majora remedia quaeruntur. Est ergo sicut in oculis corporis, ita enim in oculis animae hujusmodi quaedem passio quae ingravescat necesse est. Nisi bonus medicus velamen obstulerit”.

26. “In umbra alarum tuarum protegit me (Ps 18.8). Omnes etiam sancti in umbra sunt quamdiu sunt in corpore: non perfecte vident: non perfecte sed ex parte cognoscunt. Ipse Paulus ait: ex parte cognoscimus (I Cor. 13.9). Ipse vas electionis, cui Christus oculos reddidit et sua illuminavit gratia; non facie ad faciem sed per speculum videbat” (PL 15, col. 1228).

27. See Victoria Cirlot and Blanca Gari for studies of the gaze of holy women, including Hildegard of Bingen and Mechtild of Magdeburg, among others.

28. “Gustate, et videte quam bonus est Dominus, sicut malum (Ps. 33.8) et in malo vulnus est, sed tamen suave est (CANT II.3). Venit iterum ad botryonis et vidit ingentis uvam magnitudinis quam duo portare vix poterant. Unus qui praecederit, alius qui sequeretur. Gustavit mysterium, gustavit in Jesu Nave, gustavit in Caleb, qui dicebant populo: Vidimos terram profluentem mel et lac (Num 13.28). Gustate, et videte quam suavis est Dominus”. See also Fulton for a study of the topoi of the sweetness of the Lord in medieval monasticism. She examines the writing of Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, and Bernard, and of Rupert of Deutz.

29. Because we have not found any readily available edition of Peter’s original words, we have in this case used the English translation only.

30. “Et immisisti in mentem meam visumque est bonum in conspectu meo pergere ad Simplicianum, qui mihi bonus apparebat servus tuus et lucebat in eo gratia tua”.

31. “Nil quippe aut deest jam semper videntibus, aut superest semper volentibus” (Sermones in Cantica Canticorum, PL 183, col. 941).

32. “et videbunt faciem ejus et est nomen ejus in frontibus eorum ... sed omnem dulcedinem et suavitatem illud transcendet, quod videbunt Deum facie ad faciem”.

33. “Prima et maxima contemplatio est admiratio majestatis” (De consideratione V, 14; PL 182, col. 806).

34. For beatific vision and its nature, see also Duba.

35. Severin and Whinnom, ed. (183, stanza 169). For further information on the dating of the poem, see Whinnom “The Religious Poems” and Severin “The Earliest Version”.

36. “Pues la mano ya llegada / a su lugar, contemplad / con qué premia fue clavada / y crudamente llagada / sin ninguna pïedaad” (186, stanza 175). For a brief discussion, see Whinnom, Diego de San Pedro.

37. For the Arma Christi, see Camille, Binksi, Areford, and Merback, and for visual representations of the body of Christ in general, Pelikan and Finaldi.

38. For a thought-provoking study of pain, see Cohen, and for the relationship between pain and identity, Binski, Merback, and Mills.

39. Literally: If God see me, this brightness is not of human origin. This expletive might be translated as, “if God be my judge”.

40. For an exposition of how hagiography must have two subjects or two wills which counterpoint each other, see Vitz (134).

41. See also Campbell’s discussion of the proliferation of the gaze, both interactive and interpassive, in which the saint-subject occupies two places at once, simultaneously taking the role of the (passive) viewer and the (active) object of the gaze (110).

42. “Nuda sunt ejus occulis omnia” (St. Bernard, Sermo de conversione, PL 182, col. 844).