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The Corporeal Imagination

Signifying the Holy in Late Ancient Christianity

By Patricia Cox Miller

Publication Year: 2011

With few exceptions, the scholarship on religion in late antiquity has emphasized its tendencies toward transcendence, abstraction, and spirit at the expense of matter. In The Corporeal Imagination, Patricia Cox Miller argues instead that ancient Christianity took a material turn between the fourth and seventh centuries. During this period, Miller contends, there occurred a major shift in the ways in which the human being was oriented in relation to the divine, a shift that reconfigured the relationship between materiality and meaning in a positive direction.

The Corporeal Imagination is a groundbreaking investigation into the theological poetics of material substance in late ancient Christian texts. From hagiographies to literary descriptions of sacred paintings to treatises on relics and theurgy, Miller examines a wide variety of ancient texts to reveal how Christian writers increasingly described the matter of the world as invested with divine power. By appealing to the reader's sensory imagination, Christian texts endowed phenomena like relics, saints' bodies in hagiography, and saints' presence in icons with a visual and tactile presence. The book draws on a variety of contemporary theoretical models to elucidate the significance of all these materials in ancient religious life and imagination.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion


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pp. vii

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pp. 1-17

The relatively recent field of material culture studies has fostered scholarly analysis of the ways in which ‘‘things’’ claim a society’s attention as well as analysis of how perception of things varies from one society to another. In one society, for example, things will be perceived as inhabited and animated, while in another, things will be perceived...

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Chapter One: Bodies and Selves

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pp. 18-41

The shift in sensibility that I have called ‘‘the material turn’’ was not limited to late ancient Christianity. The reconfiguration of the relationship between materiality and meaning was part of a wider cultural phenomenon, as several studies have shown. Beginning in the fourth century, there was an increase in appreciation for color...

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Chapter Two: Bodies in Fragments

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pp. 42-61

One aspect of the material turn in late antiquity was the development of an aesthetics that emphasized the visual and tactile immediacy of the part—a piece of bone, a single mosaic tile, a word in a poem—at the expense of the whole. In literature and art, compositional techniques such as juxtaposition and repetition were used precisely to highlight...

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Chapter Three: Dazzling Bodies

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pp. 62-81

There is no better exemplar of Bill Brown’s ‘‘thing theory’’ in late ancient Christianity than a relic. As a specifically spiritual object, a relic is a mere object, a body part of a dead human being, that has become a ‘‘thing’’ because it can no longer be taken for granted as part of the everyday world of the naturalized environment of the death and decay...

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Chapter Four: Bodies and Spectacles

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pp. 82-101

A poetics of material substance, as Daniel Tiffany has written, calls for materialization of the invisible world.1 As his use of the word ‘‘poetics’’ suggests, the invisible world is materialized in images, that is to say, in figurative language or word-pictures that are crucial for knowledge, since what is considered to be ‘‘real'' ...

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Chapter Five: Ambiguous Bodies

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pp. 102-115

Relics were not the only objects that became ‘‘things’’ when they were endowed with surplus value. And they were also not the only things that were difficult to visualize because, as noted in the previous chapter, they were ambiguously corporeal, both immaterially material and materially immaterial. ...

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Chapter Six: Subtle Bodies

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pp. 116-130

From the fourth through the seventh centuries, late ancient Christianity fostered the development of three remarkable movements—the cult of the saints, the cult of relics, and the production of iconic art—all of which were premised on the conviction that the material world, particularly in the form of the human body...

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Chapter Seven: Animated Bodies and Icons

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pp. 131-147

Depicting the relation between a saint and his icon required as subtle a touch as depicting the saintly body itself. This chapter begins a discussion of the role that hagiographical word-pictures played in ‘‘showing,’’ as it were, the ephemeral-but-tangible materialization of a saint in an icon. ...

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Chapter Eight: Saintly Bodies as Image-Flesh

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pp. 148-163

This chapter continues the inquiry, begun in the previous chapter, into the relation between saints and their icons as portrayed in hagiographical anecdotes about them. Although the focus will continue to be on a poetics of saintly substance and its pedagogical value, more attention will be given to later icon-theory and hagiographies’ anticipation...

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Chapter Nine: Incongruous Bodies

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pp. 164-178

The icons that figure in the hagiographical anecdotes discussed in the previous two chapters were in the main objects that could be hung on walls. But this form of icon does not exhaust the late ancient conception of icons: as Averil Cameron has pointed out, though ‘‘we tend to think of icons typically as portable images painted on wood...

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pp. 179-181

In his work Earth and Reveries of Will, devoted to what he called the ‘‘imagination of matter,’’ Gaston Bachelard wrote the following about images that ‘‘seek substance’’: ‘‘In a world of metal and stone, wood and rubber, images of terrestrial matter abound. They are stable and steady; visible to the eye; palpable to the hand. ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 183


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pp. 185-229


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pp. 231-248


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pp. 249-260

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pp. 261-263

Were it not for invitations to deliver papers at six special conferences, this book might not exist. Those special occasions proved to be formative for the course of research and writing that this book represents, and I am delighted to remember them here. It began with my presidential address to the North American Patristics Society in May 1997...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204681
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812241426

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion