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The Visionary Brain and a Dream of Santa Oria
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Gonzalo de Berceo’s Vida de Santa Oria offers a compact account in cuaderna vía verse of three spiritual journeys into heavenly realms that are part of the hagiographic legend surrounding the cloistered and obscure nun from the Riojan monastic community of San Millán. Saint Oria’s (ca. 1043–ca. 1070) visions are said to have come as the capstone to a life of severe asceticism that drew to an early close. According to Brian Dutton’s plausible chronology based on the sparse evidence available to modern scholarship, Oria’s death likely came before the age of 30 (83).

Berceo claims to have based his thirteenth-century Vida on a text written (dictado) by Don Muño (st. 5ab), an eleventh-century predecessor at San Millán. Anthony Lappin, noting that a medieval audience would have demanded this kind of authentication to accept Oria’s radical spiritual experiences as true events, reminds the reader that Don Muño, in turn, learned of Oria’s first and second visions from her mother Ammuna:

Munno was an eye-witness to the saint’s vision, and his testimony confirmed the pedigree of Berceo’s own account. Yet Munno appears in the narration only when he is called for by Oria’s mother (VSO 149a) … Berceo later indicates that Munno’s major source for Oria’s life was Amunna (VSO 170–71.)

Julian Weiss proposes that a central theme of the work is “a metaphoric relationship between Oria’s penitential asceticism and the male cleric’s desire to control language and return to the plentitude of the originary Word” (71) and in his argument the mediation of Berceo in the text is therefore of primary concern. Berceo’s version of Oria’s inner experiences almost certainly represents a blend of fact with fiction shaped by both the explicit and unspoken intentions of the poet. Nevertheless, a scientifically informed exploration of the first vision as if it were a true, psycho-spiritual event taking place in a human body and brain suggests a surprising degree of verisimilitude in the poem’s account of Oria’s remarkable dream.

An examination of the opening sequence of Oria’s first vision through the lens of contemporary neurocognitive approaches to dream life reveals the compensatory and subversively liberating nature of the oneiric state in the life of the nun. With the psycho-biological authenticity of the nun’s experience at least partially affirmed in this way, it is possible to analyze the poem’s further development from a theoretical perspective that is both grounded in neuroscience and explores dreams as purposeful narratives deeply reflective of the dreamer’s individual personality and spiritual life.

A few key images in the Vida de Santa Oria form metaphorical nuclei laden with emotional overtones that are critical in establishing the text’s overarching framework of meaning. The dynamic concept of “root metaphor” developed by theologian and dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley sheds light on how such nuclei animate the storyline, generating and remitting to a deeper, unifying thread of spiritual significance.

The images and the poetic descriptions of processions and of the motif of the heavenly seat connect Oria to both the collective values of her monastic community and to a vastly larger spiritual reality. By both rooting her more fully within her earthly identity as part of a community that had partially constrained her and by granting her a taste of complete spiritual freedom, the dream offers a form of consolation for a life situation deeply bereft of external power and authority.

The rich imagery of Berceo’s Vida de Santa Oria may appear on a first reading to be fully transparent and easily decoded. T. Anthony Perry creates a distinction between Berceo’s allegorical use of symbols in the introduction to his Milagros de Nuestra Señora and the more literal, straightforward sense in which he believes spiritual motifs are presented in the Vida de Santa Oria, attributing the difference to the Berceo’s claims for the historical veracity of Oria’s visions (94). Siminia M. Farcasiu’s exhaustive philological approach to the Vida, which contributes to the discussion below of key images in the poem’s opening...



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