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

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...

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