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  • Au-delà de l'image, Une archéologie du visuel au Moyen Age, Ve–XVIe siècle
  • Mary Beth Ingham
Olivier Boulnois . Au-delà de l'image, Une archéologie du visuel au Moyen Age, Ve–XVIe siècle. Paris: De Travaux/Seuil, 2008. Pp. 496 + 8 illustrations. Paper, €26.00.

This study presents a history of the image: as central to truth and to the possibility of knowledge; in its relationship to the object; as representational mode of knowing; its inadequacy as medium; and as both revealing and concealing. Boulnois proceeds by means of multiple perspectives, linked historically in an archeology: an attempt to bring to light the sources and development of Western reflection upon the role of images. Less interested in providing answers than in re-framing contemporary reflection upon the role of visual images and art in human cognition, the author bases his study upon a compendium of texts and authors not often seen together in the same volume: philosophers, theologians, and artists. Together, [End Page 311] they uncover the continuity and discontinuity of development around the central role of visualization for human rationality. The volume concludes with an exhaustive bibliography and extensive indexes.

Part I, "Fondations Anthropologiques," lays the groundwork for the study: from Augustine and Platonic theories of the image and its role, both in knowledge (the image as memory device) and in the link between the human and divine (the image as revelation). Tensions within both philosophical and theological uses of the image carry over into language, and the role of signs to evoke, refer, and create. As the study moves into medieval practices (Cassian, Benedict, Aelred of Rievaulx) and medieval architecture, we discover a hermeneutic of reality, a decoding of meaning, that belongs to a spiritual exercise. An exploration of the nature of this exercise (as mediation, representation, lectio divina) exposes the image as an active, dynamic "sign": language for the literate and graphic art (cathedrals) for the illiterate.

Part II, "L'Économie du Visuel," traces the religious/spiritual role of the image. Here, the problematic dimension of the image is explored: the distinction of sensible and intelligible forms, the relationship of the image (as visible) to an invisible reality (the divine), visions and veneration of icons. The Dionysian tradition with Eriugena, the hermeneutic tradition with Hugh of St. Victor, the visions of Hildegard of Bingen: these examples reveal how medieval symbolism (unlike postmodernism) works to present the invisible through image understood as a contrary form that both affirms and denies. Chapter five, on the veneration of images, includes very good sections on Islamic thought and the role of icons, on attempts to affirm the superiority of auditory over visual experiences, and introduces the Libri carolini, a work that never influences medieval Latin thought, but will reappear with Calvin's reform.

Part III, "L'Ordre des Images," moves more carefully in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where issues of perspective, light, and representation inform consideration of the beatific vision. This metaphysics of perspective involves Islamic influences, Franciscan masters like Bonaventure, for whom the itinerarium is traced via images and beyond images, and like Aquinas, for whom cognitional stages define the different states of spiritual experience of the divine vision. This portion of the study concludes with the mysticism within the Dominican school (Meister Eckhart and Dietrich of Freiburg). God is no longer imaged in the soul's memory, intellect, and will (as Augustine held), but in the soul's apex mentis: beyond image, beyond symbol.

Part IV, "L'Image sans Limites," explores the birth of the fine arts and the rupture of modern notions of aesthetics from the medieval understanding of the beautiful, which was grounded on a theory of perception, rather than upon beauty. Here, Boulnois explores medieval notions of creativity and originality in thinkers like Duns Scotus and Nicholas of Cusa, notions that offer the conditions for the rupture of fine arts from crafts, and ultimately, art from beauty. The fourteenth century gives rise to a crisis regarding veneration of images, a crisis of the Augustinian view, a criticism of species, and the return of the Libri carolini with Calvin and the Reform. Increasingly, images become "works of art...