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  • The Facial Gesture(Mis)Reading Emotion in Gothic Art
  • Elina Gertsman

In the ninth canto of Dante's Paradiso, Folco of Marseilles speaks to the poet about his former sins or, rather, about the needlessness of thinking of his former sins in the blissful universe of paradise:

Non però qui si pente, ma si ride,non della colpa, ch'a mente non torna,ma del valor ch'ordinò e provide.

[Yet we repent not, but we smile,not for the fault which returns not to mind,but for the Power that ordained and foresaw.]1

Folco's smile without regret is simultaneously perplexing and encouraging: it signifies divine forgiveness and dismissal of one's transgressions; it appears a bit self-mocking but laced with pathos; it is a smile of a weak man directed at an all-powerful God.2 The complexity of Folco's facial gesture points to the importance of studying the body as the site of mediated and elicited emotion expressed through somatic symptoms, in this case a smile.

In the past few years, the study of emotion in the religious, social, and literary history of the Middle Ages has gained particular importance and urgency under the sensitive scholarly guidance of Barbara Rosenwein.3 Art historians, too, have addressed a variety of visual signs in their quest to explore medieval emotion, although its sustained history is yet to be written.4 But can a dependable visual vocabulary of emotion be identified, especially one encoded in a gesture? Some psychologists think so: Paul Ekman, one of the leading researchers in the field of nonverbal communication, argues that facial expressions are universal [End Page 28] and can be recognized as markers of one of seven basic emotions—anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise—across cultural (and, presumably, temporal) divides.5 Historians often agree: writing about pain, for instance, Esther Cohen points out that one would be hard-pressed to misidentify particular visual gestures as expressions of particular emotion, such as grief, for "the turned-down mouth, the drawn brows, the cry, are common to all humans."6

Here, I will briefly consider two issues. In Gothic art, does the gestural/facial expression—a smile, for instance—consistently provide an indication of the emotional state of the individual represented? Can we correctly recognize in it an imprint of emotion? And, in general, did medieval viewers perceive this visual symptom as a reliable somatic expression with a fixed, predetermined meaning? In order to answer these questions we must pay close attention to the contexts—social, bodily, and visual—in which smiles are found, the contexts that offer intelligibility to what is an essentially ambiguous facial gesture. In her groundbreaking work on early medieval emotion, Rosenwein identifies what she calls "emotional communities," circumscribing "the modes of emotional expression that they expect, encourage, tolerate, and deplore."7 In an attempt to establish such a community (here, a viewing community), I restrict this brief study to thirteenth-century architectural sculpture placed on the exterior of churches, marking a threshold between the sacred and secular realms.8

The ambiguity of Folco's smile as it is written by Dante offers a glimpse of the varied meanings that can be excavated from Gothic smiling images placed within religious contexts.9 Yet attempting to read consistency in these meanings is problematic. When Ekman and his colleagues argue for the universal signal value of facial expressions, they suggest the immutability of the connection between a specific facial pattern and a given emotion.10 Although I do not intend to dispute the intricacies of their theory, I do take issue with their underlying assumption that a facial expression is an accurate snapshot of a particular mental state. Ekman's team is especially emphatic about linking the smile and the emotion of happiness and joy; and for that connection they rely on visual evidence—in their case, photographs, which, as Ekman and his colleague Wallace Friesen write in Unmasking the Face, "show the facial blueprints of the major emotions."11 Even though the theory has been challenged by other psychologists, [End Page 29] James Russell among them,12 it remains a part of the canon to the extent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-9650
Print ISSN
1947-6566
Pages
pp. 28-46
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-15
Open Access
No
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