- Speaking to the Eye: Sight and Insight through Text and Image (1150–1650) ed. by Thérèse de Hemptinne, Veerle Fraeters, and María Eugenia Góngora
This collection is the result of a Flemish–Chilean bilateral project, ‘Speaking to the Eye: Text, Image, and Gender in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times’. It is interdisciplinary in approach, but does emphasise literary, art historical, philosophical, and theological approaches. Each of the writers highlights the complex cultural meanings found in the texts and images being studied. The book is divided into three sections – Spiritual Vision, Text and Image Interactions, and Agency of Pictures – and is bookended by two essays that set the chronological boundaries of the work, and bring to the fore its central theme of exploring ‘the tension between iconophilic and iconoclastic reflections on the nature and function of images’ in the medieval and early modern periods.
Ineke van ‘t Spijker’s chapter on Hugh of St-Victor and Richard of St-Victor looks at the important role given to the visual and the visible in their understandings of knowledge and thought. Both used images not only as explanatory diagrams but also as vehicles for thinking in their discussions of the thinking process. In their writings, where they reflect the influence of the writings of St Augustine, they provide a more nuanced role for imagery. While this chapter looks at how the Victorine brothers included roles for images and the imagination in their quest for spiritual perfection through contemplation and meditation, the next three deal with visionary texts from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, examining works by Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijck of Brabant, and Simon of Aulne. In their studies of the first two, María Eugenia Góngora and Veerle Fraeters take specific visionary texts for focused analysis, while Jeroen Deploige looks at the use of spiritual clairvoyance in an account of the life of a Cistercian lay brother. This was recorded in an illustrated revision of his life from the seventeenth century.
Henry Suso also features in this collection. Suso’s use of images in his spiritual mentoring of nuns marked a shift in Dominican teaching, transforming Andachtsbilder into a central part of spiritual life. The imagery found in his texts also provides a fascinating insight into ideas about prayer and visionary experiences. Youri Desplenter examines Middle Dutch psalters, showing the use of these books by women, especially tertiaries, who adapted liturgical ritual into a quieter form of private prayer. The third chapter in this [End Page 240] second section looks at a fifteenth-century Middle French rhyming chronicle from the Premonstratensian monastery of Florette. The chronicle’s author defended the writing of history through allegorical writings combined with unusual illustrations, some of which transform and complement the meanings found in the text.
The final section looks at paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These include the extraordinary Beato Chiarito tabernacle in Florence, the central panel of which shows an image of the Apostles drinking the blood of Christ via tubes. The image highlights both Christ’s suffering and the spiritual nourishment it provides. The second chapter, by Stijn Bussels, looks at the ‘Diptych of the Lentulus Letter’, which juxtaposes a profile image of Christ with a purportedly contemporaneous description of his appearance. Caroline van Eck’s final chapter on Bellini’s Pieta combines Alfred Gell’s ideas about agency in art with classical rhetoric and Renaissance responses to art, to explore early modern ideas about visual persuasion. The epilogue of the collection is a discussion of Huygen’s poem written to console a friend whose eyesight was diminishing, which draws together both Augustinian understandings of spiritual insight, with ideas drawn from texts like that of Thomas à Kempis.
This is a fascinating and varied collection that tracks shifting understandings of the uses of images from the medieval...