- Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience by Alicia Spencer-Hall
Amsterdam University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9789462982277, 304 pages, Hardback, €95,00.
It is not every day that one finds medieval scholarship, film theory, popular culture and theology braided together in an accessible and provocative volume. In Alicia Spencer-Hall's Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, the author accomplishes just this; the book is a melding of medieval hagiography, mysticism, media and fandom studies, taking the reader through often surprising parallels between these and other disciplines. For Spencer-Hall, modern cinema and computer screens share an aesthetic similar to the divine visions of medieval female saints, bridging the vast temporal divide between these two forms of media. As Spencer-Hall quotes Bruno Latour, "[w]e do have a future and a past, but the future takes the form of a circle expanding in all directions and the past is not surpassed but revisited, repeated, surrounded, protected, recombined, reinterpreted and reshuffled" (59). It is within this "polytemporal context" that Medieval Saints operates, offering a seamless juxtaposition of pre-modern and postmodern media.
The book explores at length the parallels between modern cinema and computer screens and the lives of the Holy Women of Liege as accounted in their vitaes—the hagiographic works written about them and their divine visions. At the root of Medieval Saints lies a pedagogical imperative, as Spencer-Hall "maintain[s] that medieval mystical episodes are made intelligible to modern audiences through reference to the filmic—the language, form, and lived experience of the cinema" (11). Although, as Spencer-Hall claims, cinema offers the spectator an "agape-ic encounter"—a "transcendent experience," that "is functionally identical to the episodes of ecstasy which are the mainstay of medieval hagiography"—the author does not simply reduce the transcendent properties of mysticism or cinema to one another (11). In this way, Spencer-Hall conceives of "hagiography as cinematic media" (12) and "film as divinity" (16), while also maintaining the independence of the two. By bringing these two forms of media together, Spencer-Hall expands the definitions of both, and thereby opens them up anew through comparative analysis.
It is worth mentioning the two key points in the introduction upon which the author's argument later hinge: firstly, the insistence that "hagiographic media fuse textual, visual, and the haptic both in diegesis and in their respective modes" (13), and secondly, a critique of the typically gendered interpretation of Agape, opting instead for a definition as "'equal regard' between all humans and between humanity and divinity" (14). On the latter point, the dyad "seeing/being seen" does not rely on the male gaze, but rather "the agape-ic encounter offers a counter point, and means to move beyond, earlier theories of film spectatorship which pivoted on the notion of film spectatorship as ineluctable objectifying, particular to women," thereby contesting Laura Mulvey's "insistence on the 'male gaze'" (15). It is in the relation between spectator and screen, writes Spencer-Hall, that "we perceive (feel and see) ourselves being seen, and thus we are looked and felt into being" (16, my emphasis). The figure who most influences Spencer-Hall's reading of spectatorship is Vivian Sobchack, whose formula "transcendence in immanence" is foundational to Medieval Screens (16); by focusing on the fact of being tethered to the body while also transcending its material borders, the screen has a similar propensity as extasis (ek-stasis), or the standing aside of the spectator in their own body. This theme is revisited throughout the work, particularly in chapters Two and Three. [End Page 87]
Spencer-Hall dedicates a large portion of Chapter One to an examination of photography and divinity. "Photography was hailed as an 'apparitional technology', allowing spirits and mystical forces to be made visible," explains the author, who goes on to observe how "the tradition of [nineteenth and twentieth century] spirit photography lives on in the twenty-first century in the form of tribute photography" (67). Spencer-Hall asserts that "the 'truth claim' that underpins photography's ability to produce proof of the divine and...