Ocular Communion

  • Suzannah Biernoff
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


It is often observed that from the thirteenth century, visual experience of the sacred played an increasingly central role in both private devotions and communal religious life.1 A proliferation of public and devotional images; dramatic re-enactments of Biblical stories; the exhibition of relics and other cultic objects; the elevation of the host within the mass and its extraliturgical display in the monstrance: all of these developments, as Hans Belting points out, speak of a ‘need to see’.2 If previously God’s ultimate invisibility and unrepresentability were proof of his transcendent divinity, Belting contends that the daily possibility of beholding Christ, the Virgin and saints came increasingly to ‘fulfill the postulate that reality attains to full existence and is proven only in visibility’.3


Thirteenth Century Fourteenth Century Sacred Heart Divine Love Human Flesh 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    The observation is made by (amongst others): H. Belting, The Image and its Public in the Middle Ages: Form and Function of Early Paintings of the Passion trans. M. Bartusis and R. Meyer (New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas, 1990), 7; M. Camille, Gothic Art , 12, and Gothic Idol 203–20; Caviness,’Simple Perception of Matter’, Lewis, Reading Images 264; and M. R. Miles, Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 65–6 (on fourteenth-century visual culture).Google Scholar
  2. 12.
    A number of excellent historical and iconographic studies have focused on this particular representation of Christ, and I do not propose to add to these accounts. The seminal iconographic study is Erwin Panofsky’s ‘“Imago Pietatis”: Ein Beitrag zur Typengeschichte des “Schmerzensmanns” und der “Maria Mediatrix” ‘, Festschrift für Max J. Friedländer zum 60. Geburtstag (Leipzig: Seemann, 1927): 261–308. Major studies of the Man of Sorrows include: H. Belting, Image and its Public; L. M. La Favia, The Man of Sorrows: Its Origin and Development in Trecento Florentine Painting (Rome:’Sanguis’, 1980); and S. Ringbom, Icon to Narrative: the Rise of the Dramatic Close-up in Fifteenth-Century Devotional Painting 2nd ed. (Doornspijk, Neth.: Davaco, 1984). The iconographic development and regional variations of the Man of Sorrows are documented in G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art , trans. J. Seligman, 2 vols (London: Humphries, 1972), 2: 197–229.Google Scholar
  3. 13.
    While consistent with this general trend, the concept of the ‘period eye’ goes some of the way towards reconciling art history with the historical permutations of vision. See, for example: M. Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988),’The Period Eye’, 29–108; and Michael Camille, who approaches ‘Gothic art as the embodiment of medieval visual experience’ (Gothic Art 12). Because Camille’s use of thirteenth-century optics is limited to the intromissionist, perspectivist model, the conclusions he draws about ‘visual experience’ differ substantially from those proposed in this book.Google Scholar
  4. 14.
    Julian of Norwich, Showings trans. E. Colledge and J. Walsh, Classics of Western Spirituality Series (New York: Paulist, 1978), 178 (ch. 2, long text).Google Scholar
  5. 19.
    In his study of Florentine religious life during the Renaissance, Richard Trexler points out that sacred images were addressed as persons (for example, ‘Nostra Donna’ rather than ‘the image of Our Lady’) and worshipped—or violated—accordingly. The holy person’s presence in their likeness is further evinced by the attribution of sensitive faculties to images (one image of the Virgin was said to have closed her eyes when confronted with an offensive scene in the street below). R. C. Trexler, Church and Community 1200–1600: Google Scholar
  6. 21.
    Surveys of medieval attitudes to images include: Camille, Gothic Idol , 203–20; T. A. Heslop,’Attitudes to the Visual Arts: the Evidence of Written Sources’, The Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200–1400 , ed. J. Alexander and P. Binski (London: Weidenfeld with Royal Academy of Arts, 1987), 26–32; W. R. Jones, Art and Christian Piety: Iconoclasmi in Medieval Europe’, The Image and the Word: Confrontations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam , ed. J. Gutmann (Missoula: Scholars, 1977); and Ringbom,’Devotional Images’. For primary sources, see: C. Davis-Weyer, Early Medieval Art 300–1150: Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971); and in the same series, T. G. Frisch, Gothic Art 1140–c.1450 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971).Google Scholar
  7. 23.
    These sources, which were disseminated by mendicant preachers, include Peter the Venerable’s De mira-miraculis (1135–44), Herbert of Clairvaux’s De miraculis (1178), Gerald of Wales’s Gemma Ecclesiastica (c.1215) and Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus miraculorum (c.1220). Other examples are provided by Ringbom,’Devotional Images’, 160.Google Scholar
  8. 26.
    J. F. Hamburger, The Rothschild Canticles (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1990), 165.Google Scholar
  9. 30.
    D. L. Jeffrey, ‘Franciscan Spirituality and the Growth of Vernacular Culture’ in By Things Seen: Reference and Recognition in Medieval Thought , ed. D. L. Jeffrey (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1979), 151.Google Scholar
  10. 34.
    This process is discussed in detail by D. Despres in Ghostly Sights: Visual Meditation in Late-Medieval Literature (Norman, OK: Pilgrim, 1989). See in particular Chapter 2: ‘Franciscan Meditation: Historical and Literary Contexts’, 19–54.Google Scholar
  11. 56.
    Rubin describes the practice as ‘sacramental viewing’, Corpus Christi 63. The importance of vision in eucharistic devotion is also noted by J. Ash, ‘The Discursive Construction of Christ’s Body in the Later Middle Ages: Resistance and Autonomy’, Feminine, Masculine and Representation , ed. T. Threadgold and A. Cranny-Francis (Sydney: Allen, 1990), 81; Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption 45; Camille, Gothic Idol , 217; Lewis, Reading Images 263–5; and Trexler, Church and Community 67.Google Scholar
  12. 101.
    V. W. Turner, ‘Betwixt and Between: the Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’ (originally published in 1964), Reader in Comparative Religion: an Anthropological Approach , ed. W. A. Lessa and E. Z. Vogt, 4th ed. (New York: Harper, 1979), 234–43; Kristeva, Powers of Horror. The potent combination of the holy and the transgressive in medieval religious life has featured in a number of recent studies. Lochrie’s work on female mystics locates both sin and redemption in the flesh (Margery Kempe, 37–47; Language of Transgression, 128–40); while Rubin notes that the eucharist brought together ‘the most holy with the most aberrant/abhorrent’: cannibalism (Corpus Christi, 360).Google Scholar
  13. 131.
    This passage (from Vision 7) is quoted in Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast 156. Bynum dates Hadewijch’s poetry to the period between 1220 and 1240. Her writings have been translated into English by C. Hart: Hadewijch: the Complete Works (New York: Paulist, 1980).Google Scholar
  14. 133.
    J. Kristeva, ‘Stabat Mater’, The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives , ed. S. R. Suleiman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 108.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Suzannah Biernoff

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations