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Secret Designs/Public Shapes: Ekphrastic Tensions in Hildegard’s Scivias

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

Abstract

The art critic Roberta Smith discusses in an interview with Sarah Thornton the process of writing reviews of museum or gallery shows that are accessible to a large public: “Art accumulates meaning through an extended collaborative act … You put into words something that everyone has seen. That click from language back into the memory bank of experience is so exquisite. It is like having your vision sparked.”1 She describes the translation of the visual to the verbal and its subsequent “fit” with memory as “so exquisite” but gives no logical reason for why this is so. Her last statement—“it is like having your vision sparked”—is vague to the point of the mystical. Yet I believe Smith’s observation is an important one, if more intuited than explicated. It hints at not only the physical capacity of seeing, or the imaginative phantasm—the vividness of visuals inside our minds—but also the instant of understanding, the proverbial click and spark of sudden clarity. Her statement suggests that the visual experience alone is not sufficient for the solidification of knowledge nor the communication of meaning but that a verbal answer, which in turn accesses the memory banks (which are a great deal visual in themselves), is the collaboration required for communicative meaning. In this model, a work of art is understood not as an isolated or singular entity but as an amalgamation of varied media created in response to one another.

Keywords

Memory Bank Public Experience English Poetry Visual Imagination Medieval Literature 
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.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 173.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Mary J. Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 34 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 57.Google Scholar
  3. 16.
    Tamar Yacobi, “The Ekphrastic Model: Forms and Functions,” in Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Descriptive Approaches to Ekphrasis, ed. Valerie Robillard and Els Jongeneel (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1998), 33 [21–34].Google Scholar
  4. 18.
    Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, trans. G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 25.Google Scholar
  5. 19.
    Both the tracts of iconophiles such as John Damascene and the declaration from the Council of Nicaea in 787 ensure the continuation of the tradition of the iconic image as a reminder of Christ as not only Word of God but Image of God. What becomes emphasized as crucial is the idea that the icon is a receptacle of grace and has transformative power, as scripture does. This is a fine point in understanding the cathexis in the connection between art and spirituality in the Western Middle Ages. Schönborn explains that John Damascene, as a major proponent of this idea, is more focused on what the image brings about than on similitude. See Christoph Schönborn, God’s Human Face: The Christ-Icon, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994).Google Scholar
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    Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
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    Jean Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 42.Google Scholar
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    John Hollander, “The Poetics of Ekphrasis,” Word & Image 4 (1988): 209–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd ed., Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 70 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 29.
    Ernst R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 3rd ed., trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 36 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 85.Google Scholar
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    Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 303.Google Scholar
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    Barbara Newman, “Poet: ‘Where the Living Majesty Utters Mysteries,’” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 185 [176 –92].Google Scholar
  13. 36.
    See Murray Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), for discussions of represented space and time both in the ekphrastic work and its object and in the experience of the viewer.Google Scholar

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© Margaret Cotter-Lynch and Brad Herzog 2012

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