The Corporeal Imagination

The Corporeal Imagination: Signifying the Holy in Late Ancient Christianity

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Corporeal Imagination
    Book Description:

    With few exceptions, the scholarship on religion in late antiquity has emphasized its tendencies toward transcendence, abstraction, and spirit at the expense of matter. In The Corporeal Imagination, Patricia Cox Miller argues instead that ancient Christianity took a material turn between the fourth and seventh centuries. During this period, Miller contends, there occurred a major shift in the ways in which the human being was oriented in relation to the divine, a shift that reconfigured the relationship between materiality and meaning in a positive direction. The Corporeal Imagination is a groundbreaking investigation into the theological poetics of material substance in late ancient Christian texts. From hagiographies to literary descriptions of sacred paintings to treatises on relics and theurgy, Miller examines a wide variety of ancient texts to reveal how Christian writers increasingly described the matter of the world as invested with divine power. By appealing to the reader's sensory imagination, Christian texts endowed phenomena like relics, saints' bodies in hagiography, and saints' presence in icons with a visual and tactile presence. The book draws on a variety of contemporary theoretical models to elucidate the significance of all these materials in ancient religious life and imagination.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0468-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    The relatively recent field of material culture studies has fostered scholarly analysis of the ways in which “things” claim a society’s attention as well as analysis of how perception of things varies from one society to another. In one society, for example, things will be perceived as inhabited and animated, while in another, things will be perceived as insensate utilitarian objects.¹ But whether they are viewed as animate or inanimate, things have increasingly commanded the attention of cultural analysts: whole books have been written on the pencil, the chair, potatoes, and bananas.²

    The field in which the present study is...

  4. Chapter One Bodies and Selves
    (pp. 18-41)

    The shift in sensibility that I have called “the material turn” was not limited to late ancient Christianity. The reconfiguration of the relationship between materiality and meaning was part of a wider cultural phenomenon, as several studies have shown. Beginning in the fourth century, there was an increase in appreciation for color, glitter, and spectacle, from public ceremonies to personal clothing.¹ This heightened appeal to the eye, variously characterized as a new theatricality and “a peculiarly expressionistic manner,” can also be seen in poetry and sculpture—a “jeweled style” based on preference for visual immediacy, which was achieved by emphasis...

  5. Chapter Two Bodies in Fragments
    (pp. 42-61)

    One aspect of the material turn in late antiquity was the development of an aesthetics that emphasized the visual and tactile immediacy of the part—a piece of bone, a single mosaic tile, a word in a poem—at the expense of the whole. In literature and art, compositional techniques such as juxtaposition and repetition were used precisely to highlight fragments rather than wholes. By virtue of these techniques, such fragments became “things” in the sense conveyed by Bill Brown’s “thing theory,” in which objects took on surplus value and stood out against their contexts as magnets of attraction.¹ When...

  6. Chapter Three Dazzling Bodies
    (pp. 62-81)

    There is no better exemplar of Bill Brown’s “thing theory” in late ancient Christianity than a relic. As a specifically spiritual object, a relic is a mere object, a body part of a dead human being, that has become a “thing” because it can no longer be taken for granted as part of the everyday world of the naturalized environment of the death and decay of the human body. In antiquity, the relic as thing was a locus of surplus value: because it was a vehicle for the mediation of divine presence in human life—that is to say, a...

  7. Chapter Four Bodies and Spectacles
    (pp. 82-101)

    A poetics of material substance, as Daniel Tiffany has written, calls for materialization of the invisible world.¹ As his use of the word “poetics” suggests, the invisible world is materialized in images, that is to say, in figurative language or word-pictures that are crucial for knowledge, since what is considered to be “real” is a function of the pictorial imagination.² In late ancient Christianity, the success of the material turn insofar as it was devoted to the paradox of spiritual bodies—in this chapter, martyrial bodies and their relics—was due in large part to its cultivation of an inner...

  8. Chapter Five Ambiguous Bodies
    (pp. 102-115)

    Relics were not the only objects that became “things” when they were endowed with surplus value. And they were also not the only things that were difficult to visualize because, as noted in the previous chapter, they were ambiguously corporeal, both immaterially material and materially immaterial. Like relics, saintly bodies were corporeal objects that demanded a strong form of imagination in order to make their spirited presence intelligible in human life. Late ancient hagiographers were confronted with a problem similar to the one faced by Victricius in regard to relics, namely, how to portray the ongoing liveliness of a sainted,...

  9. Chapter Six Subtle Bodies
    (pp. 116-130)

    From the fourth through the seventh centuries, late ancient Christianity fostered the development of three remarkable movements—the cult of the saints, the cult of relics, and the production of iconic art—all of which were premised on the conviction that the material world, particularly in the form of the human body, was a locus of spiritual presence. As noted in the Introduction, the “tangible, palpable piety” that began to emerge in the fourth and fifth centuries was spurred in part by a theological position that emerged in the context of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of those centuries, namely,...

  10. Chapter Seven Animated Bodies and Icons
    (pp. 131-147)

    Depicting the relation between a saint and his icon required as subtle a touch as depicting the saintly body itself. This chapter begins a discussion of the role that hagiographical word-pictures played in “showing,” as it were, the ephemeral-but-tangible materialization of a saint in an icon. Like relics, icons were an important part of the material turn in late ancient Christianity, a perspectival shift that fostered reverence for those objects that gave palpable reality to religious ideas like saintly intercession. Also like relics, icons raised the problem of the overinvestment of matter with meaning, particularly to the extent that their...

  11. Chapter Eight Saintly Bodies as Image-Flesh
    (pp. 148-163)

    This chapter continues the inquiry, begun in the previous chapter, into the relation between saints and their icons as portrayed in hagiographical anecdotes about them. Although the focus will continue to be on a poetics of saintly substance and its pedagogical value, more attention will be given to later icon-theory and hagiographies’ anticipation of some of its major theses. Since this chapter deals more explicitly with the visual and with problems of representation in literature as well as in iconic art, I begin by introducing a set of terms that will shape the discussion that follows.

    In his book Picture...

  12. Chapter Nine Incongruous Bodies
    (pp. 164-178)

    The icons that figure in the hagiographical anecdotes discussed in the previous two chapters were in the main objects that could be hung on walls. But this form of icon does not exhaust the late ancient conception of icons: as Averil Cameron has pointed out, though “we tend to think of icons typically as portable images painted on wood, it is important to realize that it was neither the material nor its portability that made a picture into an icon.”¹ She continues: “It is rather the subject and treatment of the picture that qualifies it for the term ‘icon,’” as...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 179-182)

    In his work Earth and Reveries of Will, devoted to what he called the “imagination of matter,” Gaston Bachelard wrote the following about images that “seek substance”: “In a world of metal and stone, wood and rubber, images of terrestrial matter abound. They are stable and steady; visible to the eye; palpable to the hand. They arouse a muscular pleasure the moment we experience a desire to work them. It would seem, then, a simple task to illustrate the philosophy of the four elements through such images.”¹ It would seem a simple task to elucidate material images but, as Bachelard...

  14. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 183-184)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 185-230)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-248)
  17. Index
    (pp. 249-260)
  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 261-263)