This graduate seminar explores the fascinating relationship between 'supernatural' phenomena and the visual arts in late medieval and early modern Europe. Cultural understandings about divine and diabolical causality, miracles, magic, and witchcraft were rooted in the visual. Distinctions between 'natural' and 'supernatural' phenomena turned on the interpretation of visual perception, acts of witnessing, and ritual performances involving images. While theologians maintained a distinction between the image as a 'sign' and the transcendent beings represented, there was widespread belief that supernatural beings operated in and through their material effigies, and were immanent in visions and apparitions. As a consequence, particularly efficacious sacred paintings and sculptures were enshrined and treated like relics. Demonic images were feared and sometimes defaced in order to prevent evil forces from acting through them. Over the extended period under investigation (1200-1650), new and influential ways of visualizing the order of the cosmos and the locus and character of sacred and diabolical beings were introduced. Hell emerged as a subterranean domain presided over by Satan, vividly imagined by Dante in the Divine Comedy. A visual discourse on witchcraft developed with a puzzling relationship to documented historical practice. Visual artists experimented with different representational strategies for characterizing the extraordinary qualities of supernatural phenomena. The 'supernatural' also offered practitioners like Giotto, Bosch, Duerer, Baldung Grien, Rosso Fiorentino, and Michelangelo, a compelling means for elaborating on the powers (and limitations) of the artistic imagination and invention. The figure of the artist, too, could be compared to God, the supreme animator (the "Divine Michelangelo"), or, less favorably, to a magician or a trickster.
We will begin with 'object lessons' conducted in local museums and libraries in order to become conversant with a variety of visual cultural media and genres. We will then look at recent anthropological work on 'embodied knowledge' (Michael Taussig) and the 'ecstatic side of fieldwork', in an effort to work more effectively and self-consciously as historians investigating beliefs about the 'supernatural' The subsequent sessions on the miraculous and diabolical in late medieval and early modern European visual culture will be organized thematically, but with an attentiveness to historical developments and regional variations. The approach will be inter-disciplinary and graduate students from outside the History of Art Department are welcome. Course requirements include weekly participation in the seminar discussions and a final research paper.