Questions on Visuality and Devotion and Gibson’s Passion of Christ

Questions on Visuality and Devotion and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ



  1. What do the medieval theories of vision have in common? What connection does sight have to the acquisition of knowledge?


  1. Consider the quasi-sacramental character of images in the Middle Ages and the origins of this quality.


  1. How does the hierarchy of vision endow late medieval andachsbild with even greater devotional power?


  1. Herbert Kessler discusses the challenge of medieval art as it claims “to show the invisible by means of the visible.” Discuss!


  1. Why was the Resurrection marginalized in Passion plays?


  1. Michael Camille claims medieval images were “so much more powerful, moving, and instrumental, as well as disturbing and dangerous than later works of art.” Do you agree?


  1. Do you agree that the act of looking constitutes a powerful practice of belief, that it is tied to one’s religious identity?


  1. Does Gibson’s film share the same aesthetic goals as say, the Isenheim altarpiece? Is it kosher to compare the Cyclorama, the Gibson film, and medieval art?




11 responses

  1. I think it is interesting that sight was considered the vehicle for the acquisition of knowledge and, even, salvation. I had not realized that the host was consumed with the eyes more often than by the mouth for lay people (Laugerud, 179). This marks sight as not only a sensory experience, but also a form of agency. Sight gained its power through optical theories that advertised a physical connection between the eye and the object it looks at via “rays” or “sense-particles” (176). Touch was important in the middle ages, so the idea of physical connection lends credibility to sight.
    I also think that the way the rays of light connect the various hierarchical vision experiences in Illumination from the 14th century manuscript Omne bonum is interesting (174-175). This indicates connections between the different types of visions. Different visions can influence each other and they can build to a cumulative experience. Since sight was so important in the medieval world, it makes sense to think of it in a complex and cumulative context, rather than in a series of isolated experiences.

  2. There is much wisdom in your comment Hannah. What makes visions and visual experience so concrete in the Middle Ages were the scientific theories of vision that were popular during the period, that is intromission and extromission. As long as though rays were projecting from the object and from the eyeball, faith cannot be far behind!

  3. One idea I’m having trouble reconciling is that Medieval worshipers were concerned with both the tactile and the visual at once. In this class we’ve read about the tactility of sculpture and the distance which cathedrals put between the viewer and the worshiper, making worship less tangible. Were these two expressions of art from different Medieval periods (I realize “Medieval” is a pretty broad term to use,) or did it just depend on the context?

    In Griffith’s article, she dwells on the visual experience of viewers of the three different mediums of art (cathedral, cyclorama, film) as visual, yet immersive. While I see rich parallels between the three types, especially where distance and space are concerned (not to mention the sheer drama the largeness of all three,) I’m unclear on how the visual corporeality of the Passion doesn’t conflict with its tangible corporeality.

    With all this said, I think that “looking” (Question 7) really is hard to separate from one’s spiritual/religious identity. Looking is obviously important in a practice as steeped in art and ritual as the Catholic church’s, but even in Protestant churches, there is looking involved; one example that comes to mind is the large cross that is the centerpiece in many churches, behind the baptistery.

  4. I also found it interesting that sight was such a key component in connecting man to the intangible divinity. Laugerud’s article fascinated me because rather than fixating on the role of tactile devotional images like many others, he emphasized the individual’s psychological connection to images. St. Thomas’ optical theory of vision was most compelling to me because he not only believed sight was a metaphor for knowledge and understanding, but ones intellect, memories, and phantasms are all images within our own mind. Thus, sight is a vital component in shifting the worshiper away from external reflection of images, to an internal intellectual gaze that invites the incorporeal divinity to become present. It is by viewing the Divine that knowledge, salvation, and a higher level of consciousness is achieved. Yet, all medieval visions of theory share a common goal, using different modes of seeing in order to achieve Divine enlightenment and ultimately gain salvation.

    Like Alex, I am also having a difficult time understanding if worshipers during this time utilized tactile devotional images while in prayer in order to attain more vivid “visions” (or any at all). I remember us discussing how devotional images became increasingly popular amongst the laity, but the elite clergy were in fact the proponents of imageless devotion. Perhaps this is where I am getting confused!

  5. It is indeed confusing! The argument for the use of images is that Christ used parables in his ministry to teach because people needed to see things to understand them. Again, seeing is knowing. Of course, not all the theologian were on board with that line of reasoning! I am eager to discuss the readings for today! Thank you for your insightful comments!

  6. The topic of your second question really spoke to me while reading Laugerud’s article. I was very impressed by his (really fairly obvious) point that, without images of the saints and biblical figures in laypeople’s lives, they could not even have visions to start with. This really emphasizes the role of art as a spiritual tool for the people of the Middle Ages. Though this certainly blurred the line between images’ role as tools or as idols, I think it shows that, if nothing else, idol-like items, relics, and images were fundamental to the process of devotional worship, be it through written meditations, indulgence-based reciting of terms, or imaginative viewings of art. All of these included art and image to some degree, and that emphasizes the importance of art and image in medieval devotion.

  7. Why was the Resurrection marginalized in Passion plays?

    I think it’s because the bloodiest part of the Passion is easier to imagine and most likely to imprint into one’s memory, heart, and spirit. The torture of Christ is easier for one to imagine because like Christ we all have experience some sort of physical pain but unlike Christ no one has physically and spiritually resurrected (so far as I know). So simply put the resurrection is hard to relate to, hard to imagine, thus hard to imprint and connect with Christ.

    Consider this: during the late medieval period, there was war, famine, diseases; and to the average person who suffering, just as Christ did, one would logically ask ‘Why am I still here Lord when Christ was able to Resurrect and leave the sorrows of this damned flesh?’ How would the Church package a one size fits all response to the masses? It would be too messy and the way I understand it the Church didn’t see everyone spiritually and intellectually smart enough to understand any answers to this question. It was easier to package the Passion to everyone. Everyone can imagine pain, betrayal, and it’s through this imagining the believer can have compassion and understanding of God through Christ’s passion.

    It is in this way that the Resurrection is then treated like a bookend, a miraculous book end. ‘The End’ type fashion.

  8. I totally agree. In many ways the Resurrection is unimaginable. Yet suffering is palpable, real, and easy to identify with—particularly during the later medieval period. Holding out the promise of being resurrected with Christ at the end of time must have been so powerful during that period because it was such a contradiction to what was experienced in daily life (and death).

  9. Question: Does Gibson’s film share the same aesthetic goals as say, the Isenheim altarpiece? Is it kosher to compare the Cyclorama, the Gibson film, and medieval art?

    Like I mentioned in class, I really did not like the comparison of Mel Gibson’s film and the Isenheim altarpiece. The Isenheim altarpiece was created for a very specific place, a hospital, for people who had a very specific type of disease. It was meant to be a work that allowed those suffering from these diseases to identify with the suffering Christ. It was a work created for a small, select group of people.

    The film, on the other hand, is meant for anyone who had access to a movie theatre. I think the film is meant to shock as many people as possible. It was not made to allow the contemporary audience to identify with the flogging or the pain of crucifixion. I thought Griffiths’ argument here was weak and poorly planned.

    I don’t really think she should compare any of these three things, honestly. It feels like she is grasping at straws. It is extremely interesting, but I find it does nothing to further our understanding of any of the works.

  10. I agree with you that the comparison does not hold up, however, I would defend her right to make the comparative analysis. I think she does not acknowledge the manipulation in Gibson’s film, and the absence of manipulation in medieval art. The latter can tug on the viewer’s heart strings and prompt a very visceral response, but these reactions are not sole motivation for the pathos expressed in visual form.

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