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IMC 2015: Sessions

Session 901: Annual Medieval Academy of America Lecture: The Vulgate of Experience - Preaching, Art, and the Material World

Tuesday 7 July 2015, 19.00-20.00

Sponsor:Medieval Academy of America
Introduction:Ian N. Wood, School of History, University of Leeds
Speaker:Sara Lipton, Department of History, State University of New York, Stony Brook

We have been told repeatedly that Gothic art was ‘A Bible for the Simple’ and ‘A Lesson for the Laity’. Yet during the era of high medieval reform - the 12th- and 13th-centuries - the same clerics who invoked Gregory the Great’s famous defense of religious imagery expressed deep suspicion of sensory perception, criticizing delight in the material world and reliance on visual stimuli as ‘Jewish’ and un-spiritual. In fact, few pedagogical invocations of iconography have been found in surviving medieval sermon texts. How, then, to reconcile these tensions and explain the simultaneous intense investment in and apparent under-exploitation of church art in the high Middle Ages?

This lecture will explore a series of sermons, exempla, and chronicle narratives that address issues of seeing, knowing, and art in order to explore high medieval approaches to vision, knowledge, and truth. The aim is not to elaborate a general theory of image reception, but to investigate how images were made to serve pastoral ends in a given intellectual and cultural context - the flourishing urban society of high medieval Europe. The lecture will argue that far from treating artworks as an ‘open book’, medieval preachers employed strange, even counter-intuitive readings to underline and even intensify the illegibility of sculpture and stained glass, and insisted on the deceptive nature of outward appearance. Yet at the same time they frequently cited everyday experience and benefited from the immediate, aesthetic reactions inspired by artworks. Pastoral invocations of art thus tread a fine line between clear and oblique, accessible and obscure, art is used simultaneously to reveal and safeguard religious truths. This tension is central to the preachers’ charge: they wanted their sermons to educate, inspire, and guide, but not emancipate their audience; they wanted to reveal the essence of God’s word while protecting its full force and glory. This evidence suggests that the power of images was no less feared than the power of words, and had to be harnessed in similar ways. It seems, in short, that art was, indeed, the ‘Bible of the Simple’, but, as such, it had, like the word of God, to be veiled.

About the Medieval Academy of America:
The Medieval Academy is pleased once again to host the Annual Medieval Academy Lecture, an opportunity for the Academy to showcase some of the important work being done by scholars in North America. We hope you will join us for a reception immediately following the lecture, where members of the Medieval Academy staff will be available to answer questions about the Academy and its work. For more information about the Academy, please see All those attending are warmly invited to join members of the Medieval Academy after the lecture for a glass of wine.

Please note that admission to this event will be on a first-come, first-served basis as there will be no tickets for the event. Please ensure that you arrive as early as possible to avoid disappointment.