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To See with the Eyes of the Soul: Memory and Visual Culture in Medieval Europe

To See with the Eyes of the Soul: Memory and Visual Culture in Medieval Europe

By Henning Laugerud

Arv. Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, Vol.66 (2010)

The Triumph (or Wisdom) of St Thomas Aquinas, fresco in the Chapter Hall of the Dominican Convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, by Andrea di Bonaiuto from 1366/1367.

Introduction: In more cultural-historically inspired studies on memory, the interest has often focused on different forms of collective and personal memory as a field of study for the decoding of values, identities and (cultural) conceptions. Somewhat overlooked in more recent research are the conditions connected to how and why memory “works” and why it is such an important part of the total cultural reality. These questions were, however, central topics of reflection in the historical cultures of Antiquity and the Middle Ages in which we generally root our own cultural memory. In this article I shall therefore take a closer look at how people thought about the subject of memory and why memory was considered so important in the Middle Ages. Memory was understood in terms of a moral and epistemological integrated perspective, and as something creative and dynamic. Memory, and its art – ars memoria or mnemotechnics – was of vital importance for what we today would call the “the psychology of knowledge”, of which it was seen as a part.

The understanding of memory in the Middle Ages is related to a way of thinking in which visuality and knowledge are tightly interwoven, and we are talking about both optical and para-visuality. In all literature concerning memory, whenever the mnemotechnics or ars memoria is discussed, memory is linked to different types of images, or visual representations. As a way of acquainting ourselves with this subject we can start with an example from the literature of Old Norse sermons, the so-called “Stave Church Homily” from the end of the 1100s which introduces this relationship.

We can find the “Stave Church Homily” in the Old Norse Book of Homilies, a collection of sermons – homilies from the 1100s. The manuscript contains a translation of Alcuin’s (c. 735–804) “On Virtues and Vices”, and a number of sermons for both fixed and movable feasts, ordered chronologically throughout the church year, as well as a sermon on tithes and one on the relationship between body and soul. The body of texts then, goes back to at least the eighth and ninth centuries and represents, for the most part, theological and Christian literature from before the mid 1100s.

The “Stave Church Homily” is a so-called sermon for the day. “The sermon for the day” was used on the annual celebration held to commemorate the church’s consecration day or dedicatio. We can read here how the priest could speak about the symbolic and allegorical meaning within which it was possible to understand the church’s material building. It is explained how: “The church and Christianity are known by one and the same word in the books.” This is an allegorical meaning on two levels. Firstly, on a general level as a church: “The choir is a picture of the blessed in heaven, while the nave represents Christians on earth. […] The four corner posts of a church are the four evangelists, as the wisdom they hold is the strongest supports of the Christian faith.” This can also be understood on a personal level. “But in the same way that we can speak of the church as an image of the whole of Christianity, we can also say that it is an image of each and every Christian, who, by living in purity, becomes a temple for the Holy Spirit.”

Click here to read this article from the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy

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