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Sacred Anguish: Medieval Art and Spiritual Illness

Ravinder S. Binning

“The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste”; Elephant ivory; ca. 950; Bode Museum, Berlin, DE (Orig. Constantinople)

At the KHI, Binning will work on his first book, Sacred Anguish: Medieval Art and Spiritual Illness. It offers a new approach to the relationship between art after antiquity and states of terror and melancholy. Countless medieval sources describe trembling fear before works of art as though such pain was somehow to be desired. The field of art history, however, has still not accounted for how anguished aesthetic experience gained its value. To this issue, the study begins re-examining the implication of the body in late antique and Byzantine ritual experience. Scholars usually treat the medieval provocation of emotion as analogous to rhetoric, using categories such as sorrow and fear as though generic phenomena detached from bodily experience. However, this approach clashes with so many medieval sources that describe their outbursts of fear and grief with recourse to a language of thermodynamics. This book engages how ancient scientific theories of psychosomatic sympathy came to shape religious conceptions of the body and soul in Byzantium. Beginning in the fourth century, theologians like John Chrysostom wrote extensively on sorrow, grief, melancholia, and terror, and defined these states not as emotions but sensations uniting body and soul. Chrysostom and other fourth-century iatrosophists transformed Stoic therapies of sensation for a Christian view of the body as defined by eschatology. New cathartic spiritual exercises emerged with the promise to cure the fallen individual doomed for divine punishment. These exercises revolved around the active cultivation of pained sensation and therapeutic katharsis. Through the period of Iconoclasm and into the Middle Byzantine period, these states became cultivated in collective ritual experience. This book shows how, beginning in the ninth century, certain works of art came to mediate and reproduce these events and thus, will re-trace the origins of eschatological aesthetic experience in the medieval Mediterranean. Each chapter is a case-study of a personal object and takes into account how their miniature effects reflect the privatization of collective ritual experience.

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