The power of the visual

I had a blog back in the early 2000’s when I was in college. Most of the posts I wrote were quatsch I realized once I had learned a bit more about the world around me. However, there was one post I wrote that was relatively well researched from my studies in Medieval art history that I have kept and would like to share with you. Here it is:

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

The Power of the Visual

The past month I have been reading the book, Medieval Allegory and the Building of the New Jerusalem, by Ann R. Meyer, D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 2003. It is quite a thought-provoking read for any who have an interest in the philosophy and theology behind medieval allegory. The first section deals with allegory’s philosophical and theological foundations from Plotinus (a follower of Plato) and Augustine. Then the book goes into detail of how certain liturgy sheds light on the meaning behind church architecture of the High Gothic. (Up to this point was of greatest interest to me.) The second half of part two goes on to describe the Chantry Movement in England, and part three moves on to discuss the late medieval allegorical poem, Pearl, and how it relates to gothic architecture, in order to “come closer to understanding the spirituality that inspired these medieval [architectural] achievements.”

One of the things that has stuck out to me while reading this book is how important the visual sense seems to be to mankind, whether in Scripture, to Augustine, theologians, or Greek philosophers. We know our world through our senses, especially through sight. Even the words we speak have images attached to them in our minds. We use imagery to explain abstract ideas in many branches of study. The press uses images to get a point across.

Plotinus took his philosophy of vision to the farthest extreme, turning it inot a religion. But perhaps there is still something to be learned from him. According to Meyer, Plotinus’ philosophy was a basis for much of medieval allegory. Plotinus believed that the sight was the foundation of all human knowledge. And thus, through sight can one gain knowledge of a higher being, “the One”. He also said that through sight one is connected to the universe, and when the spirit recognizes beauty, the spirit is connected to eternity.

[Augustine corrected Plotinus’ philosophy and asserted that only through Christ and the sacrament of the Church can one be connected to eternity. The only physical substance that can connect one to the divine is the sacrament of the Eucharist (55). According to Augustine, “Without the Eucharist, the Plotinian religion of the cosmos is ultimately, and at best, devoid of meaning; at worst it is idolatrous.” (56)]

The use of allegory emphasizes the importance of vision. Because what we see is what we know, images are often helpful to explain things we cannot see, such as the spiritual. For example, the structure of the Gothic church is literally a building, but figuratively, as revealed through its ornamentation, is a representation of the New Jerusalem. The building in itself is not the New Jerusalem, but its physical aspects reflect the spiritual qualities of the Church – the body of Christ – the New Jerusalem. These physical representations of the spiritual were meant to remind the viewers about Christ and the Church for the purpose of drawing them nearer to God.

Scripture itself is also filled with allegorical imagery. Christ’s parables to teach his followers, the visions of the prophets, and Johns’ vision of the New Jerusalem are a few examples. In Hebrews 9:24 the Tabernacle, “the holy places made with hands”, is referred to as “the figures of the true”. The earthly tabernacle is the “patterns of things in the heavens” (v. 23). The physical is a representation of the spiritual.

Vision seems to be a powerful sense, if even in scripture it is used as a means to learn of the things that are holy. In medieval art the visual was also a very important medium for learning, and not only for the illiterate.

[This following is my current thoughts on the topic.]

Now think about our modern world, how much imagery plays a role in our daily lives: scrolling through social media, television, movies, graphic novels. Yes, the world may be more literate today than it was in medieval times, but what usually sticks with us is not the words we read, but the images we see. How often do you close your eyes at night and remember something you saw during the day? How often do you remember an allegory of a spiritual truth better than its literal interpretation? If images are truly powerful enough to teach us spiritual truths, how should we approach the imagery we are bombarded with on a daily basis? The visual is important and should be part of our lives, but I think we as modern, literate people have played down its importance for too long.

As a side note, when I first wrote this article, I was coming from an iconoclastic, evangelical church. Since then, I joined the Eastern Orthodox church where worshiping with all your senses in important, including sight and smell. Now it really irks me when I go into a cathedral and the tour guide insists that the imagery is only there because the people were illiterate. I personally think that’s a simplified version of it and there was really more going on, based on what I know about the philosophy of Plotinus and my own personal experiences.