Early Modern Vision: The Imagination and the Religious Image

November 6 to 7, 2017

Lichtenberg-Kolleg - the Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study
Organized by Dr. Marsha Libina, Volkswagen-Mellon Fellow in Residence

In Early Modern Europe, under a new concern with orthodoxy and demand for evidence of the miraculous, attitudes toward corporeal and spiritual vision became a vital topic of debate among religious thinkers, reformers, artists and art theorists. Vision had become an increasingly controversial mode of securing knowledge of the world, and one of the primary means through which authority was interrogated and tested. Taking advantage of the close association between the faculty of vision and images, this workshop explores the manifestation of concerns regarding vision in the visual culture of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. In particular, the rise of vision and visionary experience as meaningful subjects in religious images give insight into a growing interest in and anxiety over the imaginative faculty and the role of the senses in apprehending the invisible. What is more, the risk of demonic spirits infiltrating the artist’s imagination—an intermediary between the senses and the intellect, and itself conceived of as a visual process—called into question the reliability of image-makers as mediators of the divine. The eye of the mind and the very capacity of the artistic image to faithfully transmit divine truths to a broader audience became subject to scrutiny.

The workshop seeks to open up conversation about Early Modern anxieties concerning the reliability of vision, the uncertainty of sensory experience, and the relationship between the faculties of vision and the imagination. In particular, it aims to investigate the impact that scientific, theological, and artistic discourses regarding vision and the imagination had on image making as a form of knowledge of the spiritual and physical world.