“Whom can you marry?” “How can you stay healthy?” “What forces regulate the universe and daily life?” “How do you express religious, scientific, juridical, philosophical, and familial concepts?”
Curated by Susan L’Engle, assistant director of the Vatican Film Library – with collaboration from graduate research assistants Benjamin Winter (Theology) and Kyle Lincoln and Benjamin Halliburton (History) – this exhibition explores the many interrelationships between ideas and activities that occupied body and mind in the Middle Ages.
The exhibition is free and open to the public. It will be on display through Oct. 31 in the 2nd floor gallery of Pius XII Memorial Library.
For further information, contact L’Engle at 314-977-3084, [email protected].
To the medieval mind, the body was full of contradictions. Christian doctrine encouraged people to deny their bodies through fasting and abstinence, while some of the central images of Christianity, especially the Eucharist and the Passion, referred to the body as a locus of spiritual feeling. Death and disease were seen as natural phenomena but with supernatural origins; thus the practice of medicine became a blend of reason and superstition. The forces of nature and the universe could also cause changes in human health; the seasons of the year, meteorological events, air and the environment, and the positions of the stars and planets could affect bodily conditions.
In this period of intellectual and spiritual transition, one’s sense of identity was defined by rules of church and secular law, and represented in diagrammatic configurations derived from those used to convey religious and scientific relationships. In this manner, the circular format used to portray the genealogy of Christ was also utilized to present the dynastic history of a noble family such as the Este of Ferrara.
On display are facsimiles of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts that present essays and treatises composed by medieval scholars to describe and explain events and experiences that affected human life-and also to provide guidelines for dealing with them. This information is filtered through various viewpoints: medicine and health; astronomy and astrology; religion and law; philosophy and superstition. The authors of these works also enlisted images to assist in the comprehension of complex concepts and procedures, many of them in the form of schema or charts; others providing explicit visual illustrations.
As the Spanish monk Maius (ca. 945) who illustrated an early copy of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentaries on the Apocalypse, explained: “… I have painted in series pictures for the wonderful words of its stories, so that the wise may fear the coming of the future judgment of the world’s end.” In like fashion, the diverse stories interpreted through diagrams and illustrations in this exhibition demonstrate how medieval individuals articulated their understanding of their bodies, their thoughts, and the world around them.
Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections – Rare Books and the Vatican Film Library – houses the rare book and medieval manuscript studies collections of the University Libraries and provides a laboratory for learning and research that enables students, faculty, and visiting scholars to engage directly with unique, rare, and original materials. Visit Special Collections in Pius XII Memorial Library or online, or follow the blog.