"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 2, 2018

Byzantine Bodily Perceptions

It seems somewhere in the 1980s Christians all over the world woke up one morning and began to theologize about the body. The trend took off in the West, with rather questionable premises and dubious results, often issuing in a lot of very cheap psychologizing by people who found the "theology of the body" a nifty trick to making money marketing bad books.

Here, as in all things, the East lags behind, but more recently we have seen an upswing in serious scholarly books devoted to the role of the body, the place of the senses, and even studies of one sense in particular--the olfactory, for example, or the auditory.

Now two more books join this increasing number. The first is set for an official release date of today: a collection, Perceptions of the Body and Sacred Space in Late Antiquity and Byzantium, edited by Jelena Bogdanovic (Routledge, 2018), 304 pages + 65 B/W illustrations. I drew attention here to another new work by Bogdanovic.

About this collection we are told:
Perceptions of the Body and Sacred Space in Late Antiquity and Byzantium seeks to reveal Christian understanding of the body and sacred space in the medieval Mediterranean. Case studies examine encounters with the holy through the perspective of the human body and sensory dimensions of sacred space, and discuss the dynamics of perception when experiencing what was constructed, represented, and understood as sacred. The comparative analysis investigates viewers’ recognitions of the sacred in specific locations or segments of space with an emphasis on the experiential and conceptual relationships between sacred spaces and human bodies. This volume thus reassesses the empowering aspects of space, time, and human agency in religious contexts. By focusing on investigations of human endeavors towards experiential and visual expressions that shape perceptions of holiness, this study ultimately aims to present a better understanding of the corporeality of sacred art and architecture. The research points to how early Christians and Byzantines teleologically viewed the divine source of the sacred in terms of its ability to bring together – but never fully dissolve – the distinctions between the human and divine realms. The revealed mechanisms of iconic perception and noetic contemplation have the potential to shape knowledge of the meanings of the sacred as well as to improve our understanding of the liminality of the profane and the sacred.
The second is also an edited collection in the prestigious Dumbarton Oaks series, and edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey (author of one of the above-linked books on smell) and Margaret Mullett: Knowing Bodies, Passionate Souls: Sense Perceptions in Byzantium (DOP, 2017), 342pp.

About this book we are told:
How does sense perception contribute to human cognition? How did the Byzantines understand that contribution? Byzantine culture in all its domains showed deep appreciation for sensory awareness and sensory experience. The senses were reckoned as modes of knowledge―intersecting realms both human and divine, bodily and spiritual, physical and intellectual.
Scholars have attended to aspects of sight and sound in Byzantine culture, but have generally left smell, taste, and touch undervalued and understudied. Through collected essays that redress the imbalance, the contributors explore how the Byzantines viewed the senses; how they envisaged sensory interactions within their world; and how they described, narrated, and represented the senses at work. The result is a fresh charting of the Byzantine sensorium as a whole.

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