Blindness, Imagination, Perception: Calvin’s 1559 Institutes and Early Modern Visual Instability
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Bridges, AnnMarie M.
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CitationBridges, AnnMarie M. 2020. Blindness, Imagination, Perception: Calvin’s 1559 Institutes and Early Modern Visual Instability. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractAlthough studies of visual culture continue to privilege visible artifacts, and especially images, it is also the case that visual habits are imagined and inculcated through texts. This project reinterprets John Calvin’s 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion against the backdrop of sixteenth-century visual instability—a hitherto unexamined dimension of the work’s historical context. This research is made newly possible by a recent burgeoning of scholarship on early modern European sensory cultures. Situating the Institutes against this backdrop reveals that “perception”—a term I employ as a shorthand for the sixteenth-century process whereby visual experience is conditioned by the imagination even before it becomes the basis for conscious thought—is a previously unrecognized but central organizing concern of Calvin’s magnum opus. Underappreciated dimensions of the Institutes come to light when we reexamine its striking perceptual motifs (from sinful “blindness” to clarifying lenses, mirrors, and marks) in light of the contested status of vision and visual epistemology in early modern Europe.
This research reveals that both the Institutes’ theological teachings and its distinctive form are designed to intervene in its readers’ perceptual habits. In Chapters One through Four, I show how three of the text’s major themes—the knowledge of God, accommodation, and idolatry—appear in a fresh light when approached in terms of the Institutes’ concern with perception. In Chapters Five through Seven, I show how interpreting the text as centrally concerned with problems of perception can illuminate both well-understood and still-puzzling features of its Latin prose style. Ultimately, this dissertation offers a case study, not only of a distinctively Reformed visual piety, but also of how perceptual habits might be cultivated through texts. In so doing, it makes good on the intuition, expressed by many scholars, that Protestant leaders were not rejecting but “reforming” the role of the senses in religious life. Finally, by reinterpreting Calvin’s Institutes explicitly from the perspective of visual culture, this project also begins to redress the relative absence of sustained theological analysis in studies of visual culture, whether in early modernity or beyond.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365988
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