ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 38, September 1999



Mary Carruthers

Reply to Cameron





Evan William Cameron

Thinking through Imagery

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 22, May 1999


Some time ago, Evan William Cameron reviewed my book _The Craft of Thought_ [1] in this ejournal. He gave it a thorough and most thoughtful reading, the sort any author is delighted (and somewhat astonished) to get, especially being someone as far from the field of interests of your readers (I presume) as I am. But I was invited to reply, or continue the conversation, and I hope the tardiness of my response won't make you conclude (as you might) that medievalists have clearly lost all sense of timeliness and currency.


The readers and members of _Film-Philosophy_ are of course interested in the cognitive value/utility of *moving* images, and thus whether people in the Middle Ages had any sense of moving images. It is in fact quite remarkable that medieval images are always chastized (rarely praised) for their static qualities: indeed 'static' has been made into a hallmark of the Middle Ages by generations of scholars, especially medievalists themselves. But they really should know better, on the basis of their own reading.


As I researched material on the cultivation of images and mental imaging techniques as an essential tool for meditation in early and late medieval pedagogy and practice, I was struck by how medieval writers, from at least Gregory the Great (6th century) onward, describe painting in their minds images that move. I'm not just speaking of realistic and emotion-generating movement, such as the imagining the flowing blood and tears at the Passion, but also the detailed imagining of all sorts of scenes from one's reading, both sacred and secular (and not just involving visual detail but all the senses as well). Images were also to be manipulated mentally (there is a monastic idiom of 'the hand', as well as 'the stomach', 'of the mind'). Hugh of St Victor (12th century) describes imagining a complex encyclopedic diagram based upon the structure of Noah's Ark, which begins as a plan 'painted' on a flat surface, and then is 'raised' in the author's mind in its elevated cross-section, by 'pulling up' a central column that had initially been 'drawn' as two halves splayed out flat across the 'floor' of the planar view.


Often for meditation, the person doing the imagining describes 'walking' about and through the pictures in his mind, even as a participant in the activities. Medieval painting looks static to us simply because we aren't used to its conventions, but the pictures often consist of individual scenes that one is invited to 'walk' among mentally and re-vision in one's own 'mind's eye'. That process, which demands a high degree of mental activity on the part of a viewer/participant, is fundamental in medieval art and literature; far from static, the perspective changes constantly as one moves and is moved through it.


New York University, USA





1. Mary Carruthers, _The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric and the Making of Images, 400- 1200_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Mary Carruthers, 'Reply to Cameron',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 38, September 1999 <>.




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