Binning, Ravinder

National Gallery of Art

Research Title: Sacred Anguish: Medieval Art and Spiritual Illness

Dr. Binning’s ANAMED project is to reconsider the relationship between art and emotion by focusing on the Medieval afterlife of the ancient phenomenon of aesthetic katharsis. The projected outcome of this work is a book, Sacred Anguish: Medieval Art and Spiritual Illness, that spans objects, spaces, and various textual sources ranging from 300 to 1200. Rather than examining art’s provocation of emotion through the terms of rhetorical persuasion, the project explores how the act of viewing was believed to purge the body of certain symptoms. The Medieval Mediterranean perception and conception of art and emotion, the book shows, continued ancient traditions of psychosomatic sympathy. This belief, extending back to Hippocrates (460–375 BC) but continued by Patristic and Byzantine theologians, held that emotional distress was an extension of the bodies’ thermodynamic imbalance. While art history considers amulets and other occult objects as primary agents of healing in Late Antiquity and Byzantium, the book exposes how images of martyrdom, Crucifixion, and Last Judgment also constituted therapeutic media. In addition to evidence drawn from the objects themselves, the book defines sacred aesthetic experience by exposing some unexpected connections between religion and science, such as the influence of pagan physiologists on Byzantine theologians. While art’s function within spiritual exercises or as agents of melancholic medicine has engaged scholars of Renaissance Italian and German art, Sacred Anguish is the first to address these topics in the first Christian millennium. In so doing, it provides a new method for examining the intersection of art and psychosomatic illness before modern conceptions of “mental health.”