Genevieve Caulfield (UCL) - 2019-20 Students

Can we believe our own eyes? Optics, vision and cognition in late medieval religion

My doctoral project makes a significant contribution to the religious and intellectual history of the late middle ages by addressing the credibility of sight in both popular religious and learned contexts (c.1200-c.1450). In this period, the extent to which visual experiences could be trusted was a central issue for optical thought because it was a concern that was repeatedly implicated in debates in which Christian truth claims were at stake, across European society. Reciprocally, optical thinking altered the terms of religious debates, which could be expressed both visually and textually: texts and images were in constant dialogue in negotiating the trustworthiness of sight.
My thesis analyses numerous genres of texts and images to develop a new, connected account of how sight was understood across late medieval religious contexts (none has previously been offered). From hagiographical accounts and paintings of saintly seeing to polemical descriptions and depictions of demonic illusions, via sophisticated reflections on and representations of visions of the saved, the criteria for judging the extent to which visual experiences should be deemed trustworthy varied in relation to the authors’ and artists’ abilities to correlate their underlying philosophical and theological priorities and convictions with their comprehension of visual processes. My research thus makes a further contribution to the history of science. By highlighting the significance of medieval scholars’ religious affiliations to the models of seeing they used, I explore the hypothesis that scientific theory-choice is a contingent process.

Primary supervisor: Prof. John Sabapathy, UCL
Secondary supervisor: Prof. Sophie Page, UCL

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