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DRPS : Course Catalogue : Edinburgh College of Art : History of Art

Undergraduate Course: The Optics of Devotion: Sight, Light and Experiencing the Divine in Medieval Europe (HIAR10187)

Course Outline
SchoolEdinburgh College of Art CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 4 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryHeinrich Wölfflin famously declared that ¿sight itself has a history¿ legible in the objects and through the methods of art history. This course explores the medieval chapters of that history. It will particularly appeal to students interested in the interplay of artistic, scientific and religious practices in premodern Europe and/or the roots of Renaissance perspective.
Course description This course examines medieval discourses on vision (understood to be contingent on fire, i.e., light), which centred on the human capacity to see and thus know the divine in its invisible and incarnate guises. Students will read period tracts¿technical, poetic, theological¿explaining: why humans have eyes; the process of vision and its relationship to thought, memory and imagination; and accounts of visual and visionary experiences. Emphasis will be placed on the intermingling of Greek, Arabic and Latin traditions and the development of perspective. Written sources lay the groundwork for the close study of diverse devotional tools designed to catch the eye and stimulate the spirit.

Although not a comprehensive survey, the course will advance chronologically. Each two-hour seminar will centre on case studies from Christian, Jewish and Islamic contexts. These will serve as stepping-off points for investigating visual-material strategies of brilliance, inscrutability, naturalism, counterfeit and illusion. What, for example, can the blindingly reflective metallic surfaces of some Ottonian liturgical objects tell us about insight, or monumental low-relief sculpture reveal about public piety in thirteenth-century Italy? Consideration will also be given to the availability of optical effects valued by medieval viewers to today¿s audiences in museum settings and through conventional photography.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Students MUST have passed: History of Art 2A Reason, Romance, Revolution: Art from 1700 to 1900 (HIAR08027) AND History of Art 2B From Modernism and the Avant-Gardes to Postmodernism and Globalisation (HIAR08028)
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements Students who have passed at least 60 credits of Architectural History at Level 8 can also take these courses. If the pre-requisites cannot be met, entry to this course can be negotiated in consultation with either the Course Organiser or Programme Director (History of Art).
Information for Visiting Students
Pre-requisitesVisiting students should have at least 3 History of Art courses at grade B or above (or be predicted to obtain this). We
will only consider University/College level courses. As numbers are limited, visiting students should contact the Visiting Student Office
directly for admission to this course.
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Not being delivered
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Demonstrate skills of visual analysis and interpretation of medieval devotional objects in light of contemporary optical theories
  2. Demonstrate an understanding of medieval optics, and a detailed knowledge of selected key works
  3. Demonstrate historical knowledge of the senses and matter, and develop a sensitivity to the ways that ideas about perception and the physical world may have shaped making and viewing in the past.
  4. Demonstrate a critical awareness of the way that medieval optics and science more generally has been treated by scholars over time and in different disciplines, especially the history of science and art history
  5. Demonstrate confidence in identifying, conceptualising and expressing novel problems raised by the material
Reading List
Betancourt, Roland. Sight, Touch, and Imagination in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Givens, Jane A. Observation and Image-Making in Gothic Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Hahn, Cynthia and Avinoam Shalem, eds. Seeking Transparency: Rock Crystals Across the Medieval Mediterranean. Berlin: Gebr Mann Verlag, 2020.

Lakey, Christopher R. Sculptural Seeing: Relief, Optics, and the Rise of Perspective in Medieval Italy. London: New Haven, 2018.

Smith, A. Mark. From Sight to Light: The Passage from Ancient to Modern Optics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Visual and critical analysis; Clear thinking and the development of an argument; Independent research; Presentation and communication skills; Organisation and planning.
Course organiserDr Megan McNamee
Course secretaryMr Nathan Ross-Hammond
Tel: (0131 6)51 5880
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