Mary Carruthers Delivers Fascinating Lecture on Medieval Aesthetics

Author: Emily Mahan

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On March 22, 2018, renowned scholar Mary Carruthers, known for her work on memory and cognition, presented a lecture at Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute entitled, “Polyfocal Perspective and the Perplexity Principle in Medieval Aesthetics.” Carruthers came to campus as the 2017-18 annual invited graduate student speaker. 

Drawing from diverse sources, including late antique and medieval writing on art and architecture by authors such as Procopius and Theophilus, English literary texts such as Pearl and Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale, and visual art, Carruthers argued that medieval aesthetics embraced perplexity. “Bewilderment,” said Carruthers, is “a completely medieval aesthetic experience.”

Carruthers contrasted the medieval use of “polyfocal perspective,” in which the viewer is encouraged to move with eyes and mind (and even legs, in an architectural space), with later renaissance aesthetics, where specific focal points predominated. In medieval art, “the eye does not know where to look first,” Carruthers emphasized, paraphrasing a line from Theophilus’ De diversis artibus.

“Medieval art inspires the viewer to ask not ‘What does this mean?’ but ‘How is this done?’” said Carruthers. The sense of wonder and curiosity engendered by works of art might then serve as a prompt for lively discussion—as in the case of the brass horse in The Squire’s Tale. Artist, artifact, and audience all have their own agency, and the viewer becomes “as much a maker as the original artisan.”

Her lecture on Thursday was followed by a seminar for graduate students on Friday morning.

Mary Carruthers is the Remarque Professor Emeritus of Literature at New York University and Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. She is the author of The Book of Memory (1990 and 2008), The Craft of Thought (1998), The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages (2013), and editor of two essay collections, Rhetoric Beyond Words (2009) and Language in Medieval Britain: Networks and Exchanges (2015). Current projects include editing an ‘epitome about memory and recollection’ by Walter Burley (ca. 1303), and a book on The Art of Invention.