Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 15, 2000
Georgia Frank The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 232 pp. Cloth $40.00 (0520222059)

This book is by turn fascinating, informative, challenging and frustrating. Its focus lies with fourth to fifth century Christian texts describing the lives and habits of ascetic monks, above all in Egypt. Frank’s interest lies in journeys to people rather than journeys to places. Her concern is not with the objects of pilgrimage, saints and holy places, but with the pilgrim’s own experiences and the sharing of that experience with the reader of the text. Frank constructs these texts in a variety of ways: she analyses them as travelogues, as pilgrimage texts, and as stories written to give lay audiences an image of holy people in distant lands. Her book opens up new and different lines of enquiry. In her focus on the question of how to view the divine and how to make the divine visible, she raises an issue of great significance.

Frank begins by introducing the texts, analyzing the literary sensibilities of authors such as Palladius to see what insights they might offer about religious sensibilities. One concern is that of relating the ways in which the texts are written to the spiritual expectations of Late Antique pilgrims. Frank is also concerned with what she calls “sensory piety”, the stress in these texts on the sensory experience of the holy, above all on the significance of sight. In this context, the desire of writers to make the invisible visible to their audience, to bring both pilgrimage and the objects of that pilgrimage to life, and their tools for achieving this within Late Antique culture, become important. Frank’s second chapter deals with these texts as travelogues. She discusses the role of the exotic in their construction and brings out the connections with travelogues of the pagan Classical world. The miracle stories of the Christian texts are seen as descendants of the accounts of marvels in texts ranging from the Odyssey to Herodotus on the wonders of Egypt. Frank analyzes how movement is used by the authors of these Christian texts to both create and destroy the idea of familiarity for their readers. The reader is allowed to recognize in these accounts the familiar world of the biblical past but only in the context of the strangeness of the desert existence. Frank then moves on to consider how the texts that enticed pilgrims to visit the desert also shaped their perceptions of the journey and destinations. In this context, she considers both the motif of progression towards the divine in the form of the human body and the concept of the tour of Paradise, which she constructs as essentially an imaginary journey made real and visible.

This provides the springboard for shifting the discussion to consider the significance of seeing for pilgrims: what did it mean to pilgrims to see these places, why did it matter to them to see and to touch, and to describe the need to see and touch? Coming out of this discussion, Frank’s last major area of consideration is physiognomy. She picks up on the stress in many accounts of the monks about the desire of the pilgrim or the believer to see them, above all their faces, and she asks what is it that people wanted to gain from this? The face, above all, marks out the ascetic and the miraculous. In contrast to classical uses of physiognomy with its stresses on physical beauty displaying inner beauty, what the worn ascetic face reveals is the saint’s inner beauty. Indeed, ascetic physiognomies, with their stress on holiness, can conceal gender. Finally, in her concluding chapter, Frank touches on relics and icons, relating these to some of her points about the significance of vision. She brings us back to her point that these texts edited and shaped the perception of monastic life but went beyond the surface of ascetic appearance to create biblical realities. One of Frank’s key themes, highlighted here, is the concern, apparent in both texts and images, of making the divine visible to mere mortals, and she offers several new insights into the ways in which visual piety, both in words and pictures, was constructed and was effective in this period.

Frank gives this material a fresh and fascinating dimension. As she says, her aim is to move the focus of pilgrimage studies away from the saint to the pilgrim and to the reader of these pilgrimage stories. In doing so, she opens up many interesting questions, not least in her concern with the literary imagination present in these texts. However, this is also where some frustration for the reader creeps in, perhaps as two sides of the same coin. Many ideas are not developed thoroughly, questions left unanswered, as Frank too quickly moves to her next exciting point. The reader is left to fill in the tantalizing gaps in ways that the author may or may not have intended. For example, in the important chapter, “Pilgrims and the eye of faith”, Frank begins by pointing out that Late Antique pilgrims did not automatically see things the way we see them, this issue of the difference between vision and visuality. She then raises the question of what it might have meant for pilgrims to see the holy places, what might the special benefits of seeing have been? Without really answering this very interesting question, she then raises the issue of how writers record little of what they actually saw and suggests that this is puzzling. Without dealing with this puzzle, she moves away into the tangential issue of the significance of the Incarnation for believers—that after the Incarnation, God could actually be seen and from there into a disquisition about the problem of blindness in theological terms. All of this is interesting, but none of it is covered in any real depth and there is a feeling, for this reader at least, of a lack of overall coherence and direction. The analysis of the material is lost as idea is piled on idea and, to some extent, source upon source. I felt like a passenger on a whistle-stop tour, ten minutes here and five there and never quite enough time to look properly. What, for example, are the concerns of the readers of these texts in this instance? The lack of visual description is particularly pertinent for their experience of the text. This same problem apparent in separate chapters is also a problem in the book as a whole. The five or six sections are not pulled together and related. How do Frank’s remarks on the historia as travelogues and the insights she provides there relate to her thoughts on “Tours of Paradise” which may, or may not, be wholly imaginary? The links between things are missing and this makes the book as a whole feel fragmented and unresolved. On one level, we have a book on these texts as travelogues and another book about these texts as indicators of sensory piety, and somehow, they do not quite match up.

Another area of concern is that Frank is interested both in the authors of these texts and in the readers, but does not really define who those readers might have been and at times readers and authors blur and slip into each other uncomfortably. In writing about the physiognomies of the monks, for example, are authors writing for themselves and their preconceptions, or for their audiences? I think the problem is that Frank has so much interesting material that she wants to be considered in these new ways that it was as if she could not bear to leave any of it out. Thus we have a fascinating tangential discussion of the problem that blindness presented to Early Christian theologians (yet why this is relevant is never made totally clear) but sight is accepted as the primary sense (and this does matter to the argument) with little reference to the equally fascinating debate about sight or hearing as the primary sense.

Essentially, however, these are criticisms of form not content, and criticisms born from wanting to know more. I do feel that the content might have been enriched by following themes and ideas through, but I also think that Frank raises some important questions and offers us new ways of seeing and thinking about these texts, and that is a significant achievement which far outweighs any other considerations. (But why the Chora on the cover?)

—Liz James, University of Sussex

Liz James
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Sussex