Decorating Design

Textbook of Light by Stewart R. W.

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By Stewart R. W.

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The body is vile, stinking, and withered. 26 These lines from the late twelfth-century Verses on Death make no obvious distinction between body and flesh: the two are rendered virtually synonymous by the corrosive presence of sin. Written by a Cistercian monk, Hélinand of Froimont, the Verses are reminiscent in tone and imagery of Bernard of Clairvaux’s meditations on sin and mortality. 27 The mortification of the flesh, as the body of sin, is one of the most enduring images of medieval Christianity.

6 I will say more about the mechanics of ocular desire later. The point I want to emphasise here is that both Augustine and Peter describe this carnal awakening as a consequence of sin. 7 In fact, most medieval commentaries on the fall—whether iconographic or textual—highlighted an earlier visual moment: Eve’s desiring, indeed ‘devouring’ gaze at the fruit. 9 In illustration of the more prosaic dangers, for his readers, of watching the bustling world outside the anchorhold windows, the author of this handbook writes: Of Eve, our first mother, it is recorded that at the very beginning of her sin its entry was through her eyes .

82 Behind this allegory of harmonious union, however, is the Eve who offered the forbidden fruit; the archetype of seductive and disobedient femininity. Thus we find Bacchilatria, one of the daughters of Idolatry in The Plaint of Nature, ‘robbing her lover of his little spark of reason, [and] expos[ing] him to the darkness of brutish sensuality . ’83 Augustine’s image of lovingly ‘breaking-in’ the flesh so as to restore marital harmony between body and soul suggests a reversal of the fall. ’84 Arguably, however, the text encourages a more equivocal interpretation of the allegorical alliances between woman and body/flesh.

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