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Medieval Optics and the Evil Eye - Margaret Miles

Medieval Optics and the Evil Eye

by Margaret Miles
 
Medieval men and women's experience of religious images is far closer to modern experience of media images than to a modern person's visit to a museum. Both contemporary media images and historical religious images were experienced daily. Moreover, three major differences between the visual experience of modern people and that of historical people must be taken into account when we try imaginatively to reconstruct the role of religious images in the life and worship of historical people.
 
First, modern understanding of physical vision in its popular version differs significantly from the understanding of medieval people. In the theory of vision described by Augustine, the most influential christian author of the medieval and reformation periods, a fire within the body -- the same fire that animates and warms the body -- is collected with unique intensity behind the eyes; for an object to be seen by a viewer, this fire must be projected in the form of a ray that is focused on the object, thereby establishing a two-way street along which the attention and energy of the viewer passes to touch its object. A representation of the object, in turn, returns to the eye and is bonded to the soul and retained in the memory.
 
This strong visual experience was formulated negatively as the fear of contamination by a dangerous or "unsightly" visual object or positively as belief in the miraculous power of an icon, when assiduously gazed upon, to heal one's disease. Popular beliefs and practices support the conclusion that medieval people considered visual experience particularly powerful for one's good or ill. The persistence of belief in the "evil eye" from classical times to the sixteenth century and beyond is a good example. The evil eye was thought of as a maleficent visual ray of lethal strength. A person who had the evil eye reportedly could touch and poison the soul or body of an enemy. The only protections against the evil eye were making the sign of the cross, keeping one's body thoroughly covered against the baleful touch, and, especially, never meeting the eye of such a person; to do so would be to connect the two visual rays and allow the evil ray direct access to one's soul.
 
 
This is an excerpt from Margaret Miles’ introduction to her book Image as Insight, Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006.