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Heavenly visions in Bristol

Press release issued: 9 July 2004

What does heaven look like?  Experts from around the world are meeting in Bristol next weekend [16-18 July] to discuss how medieval writers and artists attempted to answer this important question.

What does heaven look like?  Experts from around the world are meeting in Bristol next weekend [16–18 July] to discuss how medieval writers and artists attempted to answer this important question – and why they imagined heaven in the ways they did.

The subject will be discussed at an international conference entitled ‘Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages’, hosted by Bristol University’s Centre for Medieval Studies.  The conference is the culmination of a two-year research programme carried out at the University and sponsored by the Read-Tuckwell Foundation.  It is based on the collaboration of scholars drawn from a range of adjacent disciplines.

Theological writings from the Middle Ages form an important source of evidence: they discuss the constitution of heaven – often in glorious detail. At the centre of the theologians’ concept of heaven was the sight of God, no longer glimpsed ‘through a glass darkly’ but face to face.

But surrounding God were angels, usually thought to be arranged around God in ‘celestial hierarchy’: nearest to him were the orders of the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones, then the Dominations, the Virtues, and Powers, and next the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.  In the course of intellectual history, the Cherubim eventually degenerated into our ‘cherub’, the cuddly baby with wings familiar from Christmas cards.  The evolution reflects the cultural decline in the seriousness of thought that we give to heaven and its inhabitants.  In medieval theology, the Cherubim belong to the highest angelic order; they have no bodies but are incorruptible ‘intelligences’.

Because angels were thought to be immaterial, the medieval philosopher-theologian John Duns Scotus concluded (not illogically) that several of them could occupy the same space.  This kind of speculation gave scholasticism a bad name (‘dunce’ comes from Duns Scotus) but the reasoning of the medieval schoolmasters proceeded rigorously from accepted premises.

Medieval art provides another type of evidence.  The greatest inspiration for medieval painters and manuscript illuminators was the hallucinatory description of heaven in the Book of Revelation.  Translating words into pictures required skill and imagination, and, since the most splendid materials and colours (indigo, gold leaf) were desirable, it was expensive as well. 

Literary evidence cannot be neglected.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the subject of heaven inspired some of the finest poetry of the medieval period.  In Italian, there is Dante’s Divina Commedia, which depicts Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and finally paradise.  In Middle English there is Pearl, a moving dream vision in which a father sees his lost daughter in heaven, but loses her again when he wakes up from his dream.

Finally, the conference will address the transmigration of motifs of heaven to other domains of the medieval imagination.

Twenty speakers, from Australia, New Zealand, USA, Europe, and the British Isles, will present papers on these topics. 

The two keynote lectures will be delivered by Professor Barbara Newman (Northwestern University) and Professor Bernard McGinn (University of Chicago).  Professor Newman will discuss the verbal resources that medieval writers drew upon to capture in words the ‘unspeakable’ beauties of heaven.  Professor McGinn will consider the way medieval thinkers conceptualised the difference between the vision of God in mystical visions and in heaven.

The conference is organised by Dr Ad Putter and Dr Carolyn Muessig of the University of Bristol.          

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