School of Athen by Raphael

Liberal Studies 321

The Emergence of European Culture:

Seeing the Invisible in Medieval and Renaissance Art and Science

Spring 2012 M. Okun


Course Description

In general, Liberal Studies 321 takes a multi-disciplinary look at topics of interest concerning the European middle ages and renaissance. This particular section of LBST 321 will focus on a prevalent concern of the period: how can one reveal and come to know what cannot be apprehended by the senses but what is nonetheless believed to be real? Of most urgent importance to the people of the time was coming to an understanding of God, and humankind's proper relationship with their creator. Nothing less than the eternal salvation of the immortal soul rested on this understanding, and finding it was a continuous pre-occupation shared by thinkers and makers in all fields. The strategies they used and the conclusions they reached are rich in variety; in this course, we will study closely some representative examples -- in astronomy, art, philosophy, and literature -- of this multi-faceted theme.

The visible motions of celestial bodies have a tantalizing regularity to them, universally understood in the period to point to the hand of God, but this order is also complex enough in its details to make precise and accurate predictions of these movements very difficult. Astronomers of this time period devoted considerable energy to devising models for the invisible, divine patterns they believed lay under the apparent movements of the stars, planets, sun, and moon. We will spend the first half of the course examining the changes in these models over time, culminating most notably in the shift from earth-centred to sun-centred models of the cosmos. We will read and discuss excerpts from the works of Aristotle (whose writings, though they were from antiquity, were enormously influential in medieval Europe), Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo.

The second half of the course will focus on a similar concern in art, philosophy, and literature. Visual artists of the Christian middle ages, having inherited the Hebraic injunction against the making of images of the divine, faced a special challenge in depicting God. We will look briefly at the theological debates in the early middle ages surrounding the benefits and dangers of such images; some clergy and theologians were convinced that the beauty of artworks could elevate viewers' thoughts to heaven, but others were convinced that artworks could have quite the opposite effect, being so compelling that they would replace God in the viewers' thoughts. We will study various attempts by artists to solve this problem by simultaneously prompting in viewers a desire for close contact with and understanding of God, and avoiding an encouragement to see the images as themselves divine and worthy of worship.

An influential approach to theology in the middle ages focused on "negative mysticism," an attempt to understand and find communion with a God who is infinite, eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent, and thus essentially unknowable by limited human reason. Negative mystics argued that such knowledge is nonetheless possible by a paradoxical method of "unknowing." Our entry into this theology will be through two influential works: the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing and a selection of sermons by the German mystic Meister Eckhart.

Much Christian literature of the time was similarly concerned with the invisible divine believed to be the source and centre of human life, but the primary focus in fictional accounts tended to be on the individual's struggles to come to terms with the unseen, transcendent reality that was seemingly at odds with the world of the senses. A popular literary device was the revelation of this reality in a main character's dream or vision. We will read three works that use the "dream vision" as a motif: Dante's Vita Nuova , and two anonymous poems, one, Pearl , by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , and the other, The Dream of the Rood , by an Anglo-Saxon poet.


Maureen Okun

Office: VIU Nanaimo campus, building 355, room 334

Phone: 250-753-3245, Ext. 2174


Office hours: Wednesdays 1:00-2:00; Thursdays 1:30-2:30; or by appointment


Liberal Studies 321 Course Readings Package

Jay Ryan, Cycles: An Introduction to Astronomy and Time , ISBN 9970104640

Dante, Vita Nuova , trans. Barbara Reynolds, Penguin Classics, ISBN


Anonymous, Pearl , trans. Marie Borroff, Norton, ISBN 0393091449

Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works , trans. A. C. Spearing, Penguin

Classics, ISBN 9780140447620


Seminar Participation 28%

Astronomy Project 24%

Art Project 24%

Essay on Literature or Philosophy 24%

Course Assignments

Seminar Participation

Seminar participation is a key component of what Liberal Studies hopes to achieve. In this course, participation will sometimes take the form of workshop activity and at other times a group discussion of topics and readings. Seminar discussions are a cooperative group exploration of whatever happens to be on the table, with all participants (not just the instructor) bearing equal responsibility for the success of the collective effort. For those who are unfamiliar with Liberal Studies seminar discussions, I will provide a handout outlining the practice in more detail.

Astronomy Project

The astronomy project will require you to engage in repeated (though brief) observations of the sun or the moon over the course of the term (such a lengthy period is necessary because observations at this time of the year are frequently interrupted by cloudy weather). The intent of the project will be to give you an opportunity to engage in a simple but significant scientific activity similar in many respects to those engaged in by the astronomers whose works we will be examining. A detailed handout of this project will be forthcoming.

Art Project

For the art project, you will be asked to create an original work of art that provides a comment on or solution to the general problem of "seeing the unseen." Full details will be outlined in an upcoming handout.

Essay on Literature

The essay on literature will be a paper of about a thousand words that offers an interpretive analysis of one or more of the works of literature and philosophy we will be studying. You can choose a specific topic of your own, as long as it has my approval, or you can choose one of the suggested topics I will provide in a handout on this assignment.

Schedule of Topics and Readings

Note that all readings followed by "crp" are in the Course Readings Package.

Jan. 5 Introduction to the course; introduction to the motions of celestial bodies;

reading and discussion of Cycles .

Jan. 12 Discussion of "Brief Historical Overview," "A Closer Look at the Sky,"

Aristotle's On the Heavens , "Aristotle's Astronomy," and "A Productive

Path Is Found" (all selections in crp.).

Jan. 19 Discussion of Ptolemy's Almagest and "A Different Direction Is Taken"

(both selections in crp.).

Jan. 26 Discussion of Copernicus's On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres

and "Copernicus Changes the Game" (both selections in crp.).

Feb. 2 Discussion of Galileo's Dialogue on the Great World Systems , "Galileo

Looks at the Sky," "Galileo Analyzes Motion," and "Galileo Applies

Theory to the World" (all selections in crp.).

Feb. 9 Discussion of Galileo continued.

Feb. 16 Discussion of Kessler's "The Function of Vitrium Vestium and the

Use of Materia Saphirorum in Suger's St-Denis" (in crp.).

Feb. 23 Study week: no class.

Mar. 1 Medieval art workshop.

Mar. 8 Discussion of The Cloud of Unknowing .

Mar. 15 Discussion of Meister Eckhart's sermons (in crp.).

Mar. 22 Discussion of Dante's Vita Nuova .

Mar. 29 Discussion of Pearl and The Dream of the Rood (in crp.); recapitulation of

course themes.

Apr. 5 Conference week: no class.