Touch me, touch me not: senses, faith and performativity in early modernity:introduction

Erin E. Benay (Case Western Reserve University) and Lisa M. Rafanelli (Manhattanville College)


This issue brings together an exciting collection of essays that investigate the collaborative roles of senses in the genesis and experience of renaissance and baroque art. Examining, in particular, the ways in which senses were evoked in the realm of the sacred, where questions of the validity of sensory experience were particularly contentious and fluid, the contributors seek to problematise the neoplatonic imperialism of sight and sense hierarchies that traditionally considered touch, along with smell and taste, as base and bodily. The essays show instead that it was a multiplicity of sensory modalities – touch, sight, hearing, and sometimes even taste and smell – that provided access to the divine and shaped the imaginative, physical and performative experience of works of art. The issue’s project thus brings us closer to achieving Geraldine Johnson’s eloquent proposal, that, by revisioning Michael Baxandall’s famous ‘period eye’, we might, in fact, arrive at a more aptly described, historically specific, ‘period body’.

Keywords: art, vision, touch, senses, faith, performativity, early modernity

Full text: OAJ_issue4_Benay_and_Rafanelli (PDF, 923 kB)


Biographical note

Erin E. Benay is assistant professor of southern renaissance and baroque art at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio. Her research examines the relationship of empiricism and the senses to early modern painting, the history of collecting in 17th-century Europe, and global currents of exchange and mobility in early modern cultural history. Together with Lisa M. Rafanelli, she is the author of Faith, Gender, and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art: Interpreting the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas (Ashgate, 2015). Her publications include essays in Arte Veneta and Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions (Ashgate 2014). Her next book (under contract with Giles) will focus on Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Andrew at the Cleveland Museum of Art and reveals the ways in which imperial movement in part obfuscated ‘original’ locations of production, collection and consumption, in this case between Italy and Spain. Benay’s current research project, Italy By Way of India: Routes of Devotional Knowledge in the Early Modern Period, will consider how travel between Italy and South Asia complicated the iconological construction of saints’ lives.

Lisa M. Rafanelli is professor of Italian renaissance art history at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Her research interests include the relationship of early modern feminist theory to the visual arts, the thematisation of the senses in sixteenth-century European art, and the reception of the European renaissance in modern American culture. She has published essays in Comitatus, Critica d’Arte, IKON, Mary Magdalene Iconographic Studies from the Middle Ages to Baroque (Brill 2012), Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice (Ashgate 2012), and To Touch or Not to Touch? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the ‘Noli me tangere’ (Peeters 2013), among others. Together with Erin Benay, she is co-author of the forthcoming book, Faith, Gender and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art (Ashgate, June 2015).