Erin Benay, assistant professor of Italian Renaissance and baroque art, recently published her first monograph, Faith, Gender, and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art: Interpreting the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas (Burlington: Ashgate, 2015). The book is co-authored with Lisa M. Rafanelli, professor and chair of art history at Manhattanville College.
Benay and Rafanelli first had the idea for the book when grounded in Leuven, Belgium, due to excessive snowfall. Both scholars were invited to participate in a four-day colloquium hosted by the Iconology Research Group, at the Katholieke Universiteit.
In the years preceding the Leuven conference, Benay and Rafanelli had completed dissertations on topics that share conceptual ground. Rather than produce competing monographs, the scholars decided to team up to explore how two very important and popular themes in the history of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art shifted and changed over time. Their study considers how Renaissance theories of sense perception and evolving understandings of gender inform depictions of the ambiguous encounter of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ in the garden (John 20:11-19, known as the Noli me tangere) as well as Christ’s post-Resurrection appearance to St. Thomas (John 20:24-29, referred to as the Doubting Thomas). Depictions of these subjects, the authors argue, gave visual form to epistemological shifts in doubt, reason, belief and physical (sensorial) experience.
Central to Benay and Rafanelli’s study is the idea that sensorial experience and touch in particular were the most important keys to understanding these themes in the art of the early modern period. No previous study has systematically looked at these two iconographies as a way of thinking about the role of the senses in the production of visual art of the period.
“In this fruitful collaboration, Professors Benay and Rafanelli offer a sophisticated focus on interpretations, both literary and visual, of the gospel accounts of Christ’s separate encounters after his Resurrection with Mary Magdalene and with the apostle Thomas, stressing Italian imagery from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries,” Edward Olszewski, professor emeritus of art history, said of the book. “They demonstrate how the irrational Christian virtue of Faith depended on hearing, seeing, and touching.