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The Gothic Imagination

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2007 International Studies Colloquium

October 5, 2007, Carter Hall at USI, 9:00 am - 3:00 pm

The Gothic Imagination

What is The Gothic Imagination?

The Gothic Imagination International Studies Colloquium will include a series of twenty minute presentations by Liberal Arts faculty members approaching the subject of the Gothic Imagination from 12th Century France to the present.  The theme will be studied through a variety of disciplines including art, psychology, history and literature, as well as through original artworks and poetry.

The first “Gothic” cathedral, St. Denis in Paris, was constructed as a visual representation of divine light; ‘High Gothic” architecture incorporated fantastic elements from medieval manuscript illumination, Celtic and Norse metalwork.  Associated with pagan or barbarian art during the Renaissance, the gothic sensibility flourished in “grotesques” painted by Raphael and others, appearing in the Romantic, Symbolist, Surrealist and Modernist movements as fantastic and macabre.  Whether manifested in margin illuminations in a medieval Book of Hours or in a magical realist novel, the Gothic imagination aims to make the invisible world visible.  It delights in the natural world as irrepressible, irrational, diverse and fantastic, with an ironic sense of its dark side.

This event will be the fourth in a continuing program of interdisciplinary colloquia focused on international subjects, including The Parthenon Project, The Ram in the Thicket and Day of the Dead, supported by grants from CTLE, Liberal Arts and the Society for Arts and Humanities. 

Special Guest Lecture   

Thursday, October 4, 2007, 7:00 pm in Carter Hall

Dr. Roger Wieck, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, author of Time Sanctified: the Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life, Late Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, 1350-1525 in the Houghton Library, and Painted Prayers, The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art.


October 5, 2007, Carter Hall at USI, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm


Click on program name for abstract information

Session 1
9:00 am

Mr. Daniel Craig -- the Schola Cantorum

Dr. Jason Hardgrave -- “Gothic Context, Cultural Contact, and Crusades”

Dr. Carol MacKay
-- “Light and the Genesis of Gothic Cathedrals”

Session 2
10:00 am
Ms. Pat Aakhus -- “Werewolves, Sirens and Gorgons

Dr. Christopher Bloom -- "Things That Go Bump in the Brain: Gothic Horror and the Study of Fear"
Session 3
11:00 am

Dr. Sherry Darrell -- "A Saint, a Pint, and a Dragon"

Dr. Susanna Hoeness-Krupsaw -- “The Haunts of History in E. L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks”

Session 4
12:00 pm

-- Refreshments --

Dr. Elizabeth Passmore -- "Rotting Corpses and Mourning Lovers:  The Gothic World of Medieval Romance"

Dr. Daniel Scavone -- “Atlantis: Gothic and Platonic”

Session 5
1:00 pm

Dr. Tamara Hunt -- Political Dreamscapes and Nightmares: Variations on Fuseli’s The Nightmare”

Dr. Michael Kearns -- “Emily Dickinson’s Ghastly Gothic”

Session 6
2:00 pm

Dr. Leslie Roberts -- “The Golem and the Dybbuk: Jewish spirits and demons”

Mr. John Gibson -- Original poetry

Abstracts of Presentations

Gothic Context, Cultural Contact, and Crusades

by Dr. Jason Hardgrave

In this presentation, I will outline the major historical events of the High Middle Ages (1000-1200).  In particular I will emphasize the historical context for the creation of Gothic art and architecture in Europe, with a particular focus on cultural borrowing, economic improvement, urbanization, and Christian conversion as the driving forces behind the invention and promotion of the gothic style.  This will be a lecture accompanied by PowerPoint.

Light and the Genesis of the Gothic Cathedral

by Dr. Carol MacKay

What we now call gothic architecture was born in the Île-de-France around Paris in the middle of the twelfth century, an extraordinary period which saw the concept of enlightenment, basic to mystical contemplations since ancient times, embodied in a new physical form. Inspired by sources that included a contemporary revival of Neoplatonic and Christian light mysticism, the abbot Suger undertook the renovation of the royal abbey at St. Denis with the goal of making the church itself the vehicle of divine illumination, the stained glass windows that replaced the church walls filtering natural light through the jewel tones of its images to reveal the mystical light of heaven. Images in the windows would serve as lanterns to guide the mind upward toward illumination in the divine.  Fundamental to his vision was the idea of the unity of the universe, from which it followed that all creatures contain and reflect a spark of the divine light from which creation emanated, imparting some measure of dignity to all.  Suger’s vision was reinterpreted or rejected almost immediately, as shown in the humanistic orientation of 13th century French gothic cathedrals in the wake of Arabic knowledge revealed after the Crusades.  It helped to begin a dance of ideas that spiraled through Europe, including Gnostic conceptions of the divine light within, Renaissance ideas of human dignity from the Jewish Cabala and Corpus Hermeticum, and the conception of enlightenment of the 18th century Freemasons who, named for the builders of the gothic cathedrals, took as their first principle the universal light of nature that can lead to intellectual illumination.

Werewolves, Sirens and Gorgons: Monsters in the Margins

by Ms. Pat Aakhus

Werewolves, sirens and gorgons perch on the doorways, rooftops and rafters of sublime Gothic cathedrals, and are found in the margins of Books of Hours.  According to medieval natural histories and bestiaries, like the dragon, the basilisk and the phoenix, these monsters were real creatures living at the borders of the known world.  They represented sin, pagan gods and the demons that, according to Gregory the Great, might be anywhere, including the garden where a nun swallowed a demon resting on a lettuce leaf when she forgot to cross herself.  These gothic monsters also served an apotropaic function; they could turn away evil.  The siren who averts lust in the cloister, protects from the evil eye as a talisman attached to a horse harness or suspended over a child’s bed.  Like Medusa placed on armor, Gothic monsters functioned as trophies to frighten the enemy--demons on the margins of the church, the cloister and the imagination.

Things That Go Bump in the Brain: Gothic Horror and the Study of Fear

by Dr. Christopher Bloom

In 2006, twenty-two of the top 100 grossing movies in the world were horror films.  An odd fact when one considers the very notion behind idea of the horror film is to horrify the audience!  This so called, “paradox of horror” has been the topic of philosophers and film theorists for years, sparking innumerable theories and endless debate.  The answer to this puzzle may lay in the objects of the horror genre itself, the monsters.  Analysis of the imagery of gothic horror reveals that film monsters may take advantage of human evolution, presenting images that are phylogenetically primed to elicit fear.      Further, evidence in affective neuroscience suggests that this priming predisposes organisms to seek out these stimuli as their early identification provides survival advantage.  Indeed, Bair-Haim, et al. (2007) persuasively argue that threat-related stimulus have a clear advantage in information processing, an effect which appears to be maximized for “ancestrally-relevant” imagery.  Evidence for this priming effect will be presented in the context of gothic horror imagery.  Further, the role of the nervous system in processing fear-relevant stimuli will be discussed.

A Saint, a Pint, and a Dragon

by Dr. Sherry Darrell 

St. George he was for England
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.       by G. K. Chesterton, "The Englishman"

Dr. S. B. Darrell, professor of English and director of Humanities, explores her long love of St. George and the dragon stories. She will consider bizarre, variant biographies of St. George which may or may not include a Roman emperor; a sojourn in Palestine or Egypt; a damsel in distress; a flying, fire-breathing dragon; pints of balm from the Well of Life; pints of blood from the Tree of Life—or from St. George's severed head; and pints and pints of ale from Russia, Armenia, Georgia, and England, all raised to celebrate this extraordinary man of the earth, George. We will consider several paintings and other artifacts representing St. George's slaying the dragon, with particular focus on the lovely, exotic dragons.

The Haunts of History in E. L. Doctorow’s  The Waterworks

by Dr. Susanna Hoeness-Krupsaw

Like other gothic romances, E.L. Doctorow’s novel The Waterworks abounds with ghastly mansions, ruined towers, gloomy landscapes, and subterranean dungeons.  Unlike traditional gothic tales, however, his novel however produces a haunting sense of history created by repressed guilt.  The monsters who dwell in Doctorow’s dungeons of the mind include war profiteers and a highly decorated Civil War veteran who is also an evil scientist. Through deft interweaving of the gothic and surreal with the realistic and historical, Doctorow’s American Gothic raises specters of the past that remind us of our humanity and our social responsibilities. Thus, the terror evoked by Doctorow’s “ghost story” enhances the moral purpose of his fiction.

Rotting Corpses and Mourning Lovers:  The Gothic World of Medieval Romance

by Dr. Betsy Passmore

In English romances such as "Sir Amadace" and "The Squyer of Lowe Degre," the contingencies of economic and social class meet up against an awareness of death and decay.  Sir Amadace, upon setting out on his initial journey, immediately encounters a chapel from which such a stench emanates, he feels compelled to explore.  He finds inside a mourning widow, sitting by the rotting corpse of her husband whose body cannot be interred until his outstanding debts are relieved.  The woman has faithfully guarded his body for weeks, but her care cannot prevent the arrival of maggots and worms that aid the decaying process.  In "The Squyer of Lowe Degre," a princess, thinking her lover has been killed in a fight before her chamber door, beheads the body, entombs the head in her stone headboard, and kisses this "tomb" each night for years, until she discovers her mistake when her lover returns as a triumphant knight.

These stories might well lead one to think their motifs can only be related to the post-plague world in which such works were created.  After the Black Death of 1348, which swept across Europe and England, leaving death in its wake, and eventually (combined with continuing outbreaks of plague), contributing not only to new possibilities for the lower classes to climb the social and economic ladder, but also to introducing such intriguing motifs of visual and literary art as the Dance of Death, with its skeletal figures romping alongside of young, vibrant men and women newly aware of their own mortality.  However, this "reading" could well be premature; after all, in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, written immediately after the Plague attacked his beloved Florence, a folkloric tale appears which also wallows in the juxtaposition between death and love.  This tale relates the mourning of a young woman who "plants" in a basil pot the head of her murdered lover, a man killed by her own brothers.  Regardless of the impetus which inspired the creation of these works, one certainly can view the motifs as an intriguing introduction to the "gothic" atmosphere of late medieval romance.

Atlantis: Gothic & Platonic

by Dr. Daniel Scavone

What is "gothic" about Atlantis is really the 1882 book by Ignatius Donnelly (Atlantis: the Antediluvian World)  that popularized the legend at the height of the age of Romanticism.    For him Atlantis was the garden of Eden, the cradle of civilization, the home of sun worship, the parent of the (Phoenician) alphabet, the original seat of the Aryans and Semites, and the source of bronze and iron technology. Its people invented paper and gunpowder and made astronomy an exact science, etc.  They settled Egypt, the Americas, the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions, etc.  Though the book purported to be factual, it was no less "gothic" than Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in its scientific thrust.  

What is "Platonic" is the certainty that the story, first invented by Plato, had to be set in Plato's intellectual ambience.  His description in the Critias and  Timaeus  perfectly fits the Middle Minoan remains on Crete and Santorini.  This origin with Plato excludes Bimini, Cuba, Bermuda, the North Sea, and any place else that modern dreamers (those on the National Geographic, Sci-fi, and even the History channels) put it.  My personal photos enable us to see clearly the great portion of Santorini (Thera)  which sank into the sea as a result of the eruption of its volcano ca. 1500 BCE.  The legends and art of Cretan Knossos, the prevailing wind patterns, etc. are uncannily in support of the hypothesis that Plato was describing Santorini as the land that sank into the sea and Minoan Crete as the high civilization that was brought to an end by the eruption. This hypothesis has been supported by some good scholars of ancient Greece.  It was first the baby of John Luce.

Political Dreamscapes and Nightmares: Variations on Fuseli’s The Nightmare

by Dr. Tamara L. Hunt

Artist Henry Fuseli’s most famous gothic painting, The Nightmare, enjoyed immense popularity among patrons of art following its initial showing in 1781. But Fuseli’s dark vision of monsters preying on the weak under cover of the night struck a chord in political satire as well. Since the beginning of George III’s reign in 1760, there had been frequent allegations of secret machinations to control the throne, or even covert despotic actions by the King himself, and these continued into the 1780s and 1790s, with rumors of “backstairs” influence or hidden threats to the nation. These included the events surrounding king’s first bout of madness in 1788-89 which resulted in a scramble to seize the regency, and the pro-French revolutionary stance of Opposition politicians after 1789. Because of the popularity of Fuseli’s The Nightmare, caricaturists such as James Gillray and others included the imagery in their attacks on those whom they wished to portray as threats to the nation, but with a significant difference: instead of monsters besetting a helpless innocent, artists increasingly portrayed the dreamer as being haunted by a nightmarish situation of his or her own creation.  This change reflects the need to appeal to the sense of shame or remorse in politicians who had strayed from the fold during a period where national unity was threatened by internal and external crises.

Emily Dickinson’s Ghastly Gothic

by Dr. Michael Kearns

Let’s say that one point of medieval gothic style was to give physical representation to the fears that can only be understood by means of imagination.  Let’s also say that one point of the gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries was to point back from the physical and verbal representations of those fears to the psychological realities that spawned them.  Dickinson, then, internalized the physical representations in order to dramatize a particular concern of the nineteenth century, the mind divided against itself.  Her poetry and letters insist that this division is not just experientially real but tangibly so--the human mind literally contains other beings characterized by the macabre, the uncanny, and the terrifying.  This truly ghastly condition of the human mind is best illustrated in one of her most chilling poems, “One need not be a Chamber--to be Haunted--“ (Fr 407).  “Ourself--behind Ourself--Concealed--/ Should startle--most,” she writes.  This paradox captures the essence of the gothic as a psychological condition: inside myself I carry that compared to which a Bosch painting or a gargoyle is a breath of springtime.

The Golem and the Dybbuk: Jewish spirits and demons

by Dr. Leslie Roberts

It is impossible to separate the Jewish religion as it developed from Biblical time from the cultures to which it adapted. As they migrated from the Middle East to Eastern and Western Europe and the Americas, the Jews brought with them the books that told their history and beliefs. The books of the Old Testament are the public face of Judaism and are essential to other world religions. Other manuscripts represent sects or groups of scholars whose philosophies contradict that of the Old Testament. One such philosophy was Gnosticism, strongly influenced by Greek  Platonism. The Jews are often referred to as the people of the word. In exile, they were prolific writers, first in Hebrew and then in Yiddish and Ladino. They wrote endless commentaries on the Bible, and other books of laws and rules. In 1180, Jewish Gnosticism emerged in a new form in Southern France in the anonymous Book Bahir. The movement that spread to many countries came to be called Kaballism. It is mystical rather than legalistic and uses meditation, numerology, dancing and chanting to attain oneness with the divine. A slightly later manifestation of a similar impulse is Chasidism, most of whose adherents are in the United States.

Kaballist and Chasidic literature relies heavily on folk tales and myths. These contain a host of creatures, many of whom are mentioned in the Old Testament, demons sent forth by the devil or by god to tempt the pious to sin, test their faith, and drive them mad.  In this presentation, I will concentrate on the golem (a sentient being created by formula by other humans) and the dybbuk (a soul stuck between heaven and hell that enters the body of a person still alive). I will study these spirits as they appear in the Yiddish stories of Isaac Baashev Singer and the Hebrew writings of Elie Wiesel to see what roles these spirits played in village life in Eastern Europe and in the Jewish Psyche of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries.

Original poetry

by Mr. John Gibson

Sonnet from ‘The Murals at St. Mary’s Belchamp Walter’

In those perceived end times of plague and fire
Of war, this England, Judenfrei, must look
For other scapegoats to placate the ire
Of Heaven bursting from the seven sealed Book.

And later, those who’d fled the churchyard stench
Heard hedge priests kindle minds with brands
That would exalt the ploughman and his wench
And drive the proud and mighty from their lands.

Such dreams delude the desperate they imbue.
Too soon the gallows and the sword impose
A vengeful status quo, a prelude to
More iron men, less pity shown, more woes.

Yet in such times the maker saw and drew
And painted legends, and the truths he knew.

Curios of Old Sudbury


 In Sudbury there’s much to show and tell:
The classic Corn Exchange on Market Hill;
The water mill transformed to a hotel;
Why Dickens coined the name of Eatanswill;
Gainsborough’s birthplace, Sudbury’s favourite son;
The disused railway walk; the meadowed Stour;
And on the Croft the mitred Anglian Aelfhun
Crouches in stone beneath St Gregory’s tower.

Inside whose church a painted panel shows
A priest who shrank the devil in a boot,
Some years before a peasant fury rose
To sever Chancellor Simon’s head as loot:
A relic saved beyond the Reformation
To stimulate or numb imagination.

A Teaching Enhancement Awards (TEA) Grant Project...

through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and with support from the School of Liberal Arts, John Lawrence, and the Society for Arts and Humanities.

For more information, contact:

Pat Aakhus, Director of International Studies 

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