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Unlikely Muse: Re-imagining Beauty and Holiness with Saint Mary of Egypt

November 26, 2018 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Image of painting by Jusepe de Ribera depicting St. Mary of Egypt floating during a moment of ecstasy. She holds her hands in a gesture of prayer and wears a brown robe. A man leans on the ground below her.
Image: Jusepe de Ribera, Saint Mary of Egypt in Ecstasy, c. 1640. Oil on canvas. Colección Pérez Simón, Mexico City. Image courtesy of Colección Pérez Simón.

Monday Seminar:

Sonia Velázquez

Solmsen Fellow (2018-2019)

Religious Studies; Comparative Literature, Indiana University-Bloomington


For contemporary critics “beauty is really as obvious as blue: one does not have to work at seeing it when it is there” (Danto). This is true even for those whose interpretative energies extend back to the early modern period. Writing about Caravaggio, Mieke Bal declares that “if visual art makes any sense at all beyond the narrow domain of beauty […] it is because art, too, thinks,” where she italicizes the verb to stand in implicit contrast to the beautiful. This presentation will challenge the one-dimensional understanding of beauty by staging a pas à deux with holiness through the figure of Saint Mary of Egypt. Taking as point of departure visual and textual representations of this holy harlot—from Church Councils to Honoré de Balzac’s Le chef d’œuvre inconnu—I will argue that the domain of beauty is not narrow at all. While it offers sensual pleasure, there is nothing obvious about it: it dwells in paradox, emerges through parody, asceticism and the grotesque, and it is a stage for the drama of belief.

Sonia Velázquez is Assistant Professor in the departments of Religious Studies and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research focuses on the intersection of aesthetics and religion, especially in the medieval and early modern periods in Europe. She has co-edited a volume on pastoral and the humanities with Mathilde Skoie (Exeter/Bristol Press, 2007) and a Critical Cluster on Giorgio Agamben and early modern Spanish poetry for MLN in 2017. Her article, “Didacticism and the Ends of Storytelling: Walter Benjamin’s Medievalism and Forms of Knowledge in Sendebar” received the Allen and Judy Shoaf Award for the Best Essay Published in Exemplaria (2013).


November 26, 2018
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
Event Categories:


University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States