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« Heureux ceux qui croient sans avoir vu »

Pouvoirs et limites, les paradoxes du sensible dans l’appréhension chrétienne du divin entre les XVe et XVIIe siècles

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Published on Thursday, November 24, 2022


In mobilizing an intermedial as well as interdisciplinary approach, the aim of these two days is to reflect together on the various solutions (philosophical, material, legal, theological, devotional, etc.) implemented by modern Christianity in order to resolve an age-old paradox: how to reconcile the nature of human perception, which is above all sensory, with that of the object it is trying to perceive, and whose divine nature is precisely infinite, unattainable and elusive ?


International Symposium, June the 14th and 15th 2023, Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art (Paris).


Feeling God; perceiving the Eternal through the senses. A paradox that was the site of an intense intellectual and material investment. Because God have made himself present through flesh before dying on the cross, then resurrecting and finally withdrawing from the world, christians never stoped looking for him. The alternation between experience and testimony, doubt and proof, structures the paradox of the Christian œconomia, of which the episode of the incredulity of Saint Thomas is an example: “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” says Christ to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn 20:29). However, the desire to feel the presence of this "missing body" (De Certeau) is everywhere and becomes almost constitutive of Christian devotional practices. 

Since devotio moderna to "mystical invasion" (Bremond), the body and sensory experiences are at the core of the encounter with the divine. The performance of all experiential devices conceives of the activation of a potential presence that manifests itself through the conjunction of material, sensory, cultural and/or virtual mediums. Nevertheless, since the beginning of Christianity, this potential presence and its experiences have challenged the authorities to arbitrate its content and legitimacy. They are confronted with the difficulty of reconciling, on the one hand, the promotion of the divine presence on Earth through sensitive signs, on the other hand, the mistrust of the involvement of the body and the senses.

Whithin Anthropology of art from which the project of this symposium emerged, it is clear that despite the Sensory Turn in the 1980s and recent studies on the multi-sensoriality of the cultic experience (Eric Palazzo); on performance and agentivity of the “image-object” (Bartholeyns, Dierkens, Golsenne, Gell, Baschet, Bonne); or considering visionary experiences in art as both perceived and experienced  (Cassegrain; Dekoninck; Stoïchita; Hamburger, etc.), few works aimed at a global understanding of the devotional “scene” as a plural relational experience between the faithful and the divine. The “multimedial” nature of divine manifestations in relation to their reception has rarely been thematised in a transdisciplinary project.

The aim is therefore to question the power and limits of the sensible as an experience and possible proof of the presence of the divine in the Catholic West, from the 15th to the 17th century. We propose a double perspective in order to explore this questioning: that of the mediations authorising this experience (objects, including images, worship, devotional practices, etc.) and that of the regulations organising and controlling its possibilities.

Thus, in order to give the best possible account of all the experiences, not exclusively visual, and of the actors who experience them and/or supervise them, it is necessary to mobilise, in a “multimedial” and interdisciplinary way, approaches that have worked on the specificities of each part. We hope that law, history, anthropology, art theory, etc. will be able to enter into dialogue, at least for the duration of an encounter. We have therefore defined four aspects dividing the methodological issues specific to each discipline regarding the representations and manifestations of the divine; its receptions; its regulations; and its theorizations:

  • The first point aims to question the role and effects of material productions in the performance or presentification of the divine.

How do these mediations (shrines and altarpieces, votive, liturgical or miraculous objects, etc.) organise the relations, both affective and effective, between the faithful and these performative devices? 

  • The second point concerns the encounters with the divine and aims at exploring the relationships (experiential, devotional, miraculous, mystical, etc.) that Heaven and Earth maintain.

From the most ordinary to the most enlightened encounters, from everyday secular life to mystical experience, how is this presence of God felt and expressed, whether it is internal or external? How do these encounters bear witness to underlying socio-cultural data?

  • The third point addresses the problematic issues that such apprehensions of the divine may raise. It will question the authorities and rules that frame and legislate, authorize or censor the devices built or used to perform the presence of the divine.

What proof can be given of this presence? What place does the sensible occupy in the evidentiary process? How is the practice of the divine and all its signs regulated in relation to their apprehensions?

  • Finally, the theoretical apparatus that informs the modalities of these experiences can be interrogated and considered in dialogue with the 'practice' of the divine, its presence and its staging. 

The problematic of the incompatibility between the carnal nature of the human being and that of God arises very early on. How can humans perceive God’s incommensurability, and what theoretical solutions have been found by Christian thinkers to resolve this aporia (theology, exegesis, spiritual literature, etc.)?

Alongside these questions, methodological aspects can be raised regarding terminology problems. Indeed, many terms (vision, appearance, device, presence, performance, sensory, sign, representation, etc.) have different meanings depending on the field in which they are used. It would be useful if an epistemological reflection could be sketched out during this symposium, in order to discuss, in addition to the central themes, the vocabularies and methods presented.

Key words :

  • Presence, representation, material culture, device, performance
  • Religious experience, reception, narrative, devotional practices
  • Regulation, spiritual guidance, testimony, evidence
  • Spirituality, discernment of spirits, spiritualisation of the body, demonology

Submission guidelines

Proposals (600 words) can be written in French or English and should be sent, together with a résumé to the following two addresses : clara.lieutaghi@ehess.fr and clara.zajdela@outlook.fr 

before January the 6th.

Responses will be sent at the end of January.

Scientific committee

  • Clara Lieutaghi (Doctorante Arts et Langages, Centre d'Histoire et de Théorie des Arts (Cehta-Cral), École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)
  • Clara Zajdela (Doctorante Contractuelle en Histoire de l'Art, Université Grenoble Alpes, LARHRA - Laboratoire de Recherche Historique Rhône-Alpes)


  • INHA, 6 rue des petits champs
    Paris, France (75002)

Event attendance modalities

Full on-site event


  • Friday, January 06, 2023


  • expérience religieuse, réception, récit, pratique dévotionnelle, régulation, témoignage, preuve, discernement des esprits, démonologie


  • Clara Zajdela
    courriel : clara [dot] zajdela [at] outlook [dot] fr
  • Clara Lieutaghi
    courriel : clara [dot] lieutaghi [at] ehess [dot] fr

Information source

  • Clara Zajdela
    courriel : clara [dot] zajdela [at] outlook [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« « Heureux ceux qui croient sans avoir vu » », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, November 24, 2022, https://calenda.org/1033764

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