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Heaven and the Flesh: Imagery of Desire from the Renaissance to the Rococo.

Clive Hart and Kay Gilliland Stevenson. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 50 illus. + 237 pp. $54.95. ISBN: 0-521-49571-7

"Do angels make love? Will the souls of ordinary people feel sexual pleasure in the next world? Is the aspiration to spiritual salvation helped or hindered by sexual experience?" Blurb not withstanding, the primarily prurient and/or angel-maniacal beware: the book is probably not for you. It is for students of literature, art, and theology, and others interested in the question of how western poets and artists have explained/intimated the relations between sexual desire and the hope of ascent to heaven. It is about matters of flesh and spirit, the frustrations of horizontal physical desire versus vertical flight to perfect spiritual union as prolegomenon to heavenly mystical union.

It would seem a subject threatened by both a superabundance of material to consider and temptations to digressive and amorphous argument. But Professors Hart and Stevenson have controlled the presentation beautifully. The time that they consider reaches from the late Renaissance to the waning Enlightenment (with a coda on Keat's Endymion). In the aftermath of Tridentine severities, there was growing interest in the celebration of palpable physical surfaces as the path towards the immaterial and spiritual, which was part of a quest to reconcile the doctrines of the Church with the pleasures of bodily experience. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries explored the complex carnal-spiritual relations in respect to the grounded/airborne, weight/lightness, horizontality/verticality, and nakedness/clothed. With passing time, an overt eroticism increasingly attended these ruminations, until finally in the late eighteenth century ascensional eroticism became overt parody, and the metaphor of vertical ascent was replaced by the authority of inner experience.

The authors focus on three clusters of expressive culture: English poetry, French and Italian easel painting, and the decoration of churches in southern Germany and Austria. Some of the figures considered are major (e.g. Spenser, Milton, Tiepolo), while others are only names or encountered for the first time (at least by this reviewer). Attention is directed about equally to poetry and the visual arts.

Eight chapters develop the argument, the first setting out in discussion of six works the connection between ascension and erotic desire through polarities of naive/sophisticated, private/public, sacred/secular, serious/lewd. The complex implications of sexual position are explored in the mystical marriage of Christ and Mary, and the myths of Endymion and Ganymede. Milton was the first to propose that heaven embodies carnal delight, that angelic power includes the capacity to enjoy a sexuality raised to free and pure essence, leading to a union richer than the union of flesh, or indeed the union of souls. Understandably then, prelapsarian play was an unambiguous delight. The authors analyze a growing physical immediacy in art, which was accompanied by a mingling of the divine and erotic in a feminized Rococo. The Assumption of Mary is treated in the next to last chapter, locus classicus for the idea of spiritual ascent to bodily delight in heavenly experience. At the end of the period heaven descends to us, and the paradigm of ascension implodes.

This book is a fresh look at both important works and little known works of art and literature, presented through a learning worn lightly. It insists on interpretations rooted in the intellectual protocols of the time in which these works were created rather than relying on the interpretative codes of our own time. The analyses are precise, careful, and clear. I've never read a book by co-authors that is so stylistically seamless.

As they say at the movies, two thumbs up.

A. RICHARD TURNER New York University
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Author:Turner, A. Richard
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
Words:609
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