Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From Visions to Apparitions

Before beginning to read the texts for Monday, I remember noticing a shift in reference that was striking to me in the headings: the use of a word that had  not appeared before in the readings, apparition. Previously, in works of Hildegard, Mechtild, Elizabeth of Schonau, and so on, we have seen experiences of “seeing” referred to primarily as “visions.” What then constitutes this shift from visions to apparitions? Prof. Fulton-Brown touched on considering the ways in which thought about these experiences of seeing and experiencing the supernatural had begun to change. Somehow the heavens have become more accessible by this time.

Yet, I want to suggest that the shift in vocabulary, from visions to apparitions, is characterized by a shift in a certain kind of accessibility—a specifically physical or concrete accessibility. I wonder whether this characteristic is the most salient feature that distinguishes visions from apparitions. Examining these distinctions/features, I hope to arrive at a clearer picture of the difference between visions and apparitions. 

This urge for and awareness of the physical is latent throughout the texts and manifests itself in a number of different ways. We identified one in class: the very striking new kind of legality in the accounts of these experiences. As we noticed, the reports of these visions were not written necessarily in moments of spiritual sharing but rather the see-ers are interrogated and giving testimony to what they have seen so that it can, to whatever degree, be judged in authenticity. Witnesses are examined, facts are double checked, stories are compared. At the end of the investigation of Ines, it is stated that no blatant contradictions were found in the stories and that, in fact, enough minor variations indicated that the testimony had not been arranged in advance. Even a level of scientific study is made by Martin Ruiz on the position of Ines’ thumb. There is a critical eye watching these events; all of sudden, it seems, that it matters whether these events are actually happening in a way that it simply did not before.

Another feature of this new accessibility is the “group” or community aspect of these experiences. Previously, we have seen in St. Gertrude, for example, that her experience of the Virgin is quite intimate and exclusive. It serves no immediate purpose outside of her own spiritual encounter with the virgin. “Revelations” are made exclusively to her though she shares them with the world through the writings. The visions are addressed directly to her and are regarding her specific character and spiritual development. This is radically different from what we see in the accounts of the apparitions. In the story of Pedro of Burgos, it is clear that both Pedro AND Juan see the lady and the many people in white processing on the Wednesday of Holy Week. They hear themselves being called to Matins with them. Though the next day only Pedro is visited by the Virgin, it is significant that they both see previously and are equally afraid. The story of Jaen makes this point more strongly. What is interesting about the Jaen story is not only that they all see the same procession, their locality with relation to the event is also striking and described in detail: they are all at different distances with relation to what is happening. Juan and Pedro are beyond the walls of the city while Maria Sanchez is in her house and Juana Fernandez is in the yard of her house. Because of this, they all see different aspects of what seems to be the same phenomenon. Further, this event is directly linked to referents in their own familiar reality. In the case of Pedro and Juan the barking dogs signal that something is happening and in the case of Juana she is able to trace the procession as passing over the muladar near the chapel, etc. In the Story of Juan Diego of Guadalupe, though he is primarily receiving the visits of the apparition, it is revealed that his uncle was also visited by the Virgin “and he saw Her in exactly the same way She had appeared to his nephew.” (Anderson/Chavez, 183)

Finally, I think that the visionary experiences are quite distinct from those of the apparitions in what they see. Again, let us look to Gertrude as an example. Gertrude is kept company by the presence of the Blessed Virgin and Christ. Though in Chapter 3 of “The Revelations of St. Gertrude” we read the experience she has of the Infant Jesus on the Feast of the Nativity as “apparition,” what she sees is a display of saints and angels surrounding the heavenly throne. She sees Christ in the womb of the virgin as transported into Gertrude’s own heart. The experience she describes is one of rumination; it is a deeply personal experience. Compare this to what we find in our readings for Monday. There is an undeniable shift from the internal to the external. Mary appears not to further any personal spiritual experience but with an agenda and plan for the community she appears to. She wants her holy people to be remembered, a monastery or church to be built, a message delivered and most of all to be believed. So, she offers very physical signs. Mary takes a cross and plants it in the ground in Ines’ story; in the story of the herdsman of Guadalupe, a partly-butchered cow goes on to be very productive; and Mary gives Juan Diego’s skeptic a tapestry of her divine image on his tilma.
What then do we make of this adamant insistence on bringing together this world and the divine or supernatural world? Why does this matter of faith and devotion suddenly find itself under scrutinizing investigation and perhaps even needing it? I definitely do not have the answer to these questions. They are a product of my reflection. I am hoping to get some insight via this post. There are some considerations I would like to make, however.

I wonder if this need for legitimacy and authentication stems forth as a reaction to the earlier reformation thinkers and their claims regarding the extent of Marian devotion as extra-scriptural and the need to “trim” out the excesses that have seemed to have grown out of control. Could this directing toward the physical/concrete be a response that says, “Hey, we have proof here that our practices are legitimate” because they are divinely ordained or being responded to? This response is intensified by the reflective doubt that permeates the apparition accounts. The doubt on the part of Ines’ parents and the shepherd boys is interesting to note, here. When they initially disbelieve Ines, it makes Ines’ “unbelievable” and extraordinary experience all the more believable because it is so fantastic and real.

Perhaps, the manner and tone of her apparitions can also be explained by who she is appearing to. We talked about this in class discussion but I would like to consider it a little differently. In the case of Gertrude, a woman who engages deep contemplation, encounters spiritual imagery and liturgy frequently, has experiences that reflect the depth of her thoughts. She sees flowery images of heaven. I don’t mean to suggest there is no symbolism in the apparitions accounts but there is something quite raw about the experiences described by the see-ers of the apparitions. I wonder whether the intellectual state of the see-er is a factor in this switch from visions to apparitions.

In any case, I find the movement from visions to apparitions to a significant one and as I see in our readings I think this shift is deeply rooted in the focus on the realm of natural and physical that seems to saturate the readings.

I look forward to your thoughts!


  1. I think this is potentially a very productive observation, and, I think, a good question to be asking: is there some sort of ontological distinction between a "vision" and an "apparition"? I agree with you that the types of appearances of Mary seem to map onto the individuals to which she appears, but I don't know whether we can make a reality claim about the "physicality" of what is happening, say, when Methchild is "taken away from her earthly senses." I do, however, think that you are astute in pointing to concerns over the reliability of the "seers" and the legalistic framework in which the apparitions are conveyed, and how the burden of proof falls to the whole community to be investigated and legitimated, rather than, perhaps, an individual mystic and her confessor. I also particularly like your observation that Ines' "unbelief" acts as a foil for the overall "believability" of the experience.

    The question I would ask is whether you would place, say, the miracle stories of the Cantigas with the "apparitions" or the "visions". The "visions" seem to imply a whole context, a narrative, an experience of a heavenly court, etc, where perhaps "apparitions" are Mary stepping back into an earthly context. This leads to my next question, which is whether the mystical visions are in fact more "personal"-- they are perhaps more invited, or incurred by meditation, but do not some of our mystics explicitly state that they have been shown these things in order to share the experience interpersonally? Is this significantly different from the miracle stories, which, though they describe individual experiences or actors, gain sufficient cultural currency to spread widely and impact many?


  2. JLST, in response to your question, I agree that there is a similarity between the vision accounts and the apparition accounts in the sense that, ultimately, they are to be shared interpersonally. There is a distinction, however, in how these are to be shared, and this may offer a glimpse into a shift of experience around the cult.
    As with the miracles accounts, the vision accounts are ultimately to circulate among groups of people. In this sense, the testimonial element is similar on both the vision accounts and the apparition accounts. However, a point can be made as to how these effect their interpersonal element.
    A difference is present in how they are propagated. The vision accounts and the miracle accounts circulate in a more gradual manner, gradual in the sense that they first involve the personal experiences and only circulate and reach their audience at a later time. The apparition accounts seem to contain a "live" element in the sense that a group is coming together immediately after the apparition occurs. This live element would appear to offer not only more legitimacy, but a more active communal participation.

    The apparition accounts may reflect a shift to a more communal experience and reflection regarding the Virgin Mary. Mary here seems to want to step out of the bounds of subjective mystical experience and reach out to the common folk, as we discussed in class. Therefore, other than FL's suggestion that these apparitions may reflect a need to legitimize the cult of the Virgin that is under attack in the Reformation (which is very plausible), they may reflect a period in the Church in which a more active and broad communal experience around the Virgin was advocated. This would seem to coincide with Juan Diego's experience at Guadalupe, in which, ultimately, the apparition and its miracle results in a massive cult to the Virgin in the new world.


  3. FL: Very good, thought-provoking post. The idea of the concrete and more physical characteristics of apparitions that you discuss in your post is fascinating to me. I am really glad that you have brought this up and are investigating it more closely. You are on to a major theme in Marian experience and broader intellectual tradition.

    A lead off question concerning whether this greater emphasis on the verifiability of Marian apparitions is a reassertion of the Virgin’s reality and centrality to Christian life in the face of Reformation pressure: Do the Castilian and Mexican you review stories achieve this goal, or do they rather underscore the concerns of Luther, Latimer, et al about “overblown” Marian devotion?

    On a different note, I think that your suggestion that these verifications means that the heavens are “more accessible” requires more investigation. So when you write that “all of a sudden . . . it matters whether these events are *actually* happening,” I suggest (as with my emphasis here) that the focus be placed on what assumptions go into equating the verification criteria with these experiences “actually happening.” So, yes: What does an emphasis on collective, physical, consistent evidence point to? Why is materialization of “spiritual” experiences important? But, further, why do *we* equate these criteria with the “reality” of the Virgin’s apparitions to people?

    The application of certain procedures of verification is notable in these readings. And as you point out, this has some sort of correspondence with the type of manifestation we are dealing with (apparitions instead of visions). But isn’t there also some degree of verification applied to (for example) the stories of Mary’s appearance in The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour (those from “reliable people of good report”)? Moreover, are the later experiences of the visionaries like Gertrude, Elisabeth, or Bridget doubted?

    As you astutely bring up, consideration of timing is important–both when the apparitions are claimed to have occurred and when they were documented. If the apparitions and the verifications really did happen in the late Medieval period, they would seem to anticipate certain “positivistic” 16th- and 17th-century preoccupations. Still, they are different than the Rocamadour “verification procedures.” Is this a difference of degree of emphasis? If so, what elements of each historical context might help account for this?

    Does Maria of Ágreda represent an amalgamation of these different “spiritual epistemologies?”

  4. Very nicely observed! The one thing I would add to the above comments is a caution about dating: all of the Castilian accounts that we read pre-date the Reformation, so the need for proof of a different sort must be background for the concerns of the Reformers rather than a foreground for the kinds of evidence that the inquisitors ask for in investigating the apparitions. But you make an excellent point about the difference between the visions seen only "internally" by the nuns and the apparitions seen "externally" by several seers. Somehow, the sense of what it means for Mary to be spiritually present has changed; by the fifteenth century, she is appearing, as it were, "in the world," whereas in Elisabeth's, Gertrude's, and Birgitta's visions, she was visible only to them (to their minds). With this tradition, it seems even more remarkable that anybody would have believed Pedro, Juan, Ines, or Juan Diego when they said that they had *seen* (i.e. with their bodily eyes, outside of their contemplation) the Virgin. And yet, in the miracles of Rocamadour, Mary's intercession often is believed to have had quite clear physical effects on the external world.


    1. Indeed, my typo changes the sense of one sentence and cut and paste problems create more confusion. As can be seen, the second paragraph is messed up in a few places. What I meant to paste was:

      “As lead off questions concerning whether this greater emphasis on the verifiability of Marian apparitions is a reassertion of the Virgin’s reality and centrality to Christian life in the face of Reformation pressure: When do the Castilian accounts take place? Even if considered together with the Mexican Guadalupe account, do these stories you review achieve this goal, or do they rather underscore the concerns of Luther, Latimer, et al about “overblown” Marian devotion?”

      In my penultimate paragraph, the "If" that begins the second sentence should be replaced with "As." (I hope that also clarifies the point I was trying to make in the second paragraph.)

      Hope that helps.

  5. Because I'm too a fault always look for the philosophical/theological presuppositions which underlie texts, I've been really interested in the distinction which you are exploring here. I wonder if this shift from visions to apparitions reflects an underlying change in worldview from the 13th-14th centuries to the 16th-17th. I think there are two specific areas to consider here: what constitutes a real experience and the relation of the divine to the physical world. To my eyes, both these seem reflective of a changing understanding of reality and the mind. I wonder if the dominant neo-platonic understanding of the conceptual/mental realm as preeminent which dominated the high and earlier Middle Ages has faded enough by the time of Spanish Marian apparitions to generate the differences in visionary experience that we see. Essentially, God's intervention in the physical world, the appearance of divine power in a tangible, physical, and visible (I hesitate to say visual given the language of seeing that so pervades earlier texts, but we might argue that there are different types of seeing going on here) way, has become much more important, and more valued, more necessary, more expected than in centuries prior. Simply an underdeveloped theory.


  6. RLFB broached in her comment what I was thinking about as I read your (very helpful!) post: "by the fifteenth century, [Mary] is appearing, as it were, "in the world," whereas in Elisabeth's, Gertrude's, and Birgitta's visions, she was visible only to them (to their minds)." The crucial thing here is to recognize that using the term "apparition" to describe a divine encounter suggests that the deity appears to the seer, and using the term "vision" suggests that the seer sees the deity. "Apparition" ascribes the action in the event primarily to the deity, and "vision" ascribes it primarily to the viewer (though in any pious account of a "vision," the deity that appears is still appearing out of its own will; it is not "conjured up" by the viewer). Could the shift from visions to apparitions also have to do with changing ideas about how actively Mary participates in human life and in the process of divine redemption?


  7. I thought that this post captured a very interesting aspect of the issue that could very easily be overlooked. You point out that both a heightened sensitivity towards the physicality as well as the ability to prove or disprove authenticity develop throughout the texts we read – testimonials and interrogations, even the scientific examination conducted on the position of Ines' thumb, are all indicative of what seems to be growing doubtfulness. I think you are right in saying that the initial skepticism makes the story more believable on the whole.
    The communal aspect of apparitions seem to support the verifiability of these apparitions. The question you raise about the scientific approach to devotion and faith is very interesting and I think is a very astute point. I personally think that the need for verifiability could very well reflect a need to legitimize the religion on the whole, particular religious practices and perhaps even legitimize Marian devotion specifically.
    Visions, however, are much more spiritual in their nature than apparitions are. This probably relates to the viewer and their level of spirituality and reflection. Apparitions on the other hand tend to be a lot more practical, as you mention – there always seems to be some agenda that she appears to fulfill – and there is a much more active role that Mary takes on.