Georgia Frank creates an opulent conceptual tapestry as she explores the need of late-antique pilgrims to gaze upon the faces of desert ascetics. Frank’s provocative and absorbing book investigates why in the period from the late-fourth through the mid-sixth centuries Christians found it necessary to travel to Egypt and Palestine to view the Desert Fathers in their daily surroundings and then to structure accounts of their travels around physiognomical descriptions of visited saints. This analysis of “sensory piety” attempts to delineate the expectations which pilgrims sought to fulfill through their journeys, expectations already suggested to them by textual, particularly scriptural, descriptions of the appearances of holy people. To gaze upon a saint allowed the pilgrim access to the reality of biblical history as re-presented in the faces, clothing, and surroundings of ascetics.
Frank employs in her analysis methods and conceptualizations drawn from a variety of disciplines. She discusses discursive models for pilgrimages to people in the second chapter, “Desert Ascetics and Distant Marvels,” and the third, “Imagined Journeys: Literary Paradigms for Pilgrimage to Holy People.” Views of pilgrimage drawn from anthropology and comparative religion provide a context for interpretation. Chapter two justifies the book’s focus on The Lausiac History and The History of the Monks in Egypt. These two well-known sources blurred the boundaries among ancient literary genres. In each case, the format of the travelogue incorporated hagiographical descriptions of desert ascetics as reported by pilgrims. The literary categories of itinera, saintly vitae, and pilgrim accounts contributed to the visualization of ascetic faces in the minds of readers. In a manner characteristic of the travelogue, both the LH and the HM “exoticized” the desert and its inhabitants. The eyewitness narrator acted as a wedge between the reader and the observed saints. Mention of geographical details and place names with a concomitant emphasis on distance and dangers met likewise furthered the audience from its subject matter. Frequent recourse to miracles not only borrowed a technique from non-Christian travel accounts of exotic places, but also acted as a commentary on the saint and holy space. As Frank puts it, these narrative strategies acted together to create a “one-way mirror” upon an ancient land where monks “elide[d] with Christ and the apostles.” This ” tableau vivant” constructed from words allowed the reader to “engage the biblical past,” to recognize Elijah or Adam in the appearance of Fathers Pambo, Antony, or Bes. Vision texts, apocalypses, and hagiographies also taught readers to “encounter faces from a biblical time” and “look the past in the eye”. An exploration of these genres in chapter three, “Imagined Journeys,” probes how desires for an encounter with God, Paradise, or a holy person further “invested vision with the power to perceive and penetrate the past.” The coercive aspect of this discourse found its ultimate manifestation in pilgrimage to living saints with the ultimate purpose of a personal physical experience of biblical sites and persons. Visual theories, both ancient and modern, explain why this was thought possible.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters (“Pilgrims and the Eye of Faith,” “How to Read a Face: Pilgrims and Ascetic Physiognomy,” and “Pilgrims to the Living and the Memory of the Eyes”) address this concept. Pilgrims took with them to the Holy Land, for example, visual memories gathered from scriptural readings. Seeing the holy places engendered through the “eye of faith” “a vivid perception of a past biblical event.” Jerome could describe how Paula “saw” the infant Jesus in the empty space designated as the authentic birthplace. The sight of a place stimulated stored memories. Ancient optical theories of the “tactile gaze” allowed for unmediated knowledge of the seen on the part of the seer. The viewer could “see through” the surface and recover the divine which existed behind the material world. This concept gains much more credence in light of ancient methods of reading physiognomy. Pilgrims discussed ascetic faces in terms of biblical characters. The saints possessed the glowing faces of angels, calm eyes, the hairy features of Old Testament prophets, or cheeks emaciated from fasting. Such features not only allowed the viewer to judge the divinity of their souls, but also stimulated the “eye of faith” to look upon a vision of Elijah, or Paul, or even Jesus himself. The sixth and final chapter summarizes the book’s contentions while applying their usefulness in regard to later manifestations of relic and icon piety.
These brief paragraphs highlight the complexity of this book, for the logic of its thesis derives from the connections made among various interdisciplinary theories and models. If the thesis results, however, from interconnections made through wide interdisciplinary reading, it is nevertheless relatively simple: to see holy people and places “was to gaze at the scriptures.” The discussion of the thesis becomes unnecessarily complex and cluttered due to the continual referrals to different theories and models, as well as the new ideas that they seem to stimulate. This is particularly the case with chapter one, “Pilgrims to the Living in Context.” Such a chapter of necessity must guide the reader to an understanding of the thesis, theories, and methods that control the narrative to come. An imaginative book such as this one, which derives from an intermingling of so many strands of thought, requires a very disciplined first chapter. After a deft and terse exposition of the thesis and a discussion of the LH and the HM, Frank immediately presents a subsection entitled “Holy Places, Holy People, and the Biblical Past,” one which should expound upon the vision of the scriptures inherent in the destinations of pilgrims. In quick succession come episodic discussions drawn from Jerome’s Epistle 108, the Life of Melania the Younger, conclusions on pilgrimage offered by the Hinduist David Haberman, followed by further discussion of the pilgrim text of Egeria and the iconography found on pilgrim flasks. These examples are neither fully contextualized nor is their ultimate function in the advancement of the argument always made clear. This surely owes to the apparently not-so-revised dissertation from which the book derives. As for further criticisms, particular terms like pilgrimage and spirituality could do with a straightforward definition early in the discussion. The book also would benefit from a more thorough consideration of the discursive aspects of hagiography as analyzed in Lynda Coon’s Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, 1997). This is particularly the case in regard to Frank’s discussion of the physiognomy and clothing of a transvestite saint such as Pelagia. Coon’s understanding of hagiography as narrative exegesis of scripture would strengthen this book’s arguments.
It is very easy, however, to tear apart someone else’s book. With all of this said, I like this book very much. It is stimulating, provocative, and imaginative. If Frank sometimes presents an unwieldy pile of ideas, they are ideas all worth considering. The Memory of the Eyes takes the study of both desert asceticism and late-antique pilgrimage to a level beyond that advanced by Derwas Chitty, Benedicta Ward, Philip Rousseau, and E. D. Hunt. Those scholars characterized the desert ascetic and desert tours in economic, political, historical, spiritual, and theological terms. Georgia Frank forces us to see the Desert Fathers as late-antique readers wished their authors to present them.