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Working Group in Literary and Visual Culture



Prof. Marisa Galvez


Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 6:30pm - 8:00pm


Stanford Humanities Center, BoardRoom

Working Group in Literary and Visual Culture

Professor Marisa Galvez (DLCL) will present "Crystal Encasements."

This presentation considers medieval artworks and literary descriptions that feature materials such as enamel encased, inset, or enveloped within rock crystal. It is drawn from Crystal Desire, a book in progress that looks at crystal as stone and medium in literary works, art, and architecture (I attach a forthcoming article that gives a sense of the project). I argue that the paradoxical qualities of crystal—opaque solidity and transparency, hardness and apparent fluidity—drive a historical fascination that runs throughout different media and epistemologies, from Christian exegesis to modernist aesthetics, from alchemical science to the modern science of crystallography and time crystals. Crystal encasements show a process of perception shaped by a sensory experience of crystal, a precious stone believed to be a conduit of power between an embodied sacred presence and (be)holder. In the examples I present—the ninth-century King Alfred reading jewel or aestel, the tomb in the twelfth-century French romance Floire et Blancheflor, and a passage from Dante’s Paradiso— I argue that in the latter two examples crystal does not magnify the object, image, or Word it encases as in the aestel but rather foregrounds ambiguity and excessive imaginative artifice. Crystal’s transparent yet watery appearance, its refractive qualities that permit light to pass yet also transmit different images of an object to its viewers can give a bedazzling, wondrous experience but not a clear understanding of the thing perceived. The crystal enamel encasements of the Christian-Muslim tomb in Floire et Blancheflor and the Dante passage featuring a state of being within a crystal emphasize the sensory effects of crystal as a disorienting quest for something hidden: a reading through and within crystal as a figure for the mental activity of desire.