Publications and Research

Title

Robot Saints

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2015

Abstract

In the Middle Ages, articulating religious figures like wooden Deposition crucifixes and ambulatory saints were tools for devotion, techno-mythological objects that distilled the wonders of engineering and holiness. Robots are gestures toward immortality, created in the face of the undeniable fact and experience of the ongoing decay of our fleshy bodies. Both like and unlike human beings, robots and androids occupy a nebulous perceptual realm between life and death, animation and inanimation. Masahiro Mori called this in-between space the “uncanny valley.” In this essay I argue that unlike a modern person apprehending an android (the uncanny human-like object that resides in the space between what is essentially human and what is essentially not human), the physical animation of late medieval devotional objects fulfilled the expectations of their puppeteers and audiences to move. Glittering precious metals and stones, liturgical music, and other environmental properties of the sanctuary materially inferred the presence and action of saints on earth, greatly enhancing the affective lives of devotees. I focus on later medieval Spanish statues of the Virgin Mary in order to transcend their familiar aesthetic and religious interpretations of anthropomorphic statues, and explore instead their functional aspects and performative relationships between ritual objects and their users.

Comments

This article was originally published in Preternatural.