The power of place to incite an emotional response in either an individual or a community is a defining aspect of all cultures. Certain spaces are synonymous with the emotional response tied to them: the childhood home conjures longing and nostalgia, while the poorly lit alleyway might evoke fear and unnerving. Of course the emotional response is tied up, and completely inseparable from, memory. It is the memories held within a childhood home that imbues the space with an emotive potency. These personal memories can be combined with historic and communal narratives to powerful effect. Alongside the individual and communal memories evoked by a space, its materiality, natural or man-made, directs the emotions of those within.
In the history of the emotions to date, the body, as the site of performance, has been at the focus of much discussion. However, as Margrit Pernau discussed in her 2014 article ‘Space and Emotion: Building to Feel’, the affected body does not exist outside of the spaces and places of a particular society. Emotional responses whether within, or created by, particular spaces are culturally specific, endowed with social meaning and grounded in ritual or habitualised behaviour.
Laywomen who joined the penitential movements of the thirteenth century carved out their own sacred spaces in domestic and civic architecture imbuing these sites with personal and communal significance. In doing so they constructed new spatial narratives for their cities and homes. Angela of Foligno (1248–1309), Margherita of Cortona (1247– 1297), Umiliana de’Cerchi (1219–1246), and Rosa of Viterbo (1233–1255) represent early tertiary women from central Italy who made their spiritual lives outside of the convent. Although these women occupied marginal spaces – and often social positions – within their communities, they are hailed in local memory as exempla of the penitential life.
For these female tertiaries a space within the family home served as the substitute for the monastic cell. These ‘cells’ underwent minimal physical alterations before becoming sites of intense spiritual reclusion. The transformation of these spaces was achieved through the penitent’s emotional attachment to that place and the creation of experiences and memories inside its walls. The cell space sought to emulate the conditions of the monastery and align these women with a continuous Judeo-Christian tradition. Both a physical and imaginary place, the concept of the cell was grounded in Christ’s prison, a Sonderwelt or ‘special place’, where suffering could lead to spiritual empowerment (Guy Geltner, 2008).
The contrasting emotional responses of Angela of Folingo and Rosa of Viterbo to their cell reveal the role of the individual in creating sacred space. The cell within Rosa’s family home became for her a secluded place of comfort and happiness, as her vita recalls her greatest trial and torment was being asked to abandon the space she had created. This sentiment was exaggerated in a later redaction of her vita, which praises the cell, ‘O camera felice! O stanza beata!’ – Oh happy bedroom! Oh blessed room! (Historia di S. Rosa Viterbese (1638)) Such feelings of ecstasy and attachment created a ‘special place’ for Rosa’s spiritual development.
For Angela on the other hand, the cell she fashioned in her family home became a space associated with falsehood, a site of deception and dishonesty preceding her true spiritual awakening. The repulsion and regret she felt for her earlier false religion was reflected in the seclusion of the cell. Angela rejected the cell in an outburst of intense emotion that led to a desire to be freed from its four walls in favour of walking the streets of her city (Instruction 1, Liber)
Beginning with the cell spaces of Angela and Rosa, both physically unaltered, one embraced and the other rejected, I will explore how personal and communal sacred spaces were created through experience, memory and emotional attachment. Combining spatial and emotions analysis I hope to offer a more nuanced approach to medieval notions of religious and sacred space.
Ella Francesca Kilgallon (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).
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