The Imagination and Miracles as Epistemic Things

The Imagination and Miracles as Epistemic Things

Fernando Vidal

From the Renaissance to the late eighteenth century, the notion of imagination played a crucial role in the assessment of miracles performed by potential saints, and contributed to turn miracles into an epitome of fundamental early-modern epistemological problems.

This project dealt with the uses of the notion of imagination in assessing the authenticity of miracles. In the process of saint-making, the Catholic Church requires miracles and evidence for them. Cures make up most of such miracles, and since the middle ages the Church has called upon medical judgment to examine them.

In the most important canonization treatise ever published (1734-38), Prospero Lambertini, archbishop of Bologna and later pope Benedict XIV, emphasized the need to look for natural causes before concluding that cures (or stigmata, or tears of blood, or the incorruptibility or resurrection of a corpse) were miraculous. Particulary important is his discussion of the imagination as a pathogenic and healing agent. This discussion constituted the focus of the project, but was related to two broader fields: the cultural history of the imagination, about which two workshops were co-organized with Claudia Swan, of the Art History Department and the Program for the Study of Imagination  at Northwestern University; and miracles as epistemic things.

Largely through the role it gave to the imagination, saint-making fits into the early modern web of natural philosophy, natural magic, demonology, and medicine. Lambertini’s treatise, however, implicitly raised questions about the reach of science and the limits of the miraculous. The imagination emerged as the prime way of confronting the natural with the supernatural; with regard to miracles, it was the natural explanation par excellence. It thus became a crucial element of the early-modern dynamics of science and religion, knowledge, and belief.

  • “Extraordinary bodies and the physicotheological imagination,” in Gianna Pomata and Lorraine Daston, eds., The faces of nature in Enlightenment Europe (Berlin, Berliner-Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2003), 61-96.