Through a mirror darkly: Mystical metaphors of sight from Paul to Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo

Emily Rose Cain, Fordham University


My dissertation rethinks the ways in which early Christian authors understood their relationship to the world and to the divine through visual rhetoric and visual metaphors. Using close textual analysis, I demonstrate that ancient authors engaged in a series of epistemological debates about the reliability of sensory knowledge, and argue that early Christians and Jews applied those same debates to knowledge of the divine through visual rhetoric. I trace this theme through Eastern and Western Christianity in the writings of Philo, Clement, and Gregory of Nyssa in the East and Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo in the West. By taking a thematic approach, my analysis uncovers the trend that vision of God is always portrayed as successful in Eastern Christianity and unsuccessful in Western Christianity. Thus, I show that visual rhetoric is the key to unlock how early Christians understood themselves in relation to both the world and to the divine. Recent scholarship tends to fixate on ancient models of “spiritual” vs. “physical” sensation, and I expand this scholarship’s narrow focus on Platonic influences in ancient Christian thought. My project demonstrates that early Christians engaged a wide range of philosophical resources on sensory perception, complicating a univocal distinction between the physical and the spiritual. By engaging foundational figures in both the east and the west, my project bridges the geographical expanse. Putting together Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking Christianity takes seriously the diversity of approaches of early Christian conceptions of the self in relation to the divine.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Theology|Ancient history

Recommended Citation

Cain, Emily Rose, "Through a mirror darkly: Mystical metaphors of sight from Paul to Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10192842.