SemiotiX Review of Books: Catholic Semiotics

By Robert Yelle

Domenico Pietropaolo’s book, Semiotics of the Christian Imagination, is a new entry in Bloomsbury’s Advances in Semiotics series. It is a sensitive, erudite, and subtle interpretation of a fairly wide range of Catholic semiotic ideas and practices centered primarily on the late medieval and Renaissance periods. Organized through a focus on the semiotics of the Fall and Redemption, the book flows logically and is written in a clear and elegant style. We should not be surprised to find the book, somewhat like the Christian Bible itself, bookended by accounts from Genesis and Revelations. Among the topics addressed are Cardinal Cajetan’s hermeneutics of the Fall, visual depictions of the Temptation, and representations of the Passion. Collectively the chapters provide an informative and engaging introduction to the world of medieval and early modern Catholic semiotics.

One very important thread that runs through several chapters, yet is not signaled in the title, is gender. Pietropaolo excavates the tradition that depicted the Serpent as female, as well as, toward the end of the book, the typological connection between Eve, the Virgin Mary, Judith (who beheads Holofernes), and the Queen of Heaven in Revelations, in whose person the dragon is vanquished. This illustrates the nature of the Bible, in traditional Catholic exegesis, as a continuous, interconnected narrative that leads toward the fulfillment of time, and of God’s purpose. Pietropaolo shows both negative and positive depictions of femininity, in a manner that should be of great interest to scholars in gender and sexuality studies. Perhaps this should have been noted in the subtitle of the book.
Pietropaolo writes as a humanist, referencing numerous classical sources, while keeping the work lean and accessible to a lay audience. One or two of the shorter chapters, such as chapter five on musical harmony, are less well developed, although this does not mar the book as a whole. In a few cases one would have wished for a more explicit explanation of certain topics for the benefit of the uninitiated, for example of typology, i.e. the traditional Christian method of accounting for events in the Old Testament as prefigurations of those in the New Testament. Pietropaolo alludes to this briefly in several places (e.g., 29, 38, 41, 129), but does not really explain the full relevance of typological interpretation until p. 168. The importance of this hermeneutical method for Christian semiotics, and particularly for salvation history, would have led this reader to expect a somewhat more explicit treatment, although it is always possible to go to works by Eric Auerbach and others to find this.

One could make other criticisms of the book. On the first page, Pietropaolo states that “the present book is a study of how the culture of the early modern period, with its profound interest in the idea of imaginative representations, lent itself to such an expanded view of biblical reading and to an ongoing transformative dialogue with theology, in a period marked by a severe crisis of faith. Central to this concern of early modern culture was the development of a semiotics of the imagination.” This leads the reader to expect a more intensive account of cultural change and transformation, as Catholic tradition secularized or at least modernized itself, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation. However, there is no sustained engagement with the important topics of disenchantment and iconoclasm. With respect to music, for example, Pietropaolo barely mentions the debates over the propriety of polyphony and other forms of music in the liturgy (see, however, 15, 39), although Robert Wegman has shown that these began before the Reformation, and Craig Monson has excavated the legend that Palestrina “saved” polyphony from condemnation during the Council of Trent. Puritan condemnations of music extended, in some cases, to an outright ban on all music, whether instrumental or vocal. This marked part of what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world.” Pietropaolo, however, stays mainly on the side of traditional Catholicism, without venturing to address such more radical challenges to orthodoxy. In that sense, his book is a history of continuity more than one of change.

Perhaps the most important point about the book, at least for the audience of this review, is that, while it is a careful account of medieval and early modern Catholic semiotics, it is not (and does not purport to be) an application of structuralist or Peircean semiotic theories to the materials under discussion. There is no analysis of the mythology of the Fall à la Vladimir Propp, Claude Lévi-Strauss, or Edmund Leach. Here and there, Pietropaolo does make illuminating connections, as well as contrasts, between the Catholic tradition and contemporary semiotic theories (e.g., 14, 138, 143, 149, 157, 192). However, this is not his focus. The book could therefore be located within the growing field of studies of “semiotic ideologies” in linguistic anthropology and cultural semiotics. Of course, Catholic tradition contributed to contemporary semiotics, and is important therefore as historical background for the latter. Pietropaolo cites, among others, the work of John Deely on scholastic semiotics. Similar work includes Remo Gramigna’s 2020 book on Augustine’s semiotics in the De Gruyter Semiotics of Religion series; and Massimo Leone’s Saints and Signs (2010). The appearance of such works is partly a justifiable reaction to the imperialist, universalist aspirations of the semiotics of a few decades ago. However, this does raise the fundamental question of the status of semiotics as a scientific discipline. Is semiotics, as Saussure believed it was, destined to be an overarching method for the human sciences? Or must semiotics instead be content with the less ambitious (and more achievable) goal of inclusion on the standard inventory of topics, along with literature and art, which are also still addressed mainly by specialists on particular cultural traditions?

How we choose to answer such questions is not Pietropaolo’s problem. What he has given us instead is much to think about, whether we are interested in Catholic semiotics for its own sake or as raw material for an eventual general semiotics. Summing up, Semiotics of the Christian Imagination is a highly recommended work that will be of interest to scholars of cultural semiotics, the history of Christianity, religious studies, and gender studies.


Robert A. Yelle biography

Robert A. Yelle is Professor of Religious Studies at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich. He received an A.B. in Philosophy at Harvard (1988), a J.D. (Order of the Coif) at the University of California at Berkeley (1993), and a Ph.D. in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago (2002). Yelle has received fellowships from the University of Toronto, the University of Illinois, NYU Law School, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is the author of Explaining Mantras (Routledge 2003), The Language of Disenchantment (Oxford 2013), Semiotics of Religion (Bloomsbury 2013), and Sovereignty and the Sacred (University of Chicago Press 2019), in addition to several edited volumes and numerous articles and book chapters.

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