Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Rachael Givens Johnson

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Rachael Givens Johnson, a doctoral candidate in history at University of Virginia. Rachael’s dissertation, titled Taught by Senses or Conquered by Words: Baroque and Enlightenment Catholicism in the Spanish Eighteenth Century, examines the diverging models of epistemology, embodiment, the public role of religion, and the nature of spiritual experience during the Spanish Enlightenment:

The time it took to transform the din of voices to a silence taut enough to hear a pin drop was breathtakingly swift. I strained to see between the hundreds of bodies packed sardine-tight in the streets. Glimmers of candlelight flickered in the distance, and I caught sight of the paso that all of Seville had turned out to witness— Jesus del Gran Poder. This was no ordinary outing for the sculpture; normally reserved only for Holy Week, a procession for the purple-robed Christ was transpiring that balmy November night to mark the year of Jubilee. The paso brimmed with candles, flowers, and gold leaf adornments, and the cross-laden figure passed beneath windows and balconies draped with beautiful textiles—but even more striking was the way the sculpture’s dark hair and velvet robes fluttered in the breeze, and the lifelike motion as it swayed side to side atop the shoulders of a dozen men carrying the platform.

For a moment, I felt surreally transported inside the archival records I had pored over that morning, recounting an eighteenth-century Spanish religious procession. Though Enlightenment reformers had attempted to scale back these lavish public affairs and reduce images’ function to that of didactic representation, such “baroque” devotions continued to flourish. For many Catholics, statues like Jesus del Gran Poder continued to pulsate with divine presence, and such processions knitted diverse communities together in a space that collapsed secular and sacred time.

But the pervasive glint of glass drew me back to 2016. Two centuries ago, outstretched hands may have tried to brush the passing robe. Now, they held aloft smartphones, capturing the ritual in another way: with video-recorded precision. I smiled to think of what the ilustrados would have thought of that.

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.



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