10 Dec 2020

New DFG project by Johanna Abel on “Cultures of Miracle”

Johanna Abel, hispanist at the ZfL, started work on her project Cultures of Miracle. Processional Theater and the Cult of Images as Global Network Phenomena in the Early Modern Era. The project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Starting from Hispanic liturgical drama, Abel examines the ritualized forms of play in early modern processional theater for their global implementations of the Christian miracle complex. She asks specifically how the religious theatrical genres performatively observe and negotiate the practices of gazing and the aesthetic techniques of what remains to be defined as cultures of miracle.

The early modern celebration and spectacle culture connected distant cultural areas. Sacralizing urban spaces, it included theater and processions with vivid, seemingly alive images. With the expansion of the Spanish empire from the 15th century onwards, the christological idea of incarnation and the corporeal veneration of images that came with it reached as far as Latin America and Asia: They become evident in the Mexican allegory plays of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as well as in the Philippine re-enactments of the crucifixion motif, the theatricalized miracles of Peruvian relics or the performance of mystery plays in Japan.

The wide range of material, iconic, kinetic, and linguistic forms of representation that are applied in processional theater and the cult of images reveal a notorious desire for the vivification and realistic reproduction of the transcendent. What can be found in the groups of colored wooden sculptures on their processional carts, in the  imágenes de vestir (clothed figures of saints), the tableaux vivants of silent and motionless performers, in the mute dancers and mimics of the interludes, or in the moving, spoken, and sung sacramental play with its flying personae and transforming objects, is an extraordinary variety of perceptual dispositives for the embodiment of the unseen. For the Spanish Siglo de Oro (1550–1700), the emergence of presence in visionary painting and liturgical drama can be ‘reduced to the common ground of the miracle’ (Belting/Stoichita). Miracles as religious forms designate a “narrative genre” and “social fact” and can thus be described in their respective historical context and contemporary functions as well as in their diversity of perception (Auffahrt).

By reappraising the cross-spatial genre history of the Spanish Corpus Christi play (auto sacramental), the project brings into view the global circulation of Hispanic patterns of miracle. In the process, the strategies of representation inherent in miracle cultures, always teetering on the animistic, become an important component of the cultural delimitation of Europe from its colonial heterotopias. The project will examine the reflection of these mechanisms of suppression in the early modern liturgical drama of the Hispanicized world, in particular through the synchronous network of practices of performance in Latin American, Southeast Asian, and Spanish sacramental plays.


From 2016–2019, Johanna Abel worked as research associate for the project Iconic Presence. Images in Religion, where she examined “Corpus Christi Plays and Corporeal Presence.” She received her PhD in Romance Philology in 2013 with a work on the narrativization of cultural and gender specific knowledge of the body in 19th century travel accounts on the Caribbean by European women writers.


See website of the project:

Cultures of Miracle. Processional Theater and the Cult of Images as Global Network Phenomena in the Early Modern Era