Our group takes a multifaceted approach to our subject. First, we are interested in the mechanics of conversion—where and how it takes place—and, more particularly, the operation of conversion in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises (first printed in 1548) offers a fascinating case study of conversion: both of its author, the founder of the Society of Jesus, yet also of the many who followed him and used his book as how-to manual for spiritual transformation and religious conversion. This part of the project also provides a cognitive ecology of prayer: where it takes place, through what media, and to what spiritual, intellectual, and physical effect. It will explore the book itself as a mechanism of conversion and the places where the practitioner affects these transformations: where s/he exercises her/his soul.
The second area of interest for our project extends the idea of a space of early modern conversion. In this regard, we wish to understand spaces further afield where conversion took place, especially in the context of the European expansion overseas and the assertive project of conversion that was central (from Europe’s perspective) to that enterprise. In this case, our spaces include the viceroy’s court in New Spain, which was located in the converted space of Montezuma’s court—here the interest lies in the appropriation by one group of spaces, objects and ideas that were already sacred to another group, which acts as a prelude to the conversion of both. We also wish to explore efforts at conversion that took place in the “wilderness”: the expansion of Jesuits into the North American interior to attempt the wholesale conversion of the indigenous populations they encountered in this “uncivilized” space. Closer to the European ecologies of Ignatius of Loyola is one more space of conversion: the Baroque church. In this case, we are interested in how the architectural designs, artistic programs, and indeed cognitive ecologies of the Baroque church influenced modes of prayer and spiritual conversion.
Finally, this group looks at the wholesale conversion of space itself: the manner by which Europeans not only ventured overseas to carry out their various projects of converting non-Europeans, in regions spanning Asia, Africa, and the Americas; but also the very conversion of geographic space into European thing, of geographic entity into material object. Many of these “conversions” took place in the wake of the religious expansions (and attempts at conversion) of early modern Europe. Over the course of the sixteenth century, China became china—domestic ware that would replace silver in European services—Japan became a common term for the technique of lacquering furniture; India became the word used for a variety of clothes; and so on. Spaces where Europeans set out to convert non-Europeans, in other words, became (often following the failure of these project of Christian conversion) converted by Europeans into actual objects and, more particularly, material arts associated with craft and design. The exotic world was converted into domestic décor.
A central aim of the group is to bring the different spaces of our individual research into conversation with one another—the spaces of prayer, the sites of conversion and prayer, the spaces of religious and material economy—and to try to understand the way these various spaces influence conversions. To this end, we circulated bibliographic readings among the group and post source materials that we believe are of possible benefit to all of the group (and to our Early Modern Conversions colleagues). We meet together electronically throughout the year.
In 2014/2015, the members of this group read literature related to one more space, namely the laboratory and atelier and study of the alchemist, as we considered the conversion of matter and spirit in the realm of alchemy.
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Ben Schmidt (leader)