Sign Systems Studies

Volume 30, Issue 2, 2002

Massimo Leone
Pages 485-500

Boundaries and identities in religious conversion
The mirror

Religious conversion revolutions the boundaries which delimit personal identity. Therefore, the main semiotic problem of mental and cultural representations of this religious phenomenon is to convey simultaneously a feeling of sameness and otherness, identity and change. In the present paper, mirrors are analysed as cultural mechanisms which enable representations to accomplish this paradoxical task. After a brief survey concerning literature on mirrors, some early-modern religious texts using these optical instruments as representative devices are analysed in-depth: a painting of the Magdalene’s conversion by Artemisia Gentileschi, an engraving representing conversion from a 17th-century French book, a fragment from Sainte Theresa’s spiritual autobiography, a passage from John Calvin’s Institution de la religion chrétienne. In its conclusion, the paper underlines the importance of Saint Paul’s metaphoric conception of mirrors for the cultural history of these objects, and tries to define the role which cultural semiotics should play concerning this kind of representative mechanisms.