The Medieval Review 13.11.04

Dzon, Mary and Theresa M. Kenney. The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Pp. xxii, 349. $80.00. . . ISBN: 978-0-8020-9894-8.

Reviewed by:

Judith Oliver
Colgate University
joliver@colgate.edu

Surprisingly, this volume of essays on the imagery of the Christ Child in the Middle Ages represents the first book dedicated to this theme. It brings together research by scholars from many different fields— English literature, art history, religion, social and intellectual history, and history of science--by offering truly interdisciplinary research within, as well as amongst, the essays. They highlight the central focus of Christ Child imagery on its paradoxical fusion of the infancy and passion, incarnation and sacrifice.

An introduction by the editors, "The Infancy of Scholarship on the Medieval Christ Child," precedes ten essays and an epilogue. The essays are divided into three sections, the first on "The Christ Child as Sacrifice." Leah Sinanaglou Marcus' "The Christ Child as Sacrifice: A Medieval Tradition and the English Cycle Plays" first published in Speculum in 1973 is the one reprinted essay in the volume, and was the catalyst for the enterprise as a whole. She explores the miracle of transformed hosts which turn into the child and are then broken and eaten reenacting the passion but conflating it with the incarnation. [1] These tales of Christ in the host were retold in cycle plays, greatly influenced by the enormous popularity of the feast of Corpus Christi. Marcus looks at a number of these plays: on the Purification, Abraham and Isaac, Last Supper, Adoration of the Magi, and Shepherds for their sacrificial child imagery. What they share is a view of biblical history as proof of the real presence of Christ in the mass.

Theresa Kenney's "The Manger as Calvary and Altar in the Middle English Nativity Lyric" proposes a revisionist view of the presumably new affective piety that characterized the High Middle Ages. Instead she argues for the origins of the sacrificial child motif in patristic writings, going back to the hymns of Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century. She traces the links that brought these texts to the west and their use of paradox, collapsing space and time, nativity and passion. In the second half of her essay she turns to late medieval Middle English lyrics that meditated on the theme of the sacrificial child in the host and points to their late antique textual parallels.

Elina Gertsman's "Signs of Death: The Sacrificial Christ Child in Late-Medieval Art" looks at images of the Child of Sorrows or Schmerzenskind where the child holds passion instruments, or even has wounds. Less graphically, the child as sacrifice is personified in images of the child on the altar or in the host. There seems to be some confusion between Mary of Oignies and Marguerite d'Oingt (p. 89 n. 28). [2]

Other aspects of this general theme of the sacrificial child are explored in Nicole Fallon's "The Christ-Child in the Tree: The Motif in the Thirteenth-Century Wood-of-the-Cross Legends and Arthurian Romances." She identifies the literary sources for the motif of Seth seeing a child in a tree (either the tree of life in Eden or a seed or twig from it planted on Adam's grave). One source may have been images of the Tree of Jesse. Fallon also explores the romance Durmart where a knight sees a hermit in a tree; and she investigates several dendrite saints who also lived in trees. There is an explicit link to the passion in some images that show the child in the tree with a cross, for the tree in paradise prefigures the cross itself.

The second section is comprised of three essays on "The Christ Child and Feminine Spirituality." Mary Dzon's "Birgitta of Sweden and Christ's Clothing" analyzes the visions of St. Birgitta (d. 1373) that describe Mary's mothering through images of cloth: the swaddling bands, the seamless garment Christ wore throughout his life, and the burial linens. In her visions, Brigitta dwells on Mary's preparations for the birth laying out swaddling; at the passion she describes Mary laying Christ across her lap in the pieta image to wrap his body for the tomb. On Birgitta's many pilgrimages she most likely saw the cloth relic at Chartres (a veil or tunic worn at the nativity), and the seamless robe at Argenteuil said to be a gift of Charlemagne obtained in Constantinople. This robe, as Christ's personal possession, served as a response to the contemporary debate by the Spiritual Franciscans that Christ owned nothing. Birgitta's rule for her nuns stressed textile work; and Dzon also explores the metaphorical role cloth played in theology: Christ is clothed in the flesh in Mary's womb as a priest is clad in his vestments, and he puts off his tunic and flesh at the cross.

In what is certainly the most startling title of the volume, Holly Flora's "Women Wielding Knives: The Circumcision of Christ by His Mother in an Illustrated Manuscript of the Meditationes vitae Christi (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France ital. 115)" looks at the Franciscan typological linkage of Mary with Moses' wife Zipporah who circumcised her son (Ex. 4:21-26). Mary first sheds Christ's blood as her priestly duty, giving proof of his humanity. The manuscript, made c. 1350 for Franciscan nuns, is replete with examples of affective piety where the nuns share Christ's pain and Mary's sorrow.

Richard Kieckheffer "Jhesus ist unser!: The Christ Child in the German Sister Books" explores the many visions of a beautiful child recorded in fourteenth-century German convents. He highlights the apparent contradiction between the community and communal experience defining monastic life and the singularity of these private visions. The conflict is resolved by the largely liturgical context of these visions as they are grounded in communal experience. Over a third of the visions are of Mary and the child together, inspired by statuary in the convents and by Marian antiphons that assume the Virgin is truly present. Indeed, there are instances of rivalry with Mary for the child's attention. Visions were most common at the Christmas vigil and equally so in the infirmary and the deathbed where the child appeared to bring consolation or guidance to the afterlife. The visions were intensely physical: nuns rocked the child in their arms, bathed him, saw and heard the divine figures interacting with them, underscoring the humanity of Christ and his physical presence as was also emphasized in the mass.

The third part of the book turns to the "Question of the Christ Child's Development." William MacLehose begins with "The Holy Tooth: Dentition, Childhood Development, and the Cult of the Christ Child." A milk tooth relic first recorded at St. Medard de Soissons in the late eleventh century elicited several dueling treatises. One by Guibert de Nogent laid out the theological arguments against there being any bodily relics of Christ. At his ascension, he took his whole body back to heaven, the whole body is present in the mass, and material parts of Christ could not be subject to loss or corruption. In their responding texts, the Soissons monks saw the tooth as a proof of the incarnation and as evidence of Christ's normal childhood suffering and hence of his full humanity. MacLehose sees the tooth as representative of the emotive empathetic piety of the high Middle Ages.

Mary McDevitt looks at "The Ink of our Mortality: The Late-Medieval Image of the Writing Christ Child." This motif emerged in the late fourteenth-century but has no specific literary or iconographic source. McDevitt thus explores the overall context of theology, devotional practice, growing literacy, and book ownership in which it emerged. Its fundamental source lies in the metaphor of Christ as the Word made flesh, the gospel writing itself into men's hearts.

Pamela Sheingorn's "Reshapings of the Childhood Miracles of Jesus" compares two Italian manuscripts of c. 1270 and c. 1400, the first, the Liber de infantia salvatoris (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France lat. 2688) with 52 miniatures and the second, the Evangelica historia (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana SP II 64) with 158 drawings. Both are based on the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The earlier book stresses negative anti- Jewish miracles, and its repeated depiction of witnessing boys suggests that it was made for boys to read. The Milan book in contrast shows Christ's development over time and the Jews' increasing respect for his power, reflecting a growing interest in the stages of childhood by 1400.

Miri Rubin then provides a brief contextual overview of devotion to the child in her epilogue, noting that it celebrated home, nurture, and community, but also gave narrative justification for vengeance against the Jews. Rubin does not attempt to synthesize the essays, but this was done adequately in the introduction.

Nicely presented, well documented, and thoughtfully indexed, these essays provide a model for the scholarly apparatus essay collections should offer their readers: an integrated list of illustrations, a copious integrated bibliography and a list of abbreviations, a list identifying the contributors, both a general index and an index of biblical passages. Black and white illustrations are set into the text and are of adequate quality though grainy and not of high contrast on the uncoated paper. One would ideally like a fuller biography of the authors with major publications and current research interests listed, but that is a minor quibble for a fascinating volume that makes highly entertaining reading, and should be of widespread scholarly interest. --------

Notes:

1. This Eucharistic dismemberment is graphically illustrated in one English manuscript, for which see Adelaide Bennett, "A Book Designed for a Noblewoman: An Illustrated Manuel des Péchés of the Thirteenth Century," pp. 163-181 in Linda Brownrigg (ed.), Medieval Book Production: Assessing the Evidence (Los Altos Hills: Anderson- Lovelace, 1990).

2. For Mary of Oignies, see the vita published in Mary of Oignies: Mother of Salvation, ed. Anneke Mulder-Bakker (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006).