Karen Gould

title.none: Ross, The Grief of God (Gould)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.007 98.02.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Karen Gould,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Ross, Ellen M. The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xiii, 200. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-195-10451-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.07

Ross, Ellen M. The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xiii, 200. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-195-10451-X.

Reviewed by:

Karen Gould

During the later Middle Ages, empathetic, at times even extravagant, attention to Christ's suffering through his passion and crucifixion was a key element of popular piety and religious expression. The Grief of God examines this phenomenon by studying verbal and visual imagery of the suffering Jesus in England primarily during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Cultural historians and art historians have long recognized and analyzed the intensity of portrayals of Christ's suffering in literary, dramatic, and visual manifestations, and many explanations have emerged. Ellen M. Ross presents two themes as a central thesis of this book. First, the suffering Jesus balances emphases on Christ's humanity with his divinity; thus the human suffering of God's divine son is the most vivid demonstration of God's love for humanity. Second, the purpose of the imagery of suffering was to evoke a response in the audience that not only moves an individual to attend, through contrition and penance, to their own salvation, but also to extend their spiritual transformation into their society by performing acts of mercy.

Four chapters look at different media that portray the suffering of Jesus in late medieval England. The first chapter focuses on sermons and spiritual guidance literature. The first section of this chapter examines how preachers and some authors of devotional literature depicted the suffering Jesus in an effort to elicit the response of contrition, penance, and finally compassion as evidenced in merciful deeds. Some results of these spiritual exhortations are studied in the second part of the chapter through the examples of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich whose spirituality embodied the imitation of Christ's suffering.

The second chapter moves from verbal to visual media. It looks at illuminations depicting the Crucifixion as well as scenes of the Passion and Last Judgment in later medieval English liturgical and devotional books, including Missals, Psalters, Books of Hours, and picture Bibles. Ross develops her two major themes of the connection between the humanity and divinity of Jesus and the evocation of response to God's love manifest in the sacrifice of his son's crucifixion by showing how, in the context of these manuscripts, the viewer is encouraged to experience Christ's suffering within the continuum of liturgical time. The second part of this chapter considers wall paintings where scenes of the Passion and Crucifixion are part of more extensive narrative cycles. Ross explains that not only the subject of these paintings but also their juxtaposition and placement within the spatial liturgical setting of the church enhances and reinforces the audience's response to these visual depictions of the suffering of Christ.

The third chapter focuses on dramatic presentations of suffering in the mystery plays, specifically the York and N- town cycles. Like the wall paintings, the comprehensive salvation history dramatized in the plays creates a broader theological context within which the specific scenes of suffering in the Passion and Crucifixion are embedded. Ross elucidates how the ideas about the human and divine nature of Christ, the theme of suffering as a demonstration of God's love for humanity, the responses of contrition and compassion that the suffering evokes from the audience become apparent through various devices of prefiguring, preparation, and identification with the dramatic actors such as the sorrowing Mary at the foot of the cross.

The last chapter examines various manifestations of how holy women utilized physical imitation of Christ's suffering to make "the female body . . . a theological trope for figuring Christ to the world" (p. 95). Ross studies the vitae of two early Christian saints, Margaret and Katherine of Alexandria. While their suffering in martyrdom parallels the suffering of Jesus during his passion, they do not directly imitate Christ. In contrast, the thirteenth-century German saint Elizabeth of Spalbeek represents an extreme example of direct and repeated imitation of Christ's suffering as she enacts it daily while observing the liturgical hours. Finally, the emphasis for Margery Kempe is less on the imitation of suffering and more on the public response of sorrow and prayer. Together, through physical or bodily means, the lives of these women become examples and reminders of the suffering of Christ and the sorrowful, prayerful response to the great sacrifice that represents God's love for humanity.

This book fully demonstrates the ubiquity of images of the suffering Jesus in late medieval England. Indeed, one strength of this book is the way it brings together these images of suffering in a variety of media. In this way, interconnections among them become more apparent and enhance their meaning. For example, even in the context of liturgical manuscripts and within the spatial fabric of churches, the fuller message of visual images that depict the suffering Jesus in illuminations and wall paintings becomes more clear when they can be interpreted by using verbal expressions in sermons, devotional literature, and the mystery plays. However, the crucial ideas of this book are not in documenting the imagery of the suffering Jesus in late medieval England. Rather, they are found in the two elements of the author's thesis: first, the images of suffering conveyed the theological concept that Christ's humanity and divinity combined to make his crucifixion the central expression of God's love for humanity, and second, the function of this imagery was to evoke a certain type of response in the audience. Therefore, a critical consideration is how convincingly the author presents and supports both parts of her thesis.

While the realism of physical detail that pervades the images of the suffering Jesus might suggest an excessive and almost exclusive concentration of Christ's humanity, Ross instead analyzes a variety of ways in which this imagery simultaneously affirms Christ's divinity. In some cases, the texts directly assert the belief as stated by Julian of Norwich "that he is god that sufferyd." More often, however, other means such as prefiguring and prophesying in the drama cycles and in the visual narratives of wall paintings show the intersection of the human and divine natures of Christ. Juxtaposition of images in the manuscripts, for example the Virgin and Child with the Crucifixion, also reinforce this theological concept. In a variety of contexts, Ross explains how the connection between the nourishing blood of Christ, which is vividly depicted in the verbal and visual media, and the eucharist make the crucifixion the primary symbol of God's love and mercy. Thus, on many interrelated levels, the humanity and divinity of Christ become interwoven so that they highlight the centrality of the crucifixion as an expression of God's love.

The second part of Ross's thesis that concerns the response to the images of suffering is even more complex because of the multi-level nature of the intended response and the difficulties in defining the audience. Ross identifies three elements or stages of response that the images of the suffering Jesus were intended to promote: evoking sorrow, prompting personal confession and repentance, and extending charity to the larger community. Ross thoroughly demonstrates how, in all media or manifestations, the vivacity of the imagery of suffering evokes sorrow. The intensity and physicality of both verbal and visual imagery is crucial in this process. Identification with sorrowing figures or actors such as the Virgin or Mary Magdalene in the paintings and plays and with the suffering and actions of holy women provides additional models of sorrowful response to the suffering Jesus.

Ross argues, however, that the feeling of sorrow must lead to the second stage, "curative sorrow," where a person recognizes their sin and becomes reconciled to God through the sacramental system of confession and penance. The evidence for the second stage is most convincing in the verbal media of sermons, devotional literature, and the plays. In particular, themes relating to the sacraments run through the drama cycles, and confession receives a prominent place. The connection between sorrow and the transformative act of confession and reconciliation is more subtle in the purely visual imagery of manuscript illuminations and wall paintings. In this case, the contextual association with liturgical time and space of the manuscripts and churches helps to lead the viewer to this second level of response.

The most problematic part of the response to the imagery of suffering is the third stage which Ross characterizes as the "social dimension" of response. At this level, the person was expected to extend a Christ-like compassion to others through acts of mercy. Again, the verbal media of sermons, devotional literature, and the plays are most persuasive. The sermons and other literature specifically point out that a person will be judged in the end on their performance of the seven acts of mercy. The plays depicting the life of Jesus also emphasize the acts of mercy and point to their connection with the Last Judgment. However, the link to this social extension of response is more tenuous in visual depictions of the suffering Jesus and the actions of the holy women. In the illuminations and wall paintings, the viewer must not only enter into liturgical time and space but also use these somewhat abstract dimensions to make the connection with the concept that they must translate compassion for the suffering Jesus into compassionate acts of mercy for others in order to be saved at the Last Judgment. While the holy women provide continuing exempla of Christ-like suffering, it is not clear how these actions serve as models for or lead to a response of compassion that embodies social acts of mercy.

A second major aspect of response concerns the audience who was supposed to respond. In this book, the concept of audience remains broad and vague. Some of the media such as plays, sermons, and wall paintings were intended for public audiences. Women such as Margery Kempe also gave public witness as a response to the suffering Jesus. However, the devotional literature had a more private and personal component, as did the Books of Hours. Some questions emerge. First who had access to these materials? Considering the illuminated manuscripts, for example, imagery from Books of Hours, Psalters, and Missals are used interchangeably. As liturgical books, the Missals were used primarily by the clergy. In addition, most of the images come from luxury manuscripts that only a small segment of the population could afford. Second, how widely disseminated were some of these sources? Ross does not provide background information about the number of surviving copies and extent of circulation of many of the works of spiritual guidance. Similarly the popularity of the vitae of saints Margaret and Katherine of Alexandria in late medieval England is not fully documented and explained. Because only one copy of a life of the thirteenth-century German saint Elizabeth of Spalbeek in Middle English is known to exist, the influence of her spiritual practices on late medieval English piety is unclear. Third, how did people receive and comprehend the message? What is the relationship between visual and verbal, oral and literate reception? In many cases, the concept of "aurality" and its social context that Joyce Coleman develops in connection with vernacular literature in her book, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France (Cambridge, 1996) could be applied to the reception of and response to the various media that convey the imagery of the suffering Jesus in late medieval England.

These questions about the audience indicate that The Grief of God is a very thought-provoking book. It provides an opportunity to study the imagery of the suffering Jesus in late medieval England across a range of media and in doing so, it enriches the interconnections among these images. Ross offers new insights about ways to interpret this imagery of suffering and about the function of the imagery and the response it was intended to evoke in English society in the later Middle Ages. By focusing on a central aspect of religious expression at this period, this book makes an important contribution to our historical understanding of religious beliefs and practices in the late medieval England.