The Medieval Review 17.06.02


Laugerud, Henning, Salvador Ryan, and Laura Katrine Skinnebach, eds. The Materiality of Devotion in Late Medieval Northern Europe: Images, objects and practices. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016. pp. ix, 191. €29.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-84682-503-3 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Jim Bugslag
University of Manitoba
James.Bugslag@umanitoba.ca

Materiality has become a field of growing interest in the study of late medieval devotion, and the eight studies published here exemplify the breadth of approaches to which it has led. While the subtitle of this volume promises "images, objects, practices," broader concerns involving the epistemological role of the senses and the instrumentality of affective response play a much more significant role. Thus, the substance of the book offers considerable interest over a wide spectrum of scholarly concerns. What is more, it makes available to an English-speaking audience approaches to the study of materiality from a broad spectrum of non-English-language scholarship: four of the contributors are based in Belgium, two in Denmark, and one each in Germany, Norway and Ireland. It thus offers a smörgåsbord of stimulating new perspectives across an interdisciplinary range of approaches.

The eight studies gathered together here began as papers presented at a five-day workshop held in October 2009, sponsored by the European Network on the Instruments of Devotion (ENID), an international research network based at the University of Bergen in Norway, which "focuses on the instrumentality of Christian piety and devotional practices, from fourteenth century 'Devotio Moderna' to Vatican II in the twentieth century" (website: http://enid.uib.no/). Earlier ENID-sponsored workshops resulted in similar publications: Henning Laugerud and Laura Skinnebach, eds, Instruments of Devotion: The Practices and Objects of Religious Piety from the Late Middle Ages to the 20th Century (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2007) and Henning Laugerud and Salvador Ryan, eds, Devotional Cultures of European Christianity, 1790-1960 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012). They were also largely responsible for an issue of the Norwegian journal Kunst og Kultur, vol. 3 (2016) on the theme of Instrumentality (with some contributions in English). The present publication was launched at their latest conference in March 2016 on "The Senses in Medieval and Renaissance Europe: Sight and Visual Perception."

The first chapter, by Berndt Hamm, "Types of grace mediality in the late Middle Ages," explores the intensification and immediacy which in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries came to characterize representations of the sanctifying, saving or redeeming--what he calls "proximate grace"--through new forms of mediality. Although he conceives the concept of mediality in very broad terms, his analyses focus principally on Christological forms. Hamm establishes a typology of grace and salvation mediality which ranges from the direct and basic mediality of Christ's incarnation and suffering (as well as that of Mary, the saints, and angels, which are not treated here), through "participation mediality" by which Christ's mediality is subjectively appropriated, e.g. by relics and indulgences (such indulgenced images as the Veronica and the Man of Sorrows are specifically highlighted), to "facilitating or auxiliary mediality." In this third type of grace mediality, affective conceptions of Christ are mediated through a broad range of meditation practices and symbols, many of them suggested by devotional literature, such as the Christ Child's nudity, Christ's side wound or the disembodied five wounds. An engraving by Master E. S., for example, includes an image of the Christ Child in a heart accompanying an inscription encouraging readers to hold Jesus in their hearts, both mediating the affective communication of grace through a meditative process of interiorization. Reference is also made to the late fifteenth-century devotional drawings of comparable imagery by the nuns of Eichstätt that Jeffrey Hamburger brought to scholarly attention. The "redeeming passion and birth of Christ" are thus made internally present "in the realm of meditational contact, integrating a contemplative internalization of the images by means of imagination" (19). A remarkably broad range of activities is also characterized as "facilitating mediality" involving sensory perceptibility, including on the one hand, song, processions and local pilgrimage, and on the other, "mystical or near-mystical demands for a greater immediate intimacy with God" (31-32), yet rather curiously stays at the level of devotional practice with little reference to thaumaturgical agency.

The next three chapters all deal with mysticism, largely female mysticism. Rob Faesen re-interprets two visions of the thirteenth-century Brabantine mystic, Hadewijch, which he conceives as a single vision (visions 7 and 8). In this highly somatic vision, the humanity and embodiment of both Hadewijch and Christ were both important in her description of union "without difference": participation in the life of the Trinity consists for her in the ultimate consciousness of "suffering-in-love" as exemplified by Christ's passion, and Faesen re-interprets Vision 7 as an embrace, not of physical pleasure, but of Christ impressing his suffering upon her "entirely as he experienced it" (42), which he relates to contemporary accounts of the receiving of stigmata. Faesen analyses the response she is given to her desire for union in three steps, which resemble Hamm's typology: "first she reflects on the Incarnation...Second, she reflects on the Sacrament...Third, she reflects on mutual indwelling" (48). Henning Laugerud hones in on the second of these steps, investigating the relationships between visions, images and memory in relation to several female mystics, including Hadewijch, the thirteenth-century visionary nuns of Helfta, and Julian of Norwich. Exterior physical and interior mental images, he contends, are related through memory, showing how both images and experience of liturgy play important roles in visions, sometimes forming part of the visionary experience itself, thus serving the double role of "a preparative instrumental stimulus for the vision and the subject of the vision" (54). Salvador Ryan expands some of the same themes beyond mystical experience into the broader social realm of affective piety. Lamenting the loss of so much physical and textual evidence for late medieval devotion in Ireland, he performs a sort of textual archaeology to extract evidence that late medieval devotional texts both circulated in Ireland during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and profoundly influenced the religious verse of Ireland's hereditary caste of lay, bardic poets. He focuses on mystical themes which express "blood piety" with respect to Christ's Passion with particular attention on Christ's side wound, which evoked the "highly sensualized imagery of carnal love" (71), including the sexualized and gender-transgressive comparison of "vulnus" and "vulva" to express both erotic and maternal affective identity with Christ's love.

With the contribution of Laura Katrine Skinnebach, there is a shift of emphasis towards sensory engagement with material objects and practices of the body. Through analogy with the Transfiguration of Christ, she investigates the ways that the practices of late medieval devotion sought an experience of the presence of God through a "devout sensorium," by which she means "the combination of inner and outer senses programmed to perceive the holy" (92). Devotional attitudes were propagated which sought to regulate the sensorium, guarding against negative stimuli and paying attention to devout actions, objects and images that "could operate as catalysts that actuated the capacity of the body and mind to conform to a devotional ideal" (93), thus transfiguring the soul. She proposes the Vera Icon as a "visual prototype of bodily transfiguration" (94) and relates this to the 14th-century mystic Henry Suso engraving the IHS monogram above his heart, impressing the name of God on his body as Christ's visage was impressed on the cloth. Images of the Mass of St Gregory are emblematic of the potential for the experience of objects to transform as a result of devotionally directed divine intervention. She proposes a multi-sensory dimension to the sensorium: "Christ could be received through different senses and by combining different modes of perception that were fundamentally translatable" (98) and considers practices in which material is transformed (e.g. wax to candle), thus performing a thaumaturgically instrumental perceptual tranfiguration.

There is a distinct shift of focus with the offering of Soetkin Vanhauwaert and Georg Geml, who present a case-study of the Johannesschüssel, the image of the decapitated head of St John the Baptist on a platter, which was widespread through northern Europe from the late Middle Ages. Although these works also functioned as devotional objects and props for religious drama, this study is principally concerned with their function as reliquaries and investigates the varied materials from which these works were made, from precious metalwork to mere wood or stone, in relation to the reliquary's function of mediating between relics per se and the faithful. Quite apart from the fact that not all Johannesschüssel functioned as reliquaries, the authors' characterization of them as "religiously worthless reliquaries" (112) does not seem to take seriously enough the thaumaturgical agency of either materials or images during the late Middle Ages.

Barbara Baert takes a far more theoretical approach to specifically pictorial imagery with an investigation into fifteenth-century paintings of the Annunciation, principally one by Filippo Lippi in the National Gallery, London (misidentified as an earlier version by Filippo in the Frick Collection) and one by Gentile da Fabriano in a private collection; she also interprets Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto as an Annunciation. The iconography of these works is analysed from the standpoint of the senses by postulating that the translation of a text into an image creates a third parameter--the "interspace"--in which "another dimension begins to operate that transforms the word into a sensual world where other laws concerning truth, reality and imagination hold sway" (122). She postulates a multi-sensory engagement with such works through a performative gaze that brings the full sensorium into play. Drawing on a wide range of theory, from visual culture (W. J. T. Michell, Georges Didi-Huberman), to psychoanalysis (Ernest Jones), to literary theory (Roland Barthes), visualizations of the mystery of Mary's virginal conception are reinterpreted in highly sensual terms, in which the visual opens up synergistically to stimulate the other senses. Thus, she has an "epistemological detour" (133) on odour, which also brings taste and tactility into play. This approach offers some stimulating new perspectives on late medieval devotional works, yet I am left wondering whether such an extreme emphasis on the senses does not perhaps result in too great an emphasis on materiality. The contemporary cultural context in which this analysis is being made has gone far past the late Middle Ages in its engagement with materiality, at the same time that its spiritual component has dessicated, and when Baert interprets, for example, the spiritual "movement" of the dove of the Holy Spirit towards Mary's womb in Filippo Lippi's Annunciation, in a highly concrete manner, as "wind," her reading seems to me more twenty-first-century than fifteenth. And in the same way, is her emphasis on the erotic and the genital in these images of incarnation more a function of fifteenth-century scopic regimes and attitudes towards the body or those of contemporary scholars? Her interpretive approach, in any case, raises some stimulating new questions about the role and function of representations in late medieval devotional conceptions and practice.

The last chapter, "Prostheses of pious perception: on the instrumentalization and mediation of the medieval sensorium," by Hans Henrik Lohfert Jørgensen, offers a much broader perspective on the materials of late medieval devotion which takes a very different theoretical direction. Following in the direction of such diverse media theorists as Marx Wartofsky, Johan Huizinga, Norbert Elias, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio, W. J. T. Mitchell, and Caroline Jones, Jørgensen makes a strong case for instruments not just of devotion, but more generally of belief, sensation, and perception, which are often positioned as peripheral to direct and immediate religious experience, forming a necessary means of mediation. He attempts "an instrumental reconciliation and dissolution of these assumed opposites" (147), opposing the idealistic view that the mediacy of instruments--prosthetic extensions of the senses--tend "to be apprehended as the false snake intervening in a paradise of immediate and authentic contact with Self and Other" (147). Instead, he proposes that "instrumentalization may indeed be constitutive of human religious conception as well as human sensory perception, both mutually underpinning each other within a given world-view" (151). To this end, he makes the very general claim that "the world of man [sic], as conceived and perceived, is always already mediatized and only accessible through some act of mediation" (151). Although this "fundamental premise"' is here stated in a more totalizing context than Jørgensen has demonstrated, it neverthelesss forms a useful bridge between late medieval devotion and its contemporary interpreters. Jørgensen's thrust is theoretical, but he suggests application for his approach through a variety of practices which each in their own ways seek "the fervent intensity of sensory solicitations" (153). His two primary examples are the rosary and the pilgrimage shrine of St Nicholas at Bari. Use of the rosary is characterized as "a multisensory meditation, a haptic mode of prayer" (154) which engages a range of senses, making the rosary "a practical prosthesis as well as a prosthetized practice" (156). At pilgrimage sites, in general, "the physical spectacle of pilgrimage effected and enacted pilgrim perception" (157). Both the more private rosary devotion and the more social phenomenon of pilgrimage, he avers, cultivate and configure the sensorium in concrete, physical terms. Perhaps it is beyond his admittedly wide terms of reference, but private devotional practices such as the rosary surely provide radically different conditions of instrumentality from the group dynamics of pilgrimage or eucharistic devotion. And if "instrumental enactments of sensory experience" (161) structure contexts of devotion--thus, as he says, mediatizing the senses--one wonders how this plays out on a broader social context than that of devotion. One might even question how totalizing the mediation of the sensorium is: in terms of the "manna" emanating from the tomb of St Nicholas at Bari, for example, its sensory qualities are perhaps overemphasized as part of its fundamental instrumentality: was it really "a taste of the saint" (160) that pilgrims were primarily after? Despite such quibbles, Jørgensen's approach provides a stimulating theoretical perspective on a wide range of late medieval devotional practices, contexts and objects.

If there is an overarching theme to these studies, it is the concept of the sensorium, the culturally conditioned integration of senses and their objects, which was first brought to analytical prominence by Marshall McLuhan, but which has been marshalled by ENID towards application specifically in late medieval devotion. Its pliability to this end is exemplified by the range of uses it has been put to in these studies. The book is well illustrated with black-and-white photographs integrated with the text and a section of colour plates, and there is a full bibliography and index.



Copyright (c) 2017 Jim Bugslag



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