20.02.04 Twomey, The Sacred Space of the Virgin Mary in Medieval Hispanic Literature

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Mary Jane Kelley

The Medieval Review 20.02.04

Twomey, Lesley K. The Sacred Space of the Virgin Mary in Medieval Hispanic Literature: from Gonzalo de Berceo to Ambrosio Montesino. Tamesis. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2019. pp. xii, 484. ISBN: 978-1-85566-323-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mary Jane Kelley
Ohio University

In this substantial volume, Lesley Twomey has classified and described a remarkable number of images, metaphors, and prefigurations of the Virgin Mary that were in play during the Iberian Middle Ages. Twomey's study integrates images of the Virgin in medieval Iberian literature with a wide-ranging set of examples from sources not typically included in canonical definitions of Marian-themed literary expression. These include liturgical books, breviaries, hymns, theological treatises, the Bible, and biblical exegesis. Twomey also supports her arguments with reference to graphic images in miniatures, altar pieces, and architecture from early Christianity through the late Middle Ages. The study includes an introduction and nine chapters divided into four thematically focused sections. The book closes with an "Afterword," an appendix of selected "Peninsular Hymns to the Virgin," an extensive bibliography, and several indices: "Places as Marian Figures," "Objects and Containers," "Plants," "Medicinal Substances and Perfumes," and a "General Index." Nineteen illustrations depict artwork and other artifacts as well as places that shed light on themes explored in written texts.

The study begins with an Introduction that hints at a theoretical framework for the chapters that follow in its distinction between "space" and "place." However, readers might struggle to grasp the distinction, which seems to break down before the first chapter begins. The Introduction wanders through various phenomena loosely connected to the space metaphor and ends with the standard introductory summary of chapter content. The summary is hard to follow: Twomey organizes this section using chronological terminology, "first", "after this", "in the next chapter", etc. instead of referring to chapter numbers to clearly guide her reader. When "this chapter" and "these chapters" appear in the same paragraph, readers become confused (27). The summaries are uneven in length, ranging from four lines devoted to chapter 1 to twenty-four lines for chapter 2. A better source for a description of a given chapter's content is found in the "conclusion" with which each chapter closes, and which reiterates the content and speculates on the chapter's significance.

Chapter 1, "A Feast of Miracles: Foreign Places, Foreign Spaces in Hispanic Miracle Collections," constitutes the sole chapter in a section titled "Liturgy and Place." This chapter compares Iberian miracle collections to liturgical versions of miracles in the context of the story of Elsinus, abbot of Ramsey. The Elsinus miracle is of English origin, and it promoted celebration of the Conception feast. Twomey shows how elements of the plot and certain motifs in its telling spread broadly throughout medieval Europe, including to the Iberian Peninsula, as the feast of the Conception gained acceptance.

The second section, "Places of Growth and Irrigation," contains three chapters exploring gardens and fountains as metaphors for the Virgin. Gonzalo de Berceo's Milagros de Nuestra Señora, early theologians and biblical commentators, Hispanic liturgies, the Marqués de Santillana, bas relief in medieval churches, the biblical Song of Songs, the Romancero, Alfonso X's Cantigas, Riojan fields, and monastic patios are some of the sources Twomey mines for fountains, water, gardens, and flora. The three chapters demonstrate the subtle intricacies of such imagery as applied to the Virgin in Marian literature.

"Places of Entry and Exit" offers three chapters that examine gates, doors, temple interiors vs. exteriors, and Mary's womb. The structure of Chapter 5, the first in this section, illustrates well Twomey's typical technique. The title of the chapter refers to "Liminal Spaces in Gonzalo de Berceo's Marian Poetry," but the focus is actually on how descriptions of doors, keys, entering, and exiting from many other sources can illuminate the meaning of a few selected lines from Berceo. After quoting two coplas from Berceo, one from the Introduction to the Milagros de Nuestra Señora, the other from the Loores, Twomey launches a detailed exploration of Marian imagery in Ezekiel's biblical prophecy, the Valencian writer Miquel Pereç, Juan del Encina, Joan Roís de Corella, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, Abbot Suger, and the door to the church of Santa Maria de Ripoll. These sources enlighten the reader as to the complexity of Berceo's references in those two stanzas quoted at the outset.

The final section, encompassing Chapters 8 and 9, treats "Spaces of Protection" in another wide array of literary, theological, and artistic sources. The Virgin as castle, in Chapter 8, implies power and authority, and the healing perfumes of Mary's body, more specifically her womb, explored in Chapter 9, illuminate yet again how "poets draw on a web of absorbed knowledge shared by themselves and their audience" in order to create their art and achieve their artistic intention (376).

The "Afterword" begins with a one-page summary all of the places and spaces treated in the previous chapters. Twomey then makes an odd transition to discuss "objectification theory," appropriate, in her opinion, because "the figures of the Virgin from the Old Testament...are far removed from modern sensibilities as ways of characterizing a woman" due to the fact that "they objectify the Virgin" (378). However, this "objectification" is not the sexist male gaze that feminist literary theory reacts against, but instead merely the accumulation in the Middle Ages of the series of figures for the Virgin related to place and space listed in Twomey's book. The logic takes another unexpected twist when Twomey invokes Jacques Derrida because, as object, the Virgin becomes the other, and the multiplicity of figures representing her means that, "Jacques Derrida's delineation of the other seems to have something to say about the Virgin, veiled at the same time by each of the figures she becomes: 'The other is what is never inventible. The call of the other is a call to come, and that happens only in multiple voices'" (379). Twomey's readers may find these late-in-the-game references to theory a forced attempt at contemporary relevance. They contribute little to the project at hand, which aims to contextualize depictions of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages and not in reference to twentieth- and twenty-first-century concepts of objectification and othering.

The study's strong suit is the broadly-based comparative analysis of themes, symbols, and imagery associated with the Virgin Mary in a wide range of sources that enriches our understanding of standard poetic representations. Twomey's range expands our canonical concept of medieval literature and makes clear the importance of reading the literature that we know from critical editions in a much wider context of writing from the Middle Ages. The book synthesizes an impressive amount of data. Twomey studied un-edited manuscripts as well as published primary and secondary sources in Latin and several Romance languages located throughout Spain in church archives and public and monastic libraries. Her command of previous research and source material is reflected in the detailed footnotes, which average approximately one third of each page.

The Sacred Space of the Virgin Mary in Medieval Hispanic Literature will be of most use as a research tool for scholars studying medieval Marian literature. The index guides the reader directly to specific examples of metaphors, images, and figurae of the Virgin, and the comparative discussion of those examples illustrates the subtle differences and rich ensemble. So, for example, consulting Twomey's index for metaphors of the Virgin as fountain or font yields 64 entries, which undoubtedly cover the spectrum of possible implications. The footnotes and bibliography point scholars towards additional reading.

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