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21.08.02 Bynum, Dissimilar Similitudes

The Medieval Review

21.08.02 Bynum, Dissimilar Similitudes


Caroline Walker Bynum makes the case, in Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional Objects in Late Medieval Europe, that we should concentrate on the "thingness" of objects in order to see their true natures. We need, she says, to get beyond thinking of objects of devotion from the late European Middle Ages in contexts that make us mistake their real meaning. In order to do this, we need to try to understand how they were used. Bynum illustrates this idea by referring to an exhibit held at the Detroit Museum in 1960 that described a fifteenth-century cradle as furniture. Bynum explains that this sort of object needs to be understood from a performative point of view. By concentrating on the practice of the women like the Beguines who dressed Christ figures in cribs like the one in the Detroit exhibition we are able to understand the complex nature of this object. He was both divine and human. The crib and the figures in it point to a more complex nature than that of a piece of furniture. The performative aspect of objects such as this crib, which was too often ignored in earlier scholarship, allows use to understand how things such as the crib are not mere pieces of furniture.

The example of this crib illustrates how the nuances of an object's meaning are revealed through its being understood as part of a practice. Dressing the Christ figure in the crib shows how the object could be understood as both divine and human, and literal and analogical. The handling of the Christ child in the crib brings into focus the dual nature of any object of devotion--it was human and divine and played on both earthly and heavenly registers. Bynum studies the same kind of ambiguity in relation to crowns that nuns at a convent in Wienhausen in Germany made for statues of the Virgin Mary. The crowns function on both literal and allegorical levels. The nuns' awareness of the distance between heaven and earth meant that the crown maintained the same sort of ambiguity that the Beguine cribs had. They were signs of how humans were both like and different from the divine. The practice of dressing the Christ child figure and the use of the crowns on the statues of the Virgin Mary are what reveal their true meaning.

One of the most important issues in the book regards the distinction between relic and image. If the latter were dependent on a supposed likeness with a divine referent, the former needed to be understood very differently. Relics were the thing itself and did not need to be considered as like or unlike anything else. The distinction between relics and images is crucial to Bynum's overall argument. Too often, as she states, modern scholars do not grasp how certain objects were not supposed to be understood as like something else, but were, in fact the thing itself.

In this regard, she quotes David Freedberg who explained that images were not consecrated, whereas objects such as altar vessels, cemeteries, and oil, water, bread and wine used in the sacraments were. The problem is that often we do not grasp the importance of this distinction. The idea is that what seems an image might not necessarily be one. When dealing with relics, for instance, it is important t to understand that they do not function as images do. Where images might depict something, the relic represents that thing itself, in the sense that it makes it present again.

To help illustrate this point, Bynum refers to Johannes Bremer, a fifteenth-century German Franciscan, who describes items such as the clothing of Christ, the cross and the instruments of the passion as precious relics. As Bynum points out, none of the things Bremer lists are images: they are all relics that re-present the humanity of Christ rather than depict him or resemble him in some way. Bynum deepens her argument by explaining that it is not necessarily true as some cognitive scientists, anthropologists, and art historians have said that an anthropomorphic focus on the human body as a locus of the divine is a necessary stage in the evolution of religions. She cites examples from Hinduism and the Eucharistic host to counter such conclusions. These examples show that a depiction of the human body is not necessary for devout individual to attain salvation or knowledge of the divine. The relic, which is the thing itself, rather than an image of a divine figure is the more vital link between heaven and earth.

The distinction between relic and image is central to some of the most crucial arguments Bynum develops. Bynum makes the case, for example, that medieval objects of devotion cannot simply be digitized and/or made parts of a narrative in modern museum exhibits. She singles out paintings of host desecration that are part of an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. At the moment, these paintings are only presented as digitized images, or referred to as parts of historicizing narratives. The author makes the case that the modern museum-goer needs to see these objects since they are not simply images in a modern sense. Medieval images are objects in a way that Renaissance or modern artworks are not. Because of the medieval image's near iconic nature, we need to confront these objects themselves.

In one of the most telling developments of her argument concerning the need to understand how an object of devotion functions within a context of social practice, Bynum compares what at first seem two similar objects of devotion in Hindu and Christian religious traditions. Alluding to Marc Bloch's call for a comparative history in 1928, Bynum compares a Hindu religious procession to Christian processions. She begins by explaining that the Durga Puja processions (the term puja means "the ritual of worship") in India would seem to offer a promising parallel to the processions of statues of the Virgin Mary often found in Christian countries. In both Hindu and Christian practices, statues of female deities are processed through the streets in acts of public devotion. One major difference, nonetheless, Bynum notes, concerns the end of the procession. At the end of these Christian processions, the statues of the Virgin Mary are returned to their churches. At the end of the Hindu processions, the statue of Durga Puja is immersed in the sacred water of the river Ganga. The statue falls apart and is transformed back into a more elemental state in the water of the river. This is, Bynum explains, typical of the transformational status of Hindu gods.

Bynum uses this example to illustrate the problem with what she calls "pseudomorphism" which would see likeness where in fact there is none. In this case, the comparison of the processions devoted to the Virgin Mary and the Durga Puja processions in India is based on the misleading superficial resemblance of the statues involved in the processions. A better comparison would be between these images of transformative gods and the Christian Eucharistic communion wafer. Although the communion wafer might not bear the same sort of visual resemblance with the Durga Puja procession as do the processions of the Virgin Mary, it does share the same kind of transformative function. Simply because things might look alike does not mean that they are actually alike. It is only by working through that surface-level resemblance and revealing how these objects are used that we can understand their true meaning.

The author uses a talk she gave at a symposium on "xenophilia," or the love of the other, as the basis of the final chapter of the book, which also serves as its conclusion. Bynum explores how images of Christ's footprints from European Middle Ages function as proof of both absence and presence. By looking at how characters in depictions of Christ's ascension looked at the figure of the ascendant Christ, the author shows how these images bear witness to the gap between the present and the absent. She uses this image finally as a kind of conclusion to the book: we as scholars, she says, look at the gap between cultures. Scholars need to make sure that they understand how the objects they study were used if they are to understand the true nature of the gap between now and then, and between different cultures. In this way, we will avoid misunderstanding the meaning of objects and mistake the cribs described in chapter one, for example, simply as pieces of furniture.

Dissimilar Similitudes is a fascinating study of devotional objects in the late European Middle Ages by a remarkable historian at the top of her game. The theoretical breadth of the study is brilliantly backed up with myriad examples that the author lines up almost like a prosecutor might in a court case to prove to a jury the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a crime. In this instance, Bynum does a very good job of prosecuting the case that objects of devotion from the late Middle Ages need to be understood in all their singular beauty. The prime suspects in the case that Bynum brings are those scholars who have lost sight of the thingness of the devotional objects.

Scholars need finally to understand not only what objects looked like, but also how they were used. Morphological resemblance can lead scholars astray and Bynum's point that we need to understand the singularity of the objects we study in their singularity is well taken. This book also will be of interest to historians, art historians, and even literary scholars, especially those interested in how language can also have an equivocal nature, much like many of the objects studied here. All in all, Bynum's book is like the work of a deft restorer who carefully wipes awaythe varnish of an earlier, and perhaps overly invasive restoration, and allows us to see objects from the late Middle Ages in fresh and sometimes unexpected ways.