All posts tagged: middle ages

The Eschatological Marian Image

In sharp contrast to the multiple-viewpoint technique and elongated figures dominating the old, Byzantine-influenced paintings, the new Western 15th century religious images are distinguished above all by an “increasing realism” embedding conspicuous moments in biblical narrative within landscapes or interiors of great spatial and symbolic complexity. Moreover, the increased availability of panel paintings and, by the mid-15th-century, woodcuts, naturally facilitates their acquisition as quasi-spiritual tokens for the purpose of private devotion. Hans Belting writes: “Individual citizens did not want an image different from the public one so much as they needed one that would belong to them personally. They expected the image to speak to them in person.” Jeffrey Hamburger notes that the transition from aniconic to an image-based vision is characterized by “the increasingly important role of corporeal imagery in spiritual life.” In this development, spanning from the late 13th through the 15th century, “the process of vision is detached from the process of reading [Scripture].” Less the focus of sustained exegesis or affective vision than a deposit of possible allusions and increasingly fungible …

Medieval Rites and Contemporary Dying

Medieval Rites The scribes lived over 700 years ago, but their documents give us insight into the monastery’s practices when a brother became seriously ill: The leader of the community, the prior, came to the brother’s sickbed to hear his confession. The others gathered and processed to the infirmary with oil for anointing, incense, the communion host, a cross, and candles. They assembled in the room, singing antiphons and psalms as their sick brother was anointed. The gathered brothers sang songs of petition, using words from the Gospels: “Lord, come down to heal my son before he dies,” and songs of hope: “Jesus said to him, Go, your son lives.”[1] After the anointing, the brothers arranged a schedule so that at least one person remained always at his bedside. Prayers were said for him at the daily public Mass. If the brother did not regain strength, but instead seemed to be nearing the end of his life, the entire community gathered again. In their brother’s presence, they sang a litany, naming members of the heavenly …

We Have Never Been Medieval

In the early 1990’s the French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour published a remarkable, and scandalous, essay, in which he argued that society had never been modern.[1] According to Latour, modernity has never been able to fully achieve its desired goal of an objective understanding of Nature, epitomized in scientific studies, bracketed off from an understanding of society, especially in politics. Modern people always take recourse to hybrids or “quasi-objects” that bridge this desired divide in order to make the world intelligible and to make society possible. The findings of scientific inquiry are never as objective and certain as they claim or hope to be, nor are political and economic considerations ever divorced from our understanding of the natural world and the way the natural environment acts upon humanity. In the end René Descartes and his intellectual descendants were never able to truly have an objective mastery of Nature. One consequence of Latour’s argument is that if society has never truly achieved the idealized hope of being modern so too has humanity never truly …

The Dramatic Double Vision of the Catholic Imagination

The debates of our ancient faith keep returning in surprising ways. The issue is not so much a return of the repressed, but the constitutive presence of the theological in our post-Christian midst. According to Natalie Carnes, the recent trend of toppling Confederate statues has connections with the theological imagination(s) of the ancient Christian faith.[1] Her essay, “Breaking the Power of Monuments,” rewinds to the historical moment that produced the Byzantine iconographic conventions mentioned in my initial piece on the Catholic imagination. Carnes’s explanation of the immense power of images to create social relations deserves an extended quotation: The public monument had a definitive moment in Byzantium, where the ubiquitous images of the emperor witnessed the extent of his political power. Thanks to images, the emperor could be present even where he was absent. So closely was the presence of the emperor identified with his image that to honor the image was to honor the emperor himself. Early Christians like fourth-century bishop Basil of Caesarea used this image logic to explain Christ’s relationship to the …