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Sacred Bones & Blood

Holy Trinity Church, Tattershall, Lincolnshire, England
‘Saint Helena Presenting the Nails and Part of the True Cross to the Emperor Constantine’; stained glass window, 1482

Historians like the late Bob Scribner characterized the late Middle Ages as a period in which the “sacred gaze” became central to Christian practice. There was a huge increase in imagery of all kinds in churches and in manuscript and printed devotional literature, and at many shrines images rather than relics became the focus of devotion. Even more significantly, from the twelfth century onward, the elevation of the Host in the Mass—the raising of the communion wafer above the priest’s head—became increasingly the center of the celebration. At a time when most people received communion only once a year, gazing at the Host at the elevation replaced its consumption as the main form of lay communion. These moves, from relic to image, and from communion to disembodied gazing in the Mass, might both seem to tell against Bynum’s theory of an increasingly insistent materiality, so she devotes a chapter to exploring the place of the visual in late-medieval Christianity.

Here her central insistence is that medieval images were more like physical relics than modern portraits: “a medieval image is an object in a way that a Renaissance or modern painting is not.” Bynum emphasizes the plasticity of medieval images, their three-dimensionality, their use as containers for relics or the Blessed Sacrament, their decking with real cloth or real gold and jewels, all of which material “self-referentiality” drew attention to their corporeality. What was involved here was not realism or mimesis, she insists, but “disclosures of the sacred through material substance.” There are echoes here of the sharp distinction made by the art historian Hans Belting between the cult image and the work of art, and Bynum is right to insist that while images do increasingly replace relics as the focus of veneration in late-medieval piety, in the process those images often came to be treated as if they were themselves relics.

But at times Bynum’s argument, like Belting’s, seems weakened by being pushed too far. Her insistence on the plasticity and physicality of late-medieval carved winged altarpieces, for example, obscures the fact that most such altarpieces were in fact painted two-dimensional objects, which were certainly not intended to be touched. Her discussion of late-medieval depictions of the legendary Eucharistic miracle of the Mass of Pope Gregory—when the wounded Christ appeared before the congregation after the Pope had prayed for a sign to convince a nonbeliever of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist—emphasizes its physicality, but ignores the fact that many depictions of the Gregory Mass include a portrait of the donor precisely as spectator, suggesting that the notion of vision had more importance than plasticity or touch for those who commissioned or created such images. She is on stronger ground in her exploration of the paper and parchment images of the wounds of Christ that became so important in late-medieval piety, for such depictions were often explicitly intended to be touched, kissed, and carried around as a protective talisman, functioning as a powerful contact relic of Christ, rather than a mere pictorial reminder of his passion.

From images Bynum turns to other kinds of holy matter—relics, sacramentals (blessed objects), and the Eucharistic bread, both ordinary and miraculously bleeding. These sacred objects had all been important in early medieval Christianity, but after 1100, Bynum argues, take on a new vitality and fascination. She is particularly interesting on the changing form of reliquaries. In the early and high Middle Ages, relics were normally kept for veneration in closed containers—purses, caskets, coffins, or ornate boxes, the latter often gabled to resemble a church. Such reliquaries both concealed the relic itself and stressed “the collection or gathering together of their contents.”

These increasingly gave way to crystal monstrances, designed to expose the relic to view, and to “speaking reliquaries,” containers often grotesquely fashioned in the shape of a body part—head, foot, or arm—and often with a crystal window, designed to “flaunt the fragments of bone” that they contained. As the possession of relics became more important to churches and wealthy lay devotees, reliquaries displaying ranked rows of bone and other body fragments became increasingly common, their multiple open chambers similarly drawing attention to the fact of the dismemberment of the holy bodies from which the relics were derived, and thereby flaunting their materiality.

Bone fragments were relatively permanent, and were given even greater symbolic permanence by their being enshrined in gold and precious stones. But the period also saw attempts to give material permanence to visions and miraculous apparitions. Many medieval visionaries (often women) experienced visions of Christ in the Eucharist. The spread after 1200 of belief in miraculous bleeding hosts, whether preserved themselves, as at the German shrine of Wilsnack, or in the form of the blood-stains on the altar linen, as in the holy “corporal,” or altar cloth, of Bolsena in Orvieto Cathedral, offered a way of making such ephemeral and private experiences permanent and public.

This form of Christian materiality posed difficult questions, for Christ was risen, and for medieval theologians that meant that every fragment of his body—blood, fingernails, hair—was risen also and reunited to his glorified body in heaven. There could be no body relics of Christ. How then could his blood (or his foreskin, of which there was more than one alleged relic!) remain to be venerated on earth? Moreover, the doctrine of transubstantiation insisted on the intrinsic invisibility of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The substance of bread and wine, their inner reality, was replaced by Christ’s substance. But their accidental qualities—color, weight, texture, taste, smell, nutritive value—remained. Hence, if you could see it, by definition, it wasn’t Christ. Theologians and preachers from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Nicholas of Cusa labored to preserve the theological niceties while leaving room for well-intentioned pieties, which they themselves sometimes shared: in the process, they could seem to be attempting to square the circle.

There were similar intellectual agonies over sacramentals. Did blessed objects possess intrinsic power, or were they merely eloquent pointers to spiritual realities? Theologians dithered, and their conclusions could seem arbitrary or parti pris. Dominican theologians howled down the use by the Franciscan revivalist preacher Saint Bernardino of painted and gilded wooden tablets bearing the holy name of Jesus. When Bernardino held up such verbal icons, crowds knelt in adoration. Was this the idolatrous worship of a material object or the legitimate veneration of the Name, at which Saint Paul said every knee should bow? Bynum argues that these tensions were not and could not be resolved, and that late- medieval Christianity, both mainstream and deviant, was therefore caught in a radical ambivalence, living rather than resolving the paradoxes of materiality, “simultaneously embracing and rejecting…material religiosity.”

This insistence on paradox is a characteristic of Bynum’s work and of her rhetorical strategy as a historian, and it is often both refreshing and illuminating. Not for her tidy simplicities that bulldoze flat the intractable strangeness of the past. But her insistence on unresolvable ambivalences can be vexing too, by appearing to refuse necessary distinctions. Bynum wants to insist, for example, that all medieval Christians shared, whether they acknowledged it or not, a conception of matter as fluid, vital, animated. So even the heretical opponents of holy matter, on her account, demonstrate their immersion in these paradoxes by the very vehemence of their opposition. English Lollards, cooking their cabbage over a fire made out of a desecrated saint’s statue, were triumphantly demonstrating that the torched fragments were incapable of tears or protest. But, says Bynum, they simultaneously indicated the opposite, for they did so with “what feels to a modern reader like genuine surprise.”

Here, alas, Bynum parts company with the evidence. It is true that at least one Lollard claimed that the statues in the churches were infested with fallen angels, and so had an evil life within them. But the specific Lollard iconoclasm she alludes to is known to us only through the not very circumstantial testimony of hostile orthodox opponents. The accounts contain not the slightest indication that the heretical cabbage-cookers were surprised that the burned statue remained stubbornly inert. Quite the contrary: they burned it to show that they knew it was just a piece of a dead matter, and therefore unspiritual. Bynum reads the conflicted sensibility, and tacit Lollard acquiescence in a vitalist understanding of materiality, into rather than out of the contemporary account. The rhetoric of paradox has here carried her into pure speculation.

And rhetoric can color her arguments elsewhere. In her fascinating discussion of reliquaries, Bynum reflects on the meaning of body-part reliquaries in relation to medieval horror at decay and putrefaction. By clothing bone fragments in gold and jewels, she argues, their makers demonstrated that what they feared was not the division of bodies, but the fact that the dead rot. “Reliquaries,” she writes, “glorify and sublimate partition. What they deny is putrefaction.” But that claim would surely be just as plausible if it were reversed: body-part reliquaries do indeed sublimate the dismemberment of the saints by mimicking the dismembered fragment in precious and imperishable materials. But they also display or signal the presence of shards of bone, and therefore celebrate and sublimate the fact of death and decay exactly as they do that of dismemberment.

Dry bones, of course, make better and more permanent relics than soft tissue, and the bodies of dead saints, like those of dead kings and queens, were often eviscerated and boiled down to procure clean bones. But bones, especially fragmented bones, also functioned in medieval devotional language as vivid emblems of the grave, death, and decay, rather than of permanence or incorruption. In many a medieval crucifixion scene, the horror of death that Christ overcomes on the cross is symbolized by the bones of Adam, scattered at its base. Bynum’s neatly polarized rhetoric here closes down areas of ambiguity that the objects themselves leave open.

But these are minor reservations about an important and enjoyable book. Bynum’s study is the distillation of years of learning and accumulated insight, the work of a mature scholar at the height of her powers. It will delight, challenge, and energize her fellow historians. It will also inform, fascinate, and on occasion curdle the blood of the intelligent general reader. And books that achieve that enviable double objective are as rare and precious as the relics of the saints.

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