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Ritual and Spectacle

Ritual and Spectacle



Art and Spectacle. During the late Middle Ages, urban ceremonies impressed public events upon the collective memory of the inhabitants of a city. They included processions, royal visits, plays, liturgical celebrations, tournaments, and coronations. Rituals marking pivotal events in the life cycle such as births, marriages, or death bridged the domains of public and private life. These activities defined urban relations, creating social solidarity by reinforcing hierarchical order through gender and social norms. They also often created tensions, making public those who were excluded based upon issues of class, gender, age, or noncitizenship. Rituals modeled behavior, just as courtesy books did, in outlining proper behavior at a meal. During the royal entry of a king into a city the ritual procession mirrored his place in society as he saw it. The plays and art that the city government and social institutions devised, however, could conflict with this representation. Ceremonies required correct performance for ritual efficacy, but control of its representations was difficult to manage and could inflame social discord.

Church Festivals. By the fourteenth century public interest in urban events and participation in such spectacles expanded. Their initiators recognized the power, prestige, and economic benefits generated for the city through the employment of the arts, liturgies, and plays in public spectacles. One early example was the feast of Corpus Christi. Pope Urban IV authorized its addition to the church calendar in the thirteenth century. Juliana of Liege promoted this feast day as a result of her visions of the Eucharist, the bread and wine representing Christ's body and blood in the ceremony of the Catholic Mass. During this ceremony these material forms are consecrated, miraculously transubstantiated into Christ's body and blood, and consumed by the congregation. The sight of the consecrated host held up by the priest became a focal point of adoration. Public processions during this celebration (about 21 May to 24 June) grew into elaborate public spectacles and dramatic performances extending over several days. Symbols of power and well-being were created through the public carrying of the host under a canopy. Members of the clergy, craft guilds, and lay confraternities walked in procession together with reliquaries and banners. Figures clothed in costumes, placed before painted scenery on wagons, represented religious stories. The itineraries of these processions reflected spheres of influence, such as powerful family seats or village boundaries. Cycles of plays were frequently performed during this feast in England. Guild and confraternity members took part as actors in plays based upon biblical stories and the lives of the saints. These dramas assisted in the transformation of church ritual from its focus on the mystical body of Christ to public vernacular narratives that clarified the events of his life. The greater role of magistrates and guilds in organizing such events linked secular and sacred life.

A Belgian Procession. Festival church processions, known as ommegangen in northern Europe, conflated urban spectacle and religious ritual. The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Diirer recorded one such event held at Antwerp on 19 August 1520. His journal entry described the sights, sounds, and artistic creations that accompanied the Assumption of the Virgin procession from the Church of our Lady, as members of the church chapter carried statues of the Virgin Mary and Lord Jesus through the town. As an artist he focused upon beautifully executed biblical scenes, and the themes, costumes, and wagons used for the spectacle. Durer affirmed the key status given to the guilds of goldsmiths, painters, and sculptors by noting their prominent place in the processional order. Dürer's comment that he could not mention all that he saw indicates how stimulated he was by the spectacle.

Triumphal Entries. Secular rulers used the symbolic value of saints’ feast days in their own processions. In the following example, however, the city of Ghent borrowed these strategies from triumphal entry celebrations. The inhabitants were anxious to win political concessions from Philip the Good, who had recently defeated the city in military engagement. On 23 April 1458, St. George's Day, Philip entered the city. The extensive four-hour program of tableaux vivant (silent plays) was devised to gradually induce his favor as he moved from site to site, rather like a chess piece. Painted and woven decorations for such entries were temporary and often did not survive, but in this instance the city based one of their tableaux vivant on an extant painting still located in the Church of St. Jan at Ghent. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432) was an altarpiece created by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck as a private commission for a local family chapel altar. The painted interior of the altarpiece represents a model of an earthly and heavenly paradise with images of God the Father, Christ, and Mary above, and the mystic lamb (Christ) below. The lamb is surrounded by figures representing different social classes, including Christian knights and just judges. By using this image the city suggested a new golden age would occur under the duke's realm. Each knight represented virtues the duke admired and his own role as a defender of the faith. Although their efforts were not successful in thawing the duke's anger, their program became a model for most triumphal entries thereafter. The pageant represents an unusual documentation of how existing art could be used for civic political agendas.

Urban Celebrations. Civic festivals in urban cultures, such as in Florence, developed strong associations with local history. The feast day of San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist) on 24 June was gradually transformed into a communal celebration of the republican government. Their rituals were derived from feudal practices and included jousts, dances, and horse races over a period of days. Male brigades participated in competitive equestrian races, known as armeggene, honoring their families and the city government that relied on them. Feudal displays demonstrated the family's wealth and encouraged social alliances and rivalries. Bartolomeo Benci and his four hundred supporters, for example, processed to the home of Marietta degli Strozzi, pulling a contraption twenty yards tall showing the triumph of love under the Benci and Strozzi coats of arms. A more generalized display of power and wealth occurred when the merchants were required to publicly display their priceless things in honor of the saint. Male representatives from each Florentine family were expected to participate in ritual processions honoring the saint. The city streets were filled with people dressed in their fineries. Confraternities (lay organizations of secular men) celebrated the survival of the city from military threat or its peaceful state by making music and dressing as angels as they marched in procession. Feast days such as San Giovanni enabled the government to order city life and maintain its continuity in ritual.

Print and Pageantry. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I used the symbolic language of pageantry to immortalize his family and assure the lasting fame of his deeds. Under his instructions, court advisers devised programs for two large series of woodcut prints. He intended to distribute them to members of the urban educated elite. The Arch of Honor (circa 1515) woodcut series was designed by Jörg Kölderer and produced at Nuremberg in Albrecht Diirer's workshop. This paper pageant depicted a large triumphal arch based upon Roman architecture, although it was never actually built. Diirer devised ornamentation for it using the symbolic language of Horus Apollo's Greek text (fifth century B.C.E.), translated by the artist's humanist friend Willibald Pirkheimer. Both of them worked on a second project, a Great Triumphal Chariot, for a woodcut triumphal procession series that was never completed. Pirkheimer's letter and Dürer's presentation drawing outlining their plans suggest that they relied on the medieval literary genre known as the Mirror for Princes that described the ideal virtues of a ruler. Maximilian's death prevented the completion of the second project, but the Arch of Honor was produced and distributed by his grandson Archduke Ferdinand.


Item: On the Sunday after Our Lady's Assumption [August 19 1520] I saw the Great Procession from the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, when the whole town of every craft was assembled, each dressed in his best clothes according to his rank. And all the ranks and guilds had their signs, by which they might be known. In the intervals great costly pole-candles were carried, and their long, old Prankish silver trumpets. There were also in the German fashion many pipers and drummers. All the instruments were loudly and noisily blown and beaten.

I saw the Procession pass along the street, the people being arranged in rows, each man some distance from his neighbor, but the rows close behind one another. There were the goldsmiths, the masons, the painters, the embroiderers, the sculptors, the joiners, the carpenters, the sailors, the fishermen, the butchers, the leatherers, the clothmakers, the bakers, the tailors, the shoemakers—indeed, workmen of all kinds, and many craftsmen and dealers who work for their living. Also the shopkeepers and merchants, and their assistants of all kinds were there. After these came the shooters with guns, bows, and crossbows, and the horsemen and footsoldiers also. Then followed the Watch of the Lord Magistrates. Then came a fine troop all in red, nobly and splendidly dressed. Before them, however, went all the religious orders and the members of some Foundations very devoutly, all in their different robes. A very large company of widows also took part in this procession. They support themselves with their own hands and observe a special rule. They were dressed all from head to foot in white linen garments, made especially for the occasion, very touching to see. Among them I saw some very stately persons. Last of all there came the Chapter of Our Lady's Church with all their clergy, scholars, and treasurers. Twenty persons carried the Virgin Mary with the Lord Jesus, adorned in the costliest manner to the honor of the Lord God. In this procession many delightful things were shown, most splendidly got up. Wagons were drawn along deco-rated like ships and other traveling stages. Behind them came the company of Prophets in their order, and scenes from the New Testament, such as the Annunciation and the Three Holy Kings on big camels and other rare animals, very well arranged. Also how Our Lady fled to Egypt—very devout, and many other things, which for shortness I omit. At the ends came a great Dragon with St. Margaret and her maidens led by a girdle; she was especially beautiful. Behind her came St. George with his squires, a very handsome knight in armor. In this host also rode boys and maidens most finely and splendidly dressed in the costumes of many lands, representing various saints. From beginning to end the Procession lasted more than two hours before it was gone past our house. And so many things were there that I could never write them all in a book, so I let it alone.

Source: Jane Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 137-138.


Barbara A. Hanawalt and Kathryn L. Reyerson, eds., City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994).

Richard C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980).

Barbara Wisch and Susan Scott Munshower, Art and Pageantry in the Renaissance and Baroque, volume 1, Triumphal Celebrations and the Rituals of Statecraft (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1990).

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