Spiritual Life and Devotion

views updated

Spiritual Life and Devotion

The Church in Crisis and the Rise of Devotional Art.

Throughout the medieval period, the church continued to be a powerful force in the dissemination of the aristocratic tastes and styles of the Gothic movement. At the same time, however, the later medieval papacy experienced a number of crises that served to diminish both its political authority and its spiritual credibility among the faithful. German emperors such as Frederick II (1212–1250) enjoyed an expanded sphere of influence and challenged the authority of the popes, and widespread perceptions of corruption in the church—particularly on such issues as the sale of indulgences, which promised sinners a reduced period of time in purgatory—caused ordinary people to turn away from the authority of hierarchical religion. While a good deal of art continued to celebrate the "Church Triumphant" during the Gothic era, a new artistic trend based on the imagery associated with private devotional practices resulted from the spiritual needs of individual Christians. Moreover, the interest in this devotional imagery in later medieval Europe was reinforced by a growing middle-class demand for privately owned images of all kinds. At the center of this world was the Devotio Moderna, an approach to personal devotion that was newly formulated by the Flemish Dominican mystic Geert Groote (1340–1384) and was soon widespread (especially in northern Europe). In appealing to popular belief and practice, the Devotio Moderna relied a great deal upon the cult of saints and especially of the Virgin Mary, a practice that was centuries old, but now more popular than ever. Marian devotion prompted Christians to visit shrines of "Our Lady" all over Europe, and the many images of Mary created during this time expressed the popularity of the accessible and ever-compassionate Virgin.

Printed Images of Saints.

The various saints were popular as subjects in later medieval art because as role models, personal protectors, and intercessors they were so well-positioned to attend to the needs of individual believers. Cities and guilds all had their own patron saints, and routine events and solemn occasions both required special devotion. Individuals also turned to particular saints at specific times and for specific reasons: St. Margaret watched over pregnancy, St. Apollonia could be helpful in soothing a toothache, and St. Sebastian received particular devotion during outbreaks of plague. A woodblock print image of St. Christopher carrying Jesus across the river, produced in Germany anonymously in 1423 illustrates the contemporary piety for individual saints and the new medium of woodblock printing, through which their images were so easily disseminated. A necessary companion to the medieval traveler, St. Christopher's image facilitated devotion to the saint who provided protection on the difficult and often unsafe journeys of tradesmen, artisans, noblemen, clerics, students, soldiers, and pilgrims. Easily reproduced by mechanical means (though colored by hand) and reasonably priced, prints were an ideal form of portable devotional image that gained tremendous popularity in the later Middle Ages. Prints were pasted in books, jewel boxes, and on walls. They were kissed and handled, prayed to, and wept upon. Such popular devotional practices have been learned from written sources, but the images themselves, with the material evidence of their use, are silent witnesses to a vibrant and flourishing visual tradition.

The Cantigas of Santa Maria.

The art of devotion also made an impact in more elite contexts. Created for Alphonso X (the Wise), king of Castile, around 1280 by an anonymous court illuminator, the Cantigas de Santa Maria demonstrates both the importance of Marian devotion in later medieval culture and the obsession with tangible signs of divine intervention in everyday life. The royal manuscript is a collection of some hundred songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, with narrative illustrations describing many of her miracles. In one illustration that tells the story of how the Virgin miraculously saved a man from falling, the page is split up into six different scenes. A line of text below each scene provides the reader with an abbreviated version of the story. The first scene shows an artist perched on scaffolding beneath the vaults of a church interior as he paints images of both the Virgin and the Devil. The Devil, apparently not flattered by his portrait, confronts the painter and causes the scaffolding to fall in the next scene. Thanks to the intervention of the Virgin, the man remains suspended in mid-air in the following scenes so that he can finish his work, which is subsequently admired by the community in the final scene. The moral here, as in each Cantiga, is that the sincerity of one's devotion to the Virgin will protect him or her from harm.

The Humanity of Christ and the Diptych.

Another important facet of late medieval devotional culture was the focus on the humanity (as opposed to the divinity) of Christ. Mystic writers of the fourteenth century, such as the German Meister Eckhart (a Dominican) and his disciple Henry Suso, focused their attention on Christ's suffering, spurring the production of new visual images, such as the Pietà (Mary cradling the limp, dead Christ) and the Man of Sorrows (the dead Christ displaying his bloody wounds to the viewer). These images were meant to convey the grief and pathos that would prompt a viewer's empathy, and were thus aids to devotion. One painted diptych (a pair of paintings on two hinged panels) produced around 1350 depicts Christ as Man of Sorrows on one side and the Madonna and Child on the other. Viewers are meant to be struck by the contrasting (though interrelated) images of maternal compassion and pitiful suffering. The figures are depicted on a gold-tooled ground that recalls the aesthetic of Byzantine icon painting. The tilt of the Virgin's face, saddened with the foreknowledge of her son's sacrifice, echoes that of Christ, and her pensive gaze foretells her future grief. Meanwhile the infant seems to provide reassurance to his mother with a gentle caress on her cheek. Such painted images were often produced in small format and used as private devotional altarpieces. Opened up at times of prayers and for special celebrations, diptychs could easily be personalized with their owners' mottos, monograms, or coats of arms, usually on the back of the panels.

The Influence of the Mendicant Orders.

Individual piety and affective devotional practices were advanced early on by the friars of the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans (founded 1210) and Dominicans (founded 1216). Poverty, asceticism, and preaching were the ideals from the Gospels that the mendicants espoused, providing all Christians access to personal and profound spiritual experience. Instead of the almighty and powerful judge familiar from the early Middle Ages, God was increasingly imagined in human terms as the suffering and merciful Christ. In the visual arts Christ was more consistently presented in these terms, his humanity and earthly life eclipsing images of apocalyptic Majesty or stern judgment. During times of plague or pestilence mendicant preachers reassured the populace with verbal imagery that was closely connected to the visual imagery of devotion. Conversely, new visual images drew upon the preaching of the mendicants. Works of visual art from the Rhineland, intended to trigger a viewer's empathy for the suffering Christ, show a particularly striking connection to the sentiments often conveyed orally by preachers. Known by the term Vesperbilden, such images and objects aroused a sense of grief comparable to that experienced by the Virgin (and commemorated during the Vespers celebration on Good Friday). The Seeon Pietà, sculpted around 1400, effectively conveys a sense of emotional distress through the representation of suffering. The grief-stricken Virgin holds the oversized body of her dead son on her lap. The contorted body of Christ prominently displays bleeding wounds. Similarly moving is the Pestkreuz Crucifix (plague crucifix) of around 1304 that displays an emaciated Christ on the cross. By visualizing Christ's suffocation, dehydration, and dislocation, the work encourages viewers to contemplate and meditate upon this ultimate sacrifice, endured for the sake of their own salvation.


Jean Vincent Bainvel, Devotion to the Sacred Heart: The Doctrine and Its History (London: Burns and Oates, 1924).

Christopher Brooke, "Reflections on Late Medieval Cults and Devotions," in Essays in Honor of Edward B. King. Ed. Robert G. Benson and Eric W. Naylor (Sewanee, Tenn.: University of the South Press, 1991): 33–45.

Rosalind Brooke and Christopher Brooke, Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000–1300 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984).

Susan Dackerman, Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance and Baroque Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

Richard Kieckhefer, "Major Currents in Late Medieval Devotion," in Christian Spirituality: The High Middle Ages and Reformation. Ed. Jill Raitt et al. (New York: Crossroads, 1987): 75–108.

Henk van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300–1500 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).

André Vauchez, The Laiety in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices. Ed. Daniel Bornstein. Trans. Margery G. Schneider (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1993).

Roger S. Wieck, Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life (New York: Braziller, 2001): 124–148.

see also Religion: The Laity and Popular Beliefs