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Passing Through: How we talk about devotional images

Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 1857, Stundenbuch der Maria von Burgund, f. 14v-15, via wikimedia commons
Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 1857, Stundenbuch der Maria von Burgund, f. 14v-15, via wikimedia commons

Suspend your sense of disbelief for a moment and imagine that you are Marie of Burgundy. You are sitting in your chamber, studiously poring over your Book of Hours. You come to a particular page, lavishly illustrated with a picture of soaring church architecture, the Holy Virgin and yourself—in two places. It’s a familiar image, and even as your eyes settle upon it, you feel your self slide towards it. There you are reading. But there you are in the church, paying reverence to Mary and her Child. You are here—but you are there also; not there, but also not here anymore. Finally, the once-wavering light overtakes you, strengthening until all you can see is the Holy Mother and her Son—not the picture of her, but her. You’ve forgotten that there ever was a picture.

Did you feel like you were able to ‘pass through’ the image? Maybe that thought experiment didn’t work for you—but that’s okay. Neither you nor I are medieval religious people. Perhaps you couldn’t engage with the idea or (way more likely) I was a poor guide. However, I’m not really concerned with success or failure of my example. Rather, I’m interested in the way that the scholarship around medieval manuscripts—and Books of Hours specifically—approaches images.

Wait, do scholars actually try to interact with images this particular way?

The answer is: sort of. They themselves might not necessarily try to ‘pass through’ an image, but they do depend on this idea of image as devotional aid, as a window for the devotee to reach a different ‘reality.’ Dr. Alan Farber expresses this sentiment when he says that “[i]n prayer, one learns to go through the text or image that one is contemplating to the spiritual reality that lies beyond.” There is also the sense that this process of ‘going through’ the image can establish a deeper level of intimacy with that ‘spiritual reality.’ Virginia Reinburg deals with this idea when she discusses images of the Madonna in Books of Hours: “meditating on the picture could help the person praying to envision and feel the intimacy with Mary that the “Obsecro te” encourages” (Reinburg 43). I think we can definitely feel this idea at work in the miniature from Marie of Burgundy’s Hours. We can easily imagine Marie using this image to place herself in a closer spiritual contact with Mary and Christ—within the image itself, the Marie of the foreground can quite literally step through the window separating her from Mary. It’s a short step from this to the idea that the Marie holding the book in ‘reality’ can just as easily step through the image itself.

All this seems natural enough, even for those of us who aren’t medieval religious folks. But even as I admit that, something strikes me as odd: in approaching medieval miniatures this way, we (and I’m including myself under the umbrella of ‘scholars’ here) seem to be performing our own version of ‘going through’ the images. We treat illuminations and, more generally (and perhaps more importantly), Books of Hours as though they are a transparent medium through which we can examine their medieval users. Take the same piece by Virginia Reinburg. She grounds her discussion on the following observation: “for twentieth-century viewers [Books of Hours] are also windows onto the interior, spiritual lives of ordinary lay people of the late Middle Ages” (39). (We can expand her words to include the twenty-first-century viewers!) There is a real sense that these ‘windows’ can help establish intimacy with the lay people, much as Marie might have tried to build intimacy with Madonna.

This rhetoric of seeing interior lives through the books isn’t just limited to Reinburg. This is Roger S. Wieck, from The Liturgy and Medieval Church, talking about Books of Hours: “the texts and their accompanying pictures are a true, uncensored, mirror of how the Church’s liturgy was perceived and practiced by the unordained masses” (Wieck 439). Not just a window, but a “mirror,” as if the beliefs of laypeople were very clearly discernible on the surface of a text

And here is Seth Lerer discussing his newly discovered Book of Hours in the San Diego Public Library: “Like many such volumes, the San Diego book bears witness to how public books were transformed into private objects” (Lerer 410). The idea of ‘bearing witness’ does not necessarily denote a visual act but it can have that meaning. The visual possibilities are strengthened by Lerer’s other remark that a reader’s acts of marking a book “inscribe a history of reading in ways that reveal private lives and public services” (410). Again, there is this assumption that we are granted an unmediated access to interior lives. Perhaps ‘unmediated’ is not the right word—the medium of the book is always the center of attention—but the books are, at least, quite see-through.

I admit that this is only a tiny survey of the available literature on Books of Hours. But I have the feeling that a more thorough examination will reveal that, even in cases where visual metaphors are not explicitly used, the assumption of direct accessibility is widespread. Now, I am not trying to unilaterally reject this claim. Perhaps we can gain some glimpse into the inner lives of medieval readers. But we should be careful of glossing over the immense distance erected by time (as I admit I tried to do in my own introduction to this blog post).

Finally, I want to mention something that seems to go in the opposite direction of what I’ve been arguing—but I think it’s cool, so I’ll raise the point anyway. If the way we treat these Books of Hours as windows into interior lives is indeed analogous to how medieval people accessed spiritual realities, then perhaps we are not so different after all—at least not in the ways we approach Books of Hours.

 – authored by Ty Stewart

Lerer, Seth. “Literary Prayer and Personal Possession in a Newly Discovered Tudor Book of Hours.” Studies in Philology 109.4: 409-28 (2012). Project Muse. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Reinburg, Virginia. “Prayer and the Book of Hours.” Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1988. Print. 39-44.

Wieck, Roger S. “The Book of Hours.” The Liturgy of the Medieval Church. 2nd ed. Ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005. Print. 431-68.