Violent Imagery in Late Medieval Piety
By Caroline Walker Bynum
Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 30 (2002)
Introduction: Anyone who has done even the most cursory sight-seeing in European churches has encountered the apparent expressionism and morbidity of late medieval piety. Given the current preoccupation of scholarship in the humanities with what contemporary jargon calls “alterity” or “the transgressive,” we are hardly likely to miss the twisted crucifixes bearing a dead and tortured God, the transi tombs that display carvings of the elite of Europe nude and gnawed by worms, or the vast altarpieces telling of grisly and prolonged executions of the culture’s martyred heroes and heroines, the saints. Nor, given the national crisis that has followed so precipitously upon our own millennial turn, are we likely to ignore medieval fears of the apocalypse or the period’s often eroticized depictions of naked bodies tormented eternally by strange beasts in the mouth of hell. There is much sentimentalism, to be sure, in the later Middle Ages—sweet-faced Madonnas with chubby babies, cozy scenes of the domestic life of God’s family—but a quick walk through any museum of European art leaves one with uncomfortable memories of writhing hands, severed body parts, monstrous claws, torn hunks of flesh, and everywhere streams of bright red blood. Comparisons to Picasso’s Guernica or the paintings of Francis Bacon spring unbidden to mind.
Popular accounts such as those of Johan Huizinga, Barbara Tuchman, and Philippe Arie`s have stressed the horrors of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—plague, economic collapse, famine, war — and have described the “violent tenor of life” — persecutions, pogroms, public torture and executions. I do not wish today to return to the topic of medieval society and politics they have explored, although the world they describe is not irrelevant as background. But what I wish to talk about here is the violent quality of the religiosity itself — what we might call its visual violence, especially the prominence of the motifs of body parts and of blood. At a time when depictions of violence are controversial in our own culture — consider, for example, last summer’s obsession with the details of Timothy McVeigh’s execution — we may learn something from considering the violence our late-medieval ancestors located at the heart of their religion.
See also: Reverberations of Guilt and Violence, Resonances of Peace: A Comment on Caroline Walker Bynum’s Lecture, by Mitchell B. Merback