Figuring Forth the Body of Christ: Devotion and Politics

Figuring Forth the Body of Christ: Devotion and Politics

Aers, David

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)


In her important study, Christ’s Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings, Sarah Beckwith takes note of the basic “commonplace” around which this paper moves and to which it continually refers. She notes that, “It is a commonplace of late medieval histories of spirituality that the late Middle Ages witness a new and extraordinary focus on the passion of Christ.” That this is indeed a “commonplace” is due to a multi-disciplinary tradition of research, well exemplified by scholars such as Hans Belting, Carolyn Walker Bynum, Richard Kieckhefer, James Marrow, Sixten Ringbom, Miri Rubin, Gertrude Schiller and Rosemary Woolf. These historians have documented how the dominant representation of the Incarnate Christ became the body of Jesus, as an infant and, especially, in the Passion. This body was now displayed with an attention to physical details utterly unknown to the Gospels and to early Christian traditions, details richly exemplified in James Marrow’s Passion Iconography and in Rosemary Woolf’s study of late medieval religious lyrics. The humiliated, tortured, whipped, nailed down, pierced, dying but life-giving body of Christ, the very body literally present in the eucharist, “Corpus Christi,” “corpus verum et proprium”: this body became the dominant icon of the late medieval church and the devotion that the church cultivated and authorized. This is the body at the heart of the “commonplace” on which this paper is a reflection, the bleeding dying body which had come to be identified “as the essence of Christ’s humanity.”

So normative was this identification that it has become conventional to reproduce it in modern scholarship, rather than to interrogate it. For example, after describing the tortured, twisted and agonized body of Jesus in standard late medieval representations of the Passion, Woolf classifies these representations as “Christ in His humanity,” a move made similarly by scholars such as Marrow and Kieckhefer. Now while this move may seem an inevitable one in historical scholarship, a responsible reflection of the dominant iconography in the earlier culture, it may become an impediment to our thinking about late medieval figurations of Christ, the devotion to which they belonged, and their relations to contemporary sources of power. How this may happen I shall now suggest by discussing aspects of Bynum’s work.

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