By Laurelle LeVert
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 14 (1997)
Introduction: The quest for edification and spiritual enrichment in the late Middle Ages took many forms. One of the more important of these was the use of vivid “imaginative” texts on the life of Christ, especially the Passion, as devotional aids. Such texts encouraged readers or listeners to embellish the events of Christ’s life with their own thoughts and memories, to “fictionalize” the Passion story and make themselves present and participant. Visualizing a written text and creating one’s own mental picture of it may have been encouraged precisely because these activities were open to interpretation and personal involvement. A reading community could re-create those visual images in correspondence with familiar images, stained glass, paintings or statues, but the freedom remained for the reader to take part in the mental drama, to re-write the dialogue, and to be present at the scene described. The choice of details inserted by various authors in the Passion narratives, for instance, shows an awareness of the benefits of this type of personal involvement. Many of these accounts encourage individual, creative extrapolation on the scenes presented, so that each reader/listener can select, recreate or invent details, dialogue or mental images which best serve to elicit affective response or serve as doctrinal fortifiers. Such accounts provide a medium through which moral and theological precepts could be filtered. The main focus of this paper is an especially widely read and disseminated meditation on Christ’s life, Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. I will examine the Passion segment of this work in the light of medieval and modern reader-response theories and in the context of medieval affective piety while considering some recent work on affectivity and on the efficacy of visualizing devotional scenes.