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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Private Devotion in Medieval Christianity

Christians in the Middle Ages expressed and strengthened their faith through public rituals, such as celebration of the Eucharist, and personal devotions conducted in a private chapel, a monastic cell, or simply a corner of one’s home. Individuals sought to deepen their faith through study, meditation, and prayer, which might be guided by psalters or private prayer books (54.1.2; 1998.179). Images, usually modest in scale, helped in these spiritual endeavors, since they made tangible the object of devotional practices. Reflecting the wealth and rank of the individual, such images were produced in every medium, from vellum to gold, ivory to clay. The fervor with which individual Christians practiced their faith often took a toll on the objects that aided their devotion. Owners might repeatedly kiss and caress them, wearing away details carved into the surface and obliterating the features of holy figures (1987.23).

In Byzantium, private devotion involved the use of icons. Early icons were often portraits of Christ, the Virgin, prophets, or saints. By the eleventh century, the appearance of icons changed, incorporating more narrative elements and expressing poignant emotions (63.68.1-.13). These changes encouraged the worshipper to forge a personal relationship to the holy figure or enter into the narrative as if actually present at the event. The increasing interest in the lifelike qualities of the icon and its ability to elicit an emotional response from the viewer is seen in Michael Psellos’ description of an icon of the Crucifixion: “But as the [divine] force moved the painter’s hand … he showed Christ living at his last breath … at once living and lifeless.”

In western Europe, a form of spirituality that emphasized the emotional involvement of the faithful emerged by 1300. Believers were encouraged to contemplate events from the life of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints, as if they were present. The Franciscan author of the extremely popular and influential Meditations on the Life of Christ interrupts the narrative of the Nativity to address his readers:

Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to offer to let you hold him a while. Pick him up and hold him in your arms. Gaze on his face with devotion and reverently kiss and delight in him.

Sculptures of the Virgin and Child were among the most popular images for private devotion and they frequently emphasize the tender relationship between the mother and her child. Images of the Virgin with the dead Christ, by contrast, invited the viewer to ponder their suffering (2001.78).