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Spring 2016


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Caroline Bynum

It is the first session of an art history seminar on devotional objects in medieval and early modern Europe, aimed at advanced undergraduates and graduate students, and I need to raise the question of what a devotional object is. I want the students to discover that embedded in this question are assumptions about what “religion” is, what “art” is, and what objects do. I want them to understand, with something of a jolt, how political and social structures condition who makes objects, who donates them, who controls and who consecrates them, but also that the very fact that we each, as individuals, see from only one perspective requires of us not a response of relativism but rather a more acute responsibility to get our own categories straight.

I give the students three objects, two of which I can also show projected on a screen. The first is actually a set of two small papier-mâché medallions, about eleven centimeters in diameter, made by nuns at the monastery of Wienhausen in northern Germany between 1450 and 1520. Formed in molds and then hand-painted by individual nuns to reflect the spiritual concerns important to each, the medallions depict Christ between the Virgin Mary and the so-called “beloved disciple,” John. Each shows a curious curly border across the bottom that looks to us a bit like ribbon candy. On one, the sister doing the painting has highlighted Christ’s side wound against a stark white body; on the other, Christ’s entire torso is speckled with red blood drops. Both have holes at the top, and on one, a leather thong for hanging is still affixed. Unknown until the 1950s, when they were discovered under the floorboards of the nuns’ choir, the objects raise a host of questions the course will grapple with: gender (is there such a thing as “women’s art”?), periodization (the relationship of Middle Ages to Reformation), the category of “art” itself (are the little medallions “art” or “craft,” and does that distinction work for periods before the modern era in the west?), viewer response (including questions about the intentionality of artists and patrons as well as worshippers), and the nature of representation (is the little ribbon across the bottom of the medallion a cloud, suggesting that the depiction is of a vision, or are we looking at an image of Christ? If the latter, what sort of image can one have of the ineffable or departed divine? If the former, how can one depict a vision?). The very existence of the little medallions raises questions about preservation. Why were the objects hidden under the floor, if they were deliberately hidden rather than dropped, and how would art history be the poorer if such things had not survived? The medallions also raise a recurrent question necessitated by exactly our current study techniques: size. How big is the object? Does this matter? The issue will become so important as the course goes on that we will all laugh when I repeatedly pull out my bright pink tape measure and ask: how big is eleven centimeters (or a hundred and eleven centimeters) anyway? Everything looks the same size on the computer screen or projected on the wall, but size is an important and often neglected clue to function, use, and significance.

The second object is a Nkisi Nkondi or power figure made in the nineteenth century by the Yombe group of the Kongo peoples in the Chiloango River region of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One hundred eighteen centimeters (or about forty-six-and-a-half inches) tall, the wooden figure has staring ceramic eyes, an open-mouthed grimace, a body studded with nails as well as part of a surviving beard of nails along the chin, and a large cavity in the lower torso that once contained organic, medicinal material. A label from the Metro-politan Museum, which owns and displays the object, tells us that sculptors and ritual specialists collaborated in making such figures, that the material in the abdominal cavity was intended to attract the inhabiting spirit, and that the dozens and dozens of nails, brads, and other bits of metal driven into the body, predominantly but not exclusively into the torso, document vows sealed, treaties signed, and socially disruptive events in some way settled. In addition to underlining some of the same issues the little medallions raise (issues of size, gender, “craft” versus “art,” and, particularly acutely, the significance of ugliness and suffering, also raised by the blood on the Wienhausen Christ images), the Nkisi Nkondi or spirit figure forces the viewer to face much more directly the issue of the devotional object itself. Must such objects be ritually endowed with power (in western terms, “consecrated”) or is their power bodied forth by their physicality itself (the wood, nails, resin and other organic material) or by what they “look like” (a bearded male figure)? What are the limits of such power? Do European religious objects have power in the same way a Nkisi does? What social relations and events can the viewer see in the object? Why do the acts that constitute the figure as it stands before us—acts of piercing and breaching—seem paradoxically to reflect the end of rupture and the resolution of conflict? Is this different from the way a Christian religious object reveals or repairs relations and events? What happens to the power of an object such as a Nkisi when it is placed in secular space? How should it be displayed and labeled for the sort of viewer expected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

The third “object” I give my students is very different. It is a text about an object, and the object—water—could hardly be displayed in a museum. Yet in the text I choose it indubitably possesses the power of the holy. I provide for the students, in an old-fashioned Xerox, a selection from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The speaker is an elderly Calvinist minister writing to his young son in 1956, and he tells the story of how he, as a child, baptized a litter of kittens down by the creek to the consternation of the cat mother, moistening their brows and “repeating the full Trinitarian formula.” Two of my students are offended by what they consider the sacrilege of baptizing cats (this clearly bothered the narrator as well), and their outrage itself raises interesting questions for discussion.

The passage—beautifully written, as is all Marilynne Robinson’s prose—is complicated, but it poses stark questions about how something from the physical world relates to an “other” that some would call “the holy,” others “spirit power.” The old minister provides one of the best musings I know of on how what we might call the “stuff-ness” of things matters.

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me…

Then, in a complex move, the narrator goes on to quote the “famous atheist,” Feuerbach, who is (he claims) “about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world.” Feuerbach asserts that “water has a significance in itself, as water.” It is “in virtue of this its natural character” that it is “the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit.”

As in the medallions from Wien-hausen and the Nkisi from the Kongo, we encounter issues of why the specific physicality of something is crucial to the way it “represents” what is beyond itself (whatever that “beyond” is). We see that “representation” is more complex than looking like. Just as a congressman may represent his district but does not do so by looking like it, so the “likeness” of water to blessing is not one of visual similitude. It is ontological, a term we define as having to do with the natures of things. It is even contradictory, paradoxical. We see that water and word may convey blessing, even if not sanctioned by religious law to do so, as breaching or wounding might “represent” or body forth healing or knitting up. Such awareness lingers on beyond initial encounter with water and wood, nails or papier-mâché. Yet differences between our three cases intrude. The Calvinist minister is guided by his belief system. What if there is no written theology? What about cultural setting? Do piercing, painting and touching, fluidity and coldness, mean the same thing in the Yombe religion of the Kongo in the nineteenth century, in the fifteenth-century German north, and in the Calvinist Midwest of 1950s America? How far should we go in assuming that there are certain psychological or physiological reactions that are valid across cultures? What more do we need to know to answer such questions?

To encourage more detailed conversation, I divide the students up in small groups, and after about thirty minutes of discussion they reassamble to report their conclusions. A devotional object is an object, they begin: a thing. It is an excellent start. One of the art-history graduate students notices the thinginess—the tactility—of the papier- mâché medallions. The surface is raised, almost like Braille. Does this matter? How were they used? The observation leads to a discussion of prayer and meditation. Someone asks: are these western categories? (Today’s students are always quick to argue that their own categories must be relativized by comparison to the non-western. Anticipating this is one of the reasons I have used the Nkisi as an example.) Would one “pray” to or with a spirit figure? Does it matter whether one believes in the Christ on the medallion or the spirit in the Nkisi? This leads to an intense argument about “belief,” and the difference between “believe in” and “believe that” is sorted out, but we arrive at the somewhat uncomfortable conclusion that neither category is of much help in understanding what the nuns do with their medallions or the Yombe with the Nkisi. Someone tries to fit in the water of baptism as an object that relates effectively to holiness or power only when it is in act. Is doing necessary to activate a devotional object? What then if we put it in a museum?

During the following week, I will write up for email circulation what I think we accomplished in our initial discussion. I list our conclusions like this. A devotional object is physical, that is, material; in other words, size and stuff matter. It is “other”; that is, it connects with something beyond itself that is powerful or not ordinary. It is experiential, not just theological or philosophical; that is, it is not primarily something about which one believes or which one assents to intellectually (although what Protestants call “belief”—and we have talked about this category—is not irrelevant). It is processual or relational or performative; that is, there is an act that connects the physical stuff and the “other-ness.” It is representational; that is, there is some way in which the object “reflects” or “stands for” the “other,” some element of ontological (not necessarily visual) similitude or likeness. Although we may not all understand each of these categories in the same way, all have been defined in the previous discussion and made to some extent exact by our three case studies or examples.

We have filled three hours with energetic conversation about the value of things, their nature, their use, their meaning, and their display—questions that matter to us all as human beings, capable of thought, creativity, and wonder. If exhausted, I am content. The students leave, having put Art History 435 in their shopping basket, free now to decide whether taking the course is worthwhile. I turn off the computer and projector and lock the equipment cabinet, gather up the left-over handouts, and prepare to wheel my suitcase full of books back to the shuttle bus that is the beginning of my journey home. Because it is 4:30 on a February day, the sky outside is already getting dark.

Caroline Bynum's most recent book is Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe. She is a professor emerita of medieval European history at Princeton and Columbia.

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