Kathryn Rudy has added a new and beautifully illustrated study to her already extensive bibliography on readers’ interactions with early Netherlandish manuscripts. It is a monumental undertaking. She records having logged over 500 trips to 163 different book collections from California to Krakow, and her book contains color illustrations from 43 different collections, plus an appendix that transcribes rubrics and prayers from 78 manuscripts found in 22 different libraries. As her title suggests, Rudy is not just interested in the images that accompany indulgenced prayers, but also in the red-lettered instructions on how to pray and how to engage with the image. These rubrics provide historians with valuable information on how viewers physically engaged with pictures in the late Middle Ages and what expectations they brought to that experience. Rudy calls this an “anthropology of the image” (ix), and since many of these rubrics refer to images outside the text, her study has far wider applications.
Rudy has organized her study into four parts, followed by an appendix of original texts. She begins with the sorts of instruction that rubrics provided to their readers, and proceeds to discuss prayers to images of Christ and to the Virgin Mary. Rudy then concludes with a reflection on how indulgenced prayers led to an increased production of certain images, in particular the Mass of St. Gregory, ‘Maria in Sole’ and objects seen against the sun, and Purgatory and the Harrowing of Hell. Some of the rubrics verify the source of the prayer and confirm the truth of the rewarded indulgences, while others choreograph the actions of the reader. The relationship established by the rubrics between the votary and the illustrated book is what most fascinates the author; what fascinated this reviewer is the range of authorial voices taken by those rubrics. Most are written in the second-person singular and others come in the all-knowing voice of God, but some rubrics speak the voice of the votary who reads them, so that the reader, in essence, instructs her/himself how to pray. Other rubrics acknowledge that the votary cannot him/herself read, suggesting guidance and collaboration, even though praying for indulgences is particularly self-centered. A communal approach to indulgenced prayers occurred in other contexts, as evidenced by prayerbooks that originated in convents, or indulgenced prayers that are linked to objects on public display. As Rudy notes, this evidence implies that the act of reading indulgenced prayers “was fundamentally social, and whose purpose might be to mould social behavior in churches” (10).
The most engaging section of Rudy’s book is her discussion of prayers directed to Christ: whether the body of Christ, or the Arma Christi, or the combination of both in images of the Mass of St. Gregory. Rudy links the interest in the “contact relics” found in the Arma Christi and Gregory’s Mass to the fact that Christ left so little of his own body behind. She connects how the Arma Christi and the Mass of St. Gregory excerpted vignettes of the Passion from their original context – a flail here or nails there; a spitting face – with how prayers to the body of Christ isolate his wounds, just as the illustrations free them from the context of his body. With stigmata miracles, these at-large wounds were superimposed onto a different body; with manuscript illuminations, they are superimposed onto another surface. By painting the wounds on the page, the artists transform, in her words, “the flayed skin of the beast” into “the wounded skin of the savior” (78). Rudy weaves this book-as-body metaphor through this entire section, and one image in particular (The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek ms. 78 J, fol. 95v) seems to drive the whole point home. The artist of this miniature has painted a shield with a diamond-shaped wound of Christ that claims to be the actual length and width of the original wound. This shield then appears to be affixed to the page by two large nails, perhaps perceived as from the Crucifixion and also painted to size, painted as if they pierce the page, causing the vellum to erupt in lurid spurts of blood.
Rudy’s study offers many compelling insights like these few I have mentioned, but I also noted a few minor omissions. In discussing “contact relics” and the lack of Christ’s remaining body parts, Rudy mentions the Holy Foreskin but neglects to mention the many samples of the Holy Blood, which were often seen in conjunction with images and just as often came with indulgences. Elsewhere, Rudy compares the miraculous lactation of St. Bernard to the Mass of St. Gregory, but in discussing their similarities she does not parse out that St. Gregory’s vision involved an object transformed into a body, whereas St. Bernard saw an animated statue, a crucial distinction for understanding the image’s impact on a period viewer. She also does not give the same focused attention to the legend of St. Bernard that she gives to St. Gregory’s miracle. It is important to note that, unlike the Mass of St. Gregory, there is no authoritative textual account for St. Bernard’s vision, and that the earliest known versions of his miracle are indeed images.
Since these rubrics often referred to images outside the text, Rudy’s study raises other questions for me. For example, her conclusion notes how indulgenced prayers drove the market for images, but devotion to Christ’s deepest cut, the one in his shoulder from carrying the cross (“three fingers deep”), did not lead to any pictorial traditions before the baroque period. Here one might consider the popularity of the Way to Calvary, even though such pictures do not isolate the wound in the same way that many of these manuscripts do. Elsewhere, Rudy illustrates a manuscript opening (The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek ms. 71 G 53, fols. 32v-33r) where the Mass of St. Gregory faces an initial letter with Christ’s vision in Gethsemane. This seems like such a natural pairing that I was left to wonder if it recurs. Since viewers of St. Gregory were encouraged to emulate his vision, might the Agony in the Garden have also functioned as another exemplar for the hopeful visionary? Indeed, it seems to serve that function in other works, such as Hans Memling’s Passion panorama in Turin, where Tommaso Portinari’s prayerful pose mirrors Christ’s in Gethsemane, appearing directly behind him.
Apart from these questions, my biggest criticisms lie with the physical layout of the book itself. For such a lavishly illustrated volume, I wonder why the author or publisher chose to omit illustrations for a few of the longer discussions, substituting instead links to online images. This might work well for readers using Brill’s by-subscription e-book (assuming the links work; some did not), but it presents a hassle for the ink-and-paper folk. My second difficulty lies in cross-referencing the transcriptions in the appendix. There is nothing on any appendix page to indicate which library the transcriptions come from, so a reader looking for the original text from a manuscript in Leiden is forced to page through the entire appendix starting with Amsterdam, or rely on blind luck. Brill’s e-book subscribers probably have it easier again, being able to search the digitized text, but a simple reference in the page header to which library’s contents appear on that page would go far in helping scholars locate the correct text.
These complaints aside, I would like to conclude by offering praise for Rudy’s writing. She uses pithy metaphors to describe earthly events, like how one prayer was “accumulating a snowballing indulgence as [it] careens through the fifteenth century” (116), or describing rubrics as “a blunt-force application of theology” (96). When describing images, on the other hand, Rudy’s words often seem crafted to evoke the experience of the votary. Of one illustration of the Five Wounds of Christ, Rudy writes that, “the heart beats a glowing cadence at the design’s epicenter … Each gash springs from a red flower, as if overripe roses had overextended their petals to reveal their innards. Each rose languishes in a nest of spiralling spines, diminutive beds of green thorns” (87). Her words here have the effect of transporting a modern reader into the ecstatic world of the late-medieval votary, and I think that this was by design. I often found myself engaging with her text in ways that approximated how late-medieval votaries used their devotional books. So perhaps I should return to my complaint about those online images: maybe that too is a nifty rhetorical device. By directing us to engage with images outside the text, Rudy forces her readers to mirror the procedure called for by some of the rubrics and prayers that she studies. These tricks of rhetoric are wonderfully clever additions to a truly outstanding study.