Private Devotion in Medieval Christianity

  • Pectoral Cross
    2006.569
  • Reliquary Cross with Saint George
    2000.526.2
  • Icon with the Deesis
    17.190.133
  • Icon with the Koimesis (Falling Asleep) of the Virgin Mary
    17.190.132
  • Cameo of the Virgin and Child
    2007.445
  • Double-sided Pendant Icon with the Virgin and Christ Pantokrator
    1994.403
  • Reliquary Pendant
    63.160
  • Cameo with Christ Emmanuel
    1987.23
  • Pectoral Cross
    2005.38
  • Enthroned Virgin and Child
    1999.208
  • Enthroned Virgin and Child
    1979.402
  • Madonna and Child
    2004.442
  • The Crucified Christ
    2005.274
  • Portable Mosaic Icon with the Virgin Eleousa
    2008.352
  • Booklet with Scenes of the Passion
    1982.60.399
  • Diptych with Scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection
    1980.366
  • Icon with Christ Overseer of All and the Chorus of Saints
    63.68.1-.13
  • The Hours of Jeanne dEvreux
    54.1.2
  • The Man of Sorrows
    1982.480
  • The Last Judgment, from a Book of Hours
    1998.179
  • Pieta (Vesperbild)
    2001.78
  • Saint Margaret
    2000.641
  • Triptych with the Passion of Christ
    2006.249
  • The Annunciation from a Book of Hours
    2004.564

Essay

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).

Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001

Citation

Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “Private Devotion in Medieval Christianity.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/priv/hd_priv.htm (October 2001)

Further Reading

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Os, H. W. van. The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300–1500. Exhibition catalogue. London: Merrell Holberton, 1994.

Ringbom, Sixten. Icon to Narrative: The Rise of the Dramatic Close-Up in Fifteenth-Century Devotional Painting. 2d ed. Doornspijk, Netherlands: Davaco, 1984.

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