Last week four members of our team were invited to Utrecht to take part in a workshop on religion and material culture. Dr Jo Spaans, the organizer of the event recognised the importance of sharing research internationally on various aspects of religious ‘stuff’. She posed questions about the meaning of religious objects for people who owned or interacted with them, the role those objects played in formation of identity, forging memories and the issues related to objects’ physical properties and biographies. During the day ten papers were given, including three by the PhD candidates from the Domestic Devotions Team. We had an incredible opportunity to share our ongoing research with colleagues from Universities of Utrecht and Konstanz, as well as with such established scholars as Birgit Meyer and Alexandra Walsham, and a curator of religious art, Tanja Kootte.
We discussed the inadequacy of language and anachronistic terms applied to complex issues of religious matter and beliefs. Some objects which we now call amulets or jewellery, were perhaps understood as different types of objects in the Renaissance and their assumed properties defied clear-cut division between two realms of magical and active or religious and passive. Another big issue was related to the idea of religious words and images and their arguably different role in Catholic and Protestant household. We discussed whether words and images were understood as symbolic or efficacious merely by the virtue of their presence in the Catholic home, while they had to be consciously and piously engaged with in the Protestant house. How did iconography develop and morph as it was transmitted across cultures and confessions? How can the historical context of such iconography contribute to an object’s meaning? Can a religious building be studied as a material space that adapts to the needs of worshipers while also conditioning some devotional practices? Much of our discussion focused around the vulnerability of religious objects, ranging from fourth-century relics to eighteenth-century mourning medals, as we considered how their role and significance shifted due to political and historical changes, such as the Reformation and waves of iconoclasm.
After the stimulating and rich conversations we were also encouraged to visit Catharijneconvent, the Netherlands’ national museum of Christian art, culture and history. Zuzanna was able to go there on the following day and was struck by the incredible variety and religious intensity of curated objects. Of particular interest to our project were objects that could be compared with similar religious artifacts in Italy, such as a beautiful sixteenth-century rosary (below); apart from the traditional beads and pendant cross, this rosary had also three silver medals, one of which depicted a skull- a clear reference to transience and the need to repent.
In the treasury which houses the most valuable and costly items such as golden chalices or silver communion ware, there were also objects made in ivory, a material sometimes also used for domestic devotional objects. The Hodegetria from Byzantium (940-960 AD) shows the incredible potential and versatility of this precious material. The figures of the Virgin and Christ Child were both carved in a rather high relief while the Virgin’s cloak dissolved into the creamy background. Moreover, because of different treatment of the surface the object became a study of different ways light can interact and change the monochromatic object into a seemingly immaterial icon.
In the Renaissance section of the museum the painted altarpieces and polychromed wooden statues clearly destined for Ecclesiastical spaces were displayed together with objects that pointed to more domestic appropriation of religious matter, such as moulds for production of small figures of St Francis.
In the Canal House, in the section dedicated for children, there were various spaces that could be an inspiration for our project’s exhibition. In bright, colourful rooms actual objects such as a sixteenth-century wooden figurine of a seated Christ Child from Mechelen and a small crib together with Renaissance paintings narrated the story of the Nativity, while accompanying illustrations and brief texts complemented the religious narrative.
We are very grateful to Dr Jo Spaans and all other colleagues who shared with our team their ideas and comments on materiality of religion during this workshop. We hope to be able to reciprocate in Cambridge in a not-too-distant future!
Religious Materiality Workshop
30 January 2015
– Zuzanna Sarnecka & Katherine Tycz