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Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages: Image Worship and Idolatry in England, 1350-1500.

Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages: Image Worship and Idolatry in England, 1350-1500. By Kathleen Karnerick. New York: Palgrave, 2002. xii + 292 pp. $65.00 cloth.

Recently, a story has been circulating to the effect that when Jim Caviezel, the actor who portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," visited rural Mexico he was mobbed by devout men and women who pleaded with him to perform miracles for them. None were in fact reported. It would take a canny journalist to determine whether these folks really believed that the actor who portrayed Christ on the screen was Him in the flesh, and whether their obvious veneration rose to the status of worship. Local and universal Christian authorities, whether Roman Catholic or not, have to feel some embarrassment at the confusion of actor and Lord in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, in a world in which the village priest daily confects the full reality of Christ at the altar in the Eucharist, in which Marian apparitions are as unquestioned as biblical miracles, in which only the thinnest of veils separates the world of the spirit from that of daily existence, anything is possible.

The apparent and somewhat disturbing naivete of the Mexican villagers and our reaction to it lies at the heart of Kamerick's work on later medieval images and the attention paid them by the highly sophisticated and those far less so. No Christian, unless driven by confessional venom, wants to believe that his or her forebears actually mistook painted or carved images for the divine presence. The very subtitle of Kamerick's study, "image worship and idolatry," consists of powerful words that should conjure images of pagans and wayward Hebrews. I bristle at the notion that Christians of any stripe could ever mistake the artificial image for the physical or spiritual reality of the divine or saintly presence. And yet, in Kamerick's book I am introduced to late medieval Catholic bishops and teachers who use the very term "worship of images" in critiquing the devotional practices of members of their flocks. As in moving through the stages of grief, I have personally gone from anger and disbelief to resignation.

Kamerick, a lecturer in History at the University of Iowa, has approached her subject by examining six discrete yet connected phenomena, allotting a chapter to each. She begins by juxtaposing the views on "proper image worship" of the Dominican Roger Dymmock and the Augustinian Walter Hilton with the critique by Lollards of any attention to religious images. Here she duly presents the vital Catholic distinction between dulia and latria, which lay at the heart of the Catholics' defense of devotion not only to images, but to saints and relics as well. Unfortunately, and to my mind like fingernails on a chalkboard, she goes on ill-advisedly to use the English terms connected to the concepts indiscriminatingly. Throughout Kamerick equates worship with venerate with adore with reverence. She discusses a fifteenth-century clerical writer who is trying to explain the difference between dulia and latria. Though he may use the term "worship" as inclusive of both, he is clearly trying to distinguish what a modern reader recognizes as the distinct devotional stances of veneration and worship, a distinction Kamerick should make clearly and consistently. Nearby she writes of the "proper worship of religious images" and "legitimate image worship" (both page 47). Though this usage is rooted in her fifteenth-century source, her unwillingness or inability clearly to distinguish veneration or devotion from worship in modern usage undermines, for this reader, her credibility as an observer and analyst. I have similar reactions to confusion of cross with crucifix, and a painted "table" that is probably a painted panel, as in the Italian tavola.

In chapter 2 Kamerick lays out the official Catholic teaching on proper devotion to be shown images in pastoral manuals and sermons, and she convincingly demonstrates that these and similar sources contradict the lessons by emphasizing the historical role of images as instruments of healing, conversion, warning, and intercession. Here Kamerick does well to argue that the inconsistent and contradictory Church messages that "images are just images" and "images have spiritual power" gave weight to Lollard criticism and potentially caused confusion among the faithful. Chapter 3 is a brief study of the many roles of religious images in parish churches. Again, she maintains her focus on the common people and seeks to understand their devotion to the images they donated, painted, dressed, lit candles before, and revered. Her attention to wills, especially in Great Yarmouth, gives the chapter coherence. It also allows her to interpret the role of images within the communal or even corporate structure of the late medieval parish community, while teasing out the individual expressions of piety.

In chapter 4, Kamerick shifts to a broader canvas of episcopal concerns and regional shrines with their images of power and attraction. She uncovers the unseemly linkages of images to property rights and their ability to draw donations. Bishops railed against improper or misguided religious devotion to some images, while popes granted indulgences to those who visited the same. In this context Kamerick suggests that similar attention paid to the Host and to images--specifically the lighting of candles before both--indicates that these Christians considered the Host and a painted image to be equal in some manner, an argument with little force and validity. In her fifth chapter Kamerick examines the roles that images played in the spiritual lives of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich and, for comparison, Angela of Foligno and Jeanne-Marie de Maille. No image worship here; rather Kamerick presents a nicely nuanced study of these "holy women's" use of specific images to stimulate their spiritual experiences. In concluding she links their use of "bodily eyes" for spiritual stimulation to the "theory of moral vision" of the thirteenth-century Franciscan Peter of Limoges. Unfortunately Kamerick treats these women as a spiritual elite and misses the opportunity to interpret the common person's devotions in a similarly positive manner. Finally, in Chapter 6 Kamerick examines images in books of hours, the most intimate form that religious imagery took. Here she pays special attention to the relationship of religious text and image, a conscious patterning that precluded mere recitation of prayers by rote or the unconstrained meditation on an image.

Kamerick has written an important book that opens many doors on an important subject. Its flaws are clearly outweighed by the range of materials presented and the issues they raise. Nonetheless, she would have done well to foreground her statement on page 141 about "the quotidian world [being] suffused with supernatural meaning." It applied to Margery Kempe indeed, but also to her late medieval world ... and to certain Mexican villages today.

Joseph P. Byrne

Belmont University
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Author:Byrne, Joseph P.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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