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The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England.

The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England. By Sarah Stanbury. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8122-4038-2. Pp 291. $65.00.

The English religious reformers known as Lollards maintained that the veneration paid to representations of God and the saints, to relics, and to the Eucharist were acts of idolatry that violated the Decalogue's command not to worship images. The institutional church met the Lollard challenge to its traditional devotions with tracts defending the doctrine of transubstantiation, the cult of saints, and the use of images to instruct the laity. The debate between English iconomachs and iconodules furnishes Sarah Stanbury's The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England with a context for interpreting representations of devotional images in texts written between 1380 and 1450. In ingenious readings that are less linear arguments than meditative ponderings, Stanbury sees anxiety about images everywhere, among images' defenders as much as among their critics. She makes the spring-board to her inquiries the oft-voiced Lollard critique that images were "dead"--lifeless and incapable of working the miracles credulous worshippers ascribed to them. Stanbury believes that the Lollard "assertion of deadness protests, of course, too much" that the group contested images because they believed in their vitality: "The very insistence on the deadness of images points to their potential vivacity--to their potential for animation" (26). Stanbury accordingly focuses on images that, when employed in ritual, have a degree of liveliness conferred on them. She is especially interested in images that ape the human body so closely that they can be taken for living flesh. For these objects combining the characteristics of seductive image and of lively body, Stanbury uses the term "fetish."

In her "Introduction: Premodern Fetishes;' Stanbury defines fetishes as "objects that we love too much" (14), and she invests the term with Freudian and Marxist overtones. She avers that Lollard iconomachs would have used the word "fetish" had they known it, since they viewed images as overtly sensual as well as tied to immoral economies: "Explicit in Lollard commentary is that people love devotional pictures and objects sensuously, wrongly reverencing inert matter. Less explicitly stated, but liberally implied, is that lovers of images also disavow the exchanges of capital that work to give them their appearance of agency" (19). Stanbury has good grounds for imbuing images with an erotic elan, since the Middle Ages generally elided the visual and the erotic; as she puts it, "In the familiar medieval lexicon of idolatry and eroticism, to worship a woman as idol is to become an idolator" (102). But the anti-capitalist project she attributes to the Lollards seems a stretch, not fully borne out by the passages from the Lollard documents she quotes. The connections Stanbury draws between Marxist critique of capitalism and the Lollards' denunciations of images are largely metaphoric. In particular, Marx's suggestion that commodities "appear as independent beings endowed with life" (119) is made to dovetail with the Lollards' distaste for realistic human representation: "If we are tempted to endow images with life, it is because we want to pray to them in a cost/benefit exchange" (26). Aside from her Marxist framework, Stanbury nods to some of the moral concerns that are explicit in Lollard discourse about money and images, namely that ornate gilded images were used by a greedy church to defraud the laity of money better spent on alms, and that they were interpreted by a wealthy laity as approving their own lives of luxury (23-25). She does not mention simony, the exchange of material goods for spiritual gifts, which was a constant Lollard preoccupation often invoked in their complaints about images.

The chapters of The Visual Object of Desire constitute less a continuous argument than a selection of essays loosely grouped into three sections. The first and third sections deal with religious texts as well as with a single material artifact, and throughout Stanbury teases out how medieval discourse about images speaks to the culture's sexual, social, and economic desires. Section 1, titled "Fetish, Idol, Icon," includes two very different chapters. The second is the odd member of the volume, examining not texts but figurative art. In "The Despenser Retable and 1381," Stanbury deals with social desires inscribed in the eponymous object, a fourteenth-century altarpiece that survived Reformation iconoclasm on Norwich Cathedral. Stanbury reads the Retable's panels of Christ's Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension as celebrating the suppression of the Peasants' Rebellion; the subsidiary figures in the panels, Christ's executioners and disciples, encoded as peasants and nobility respectively, enact a drama of social conflict resolved into a hierarchical order that privileges wealth, class, and power.

The first chapter in section 1, "Knighton's Lollards, Capgrave's Katherine, and Walter Hilton's 'Merk Ymage,'" is more typical of the volumes concerns and methods. Here Stanbury examines texts from three different genres: historical chronicle, saint's life, and devotional manual. Their authors all defend traditional religion against the Lollards yet exhibit attitudes toward images similar to those of the reformers: in all, "the power of images is coterminus with a certain sexualized or feminized agency" (42). Stanbury's linking Henry Knighton's Chronicle and John Capgrave's Life of St. Katherine of Alexandria to iconoclasts' habit of feminizing and sexualizing devotional art makes sense, as Knighton satirizes Lollards for burning a statue of St. Katherine, and Capgrave's Life, like other vitae of that saint, portrays her rivalry with an idolator who lusts after her. But the attempt to see the "merk" or dark image of Hilton's Scale of Perfection, a symbol of the soul of the anchoress to whom the work is addressed, as a response to the image controversy is not convincing. Hilton writes in a tradition of mystical literature that depicts the sinful soul as a deformed, discolored, or filthy image, in fact as an idol. Nor did Hilton share iconoclasts' "horror and disgust" at images (53); he's horrified by sin, not by representation, as he directs that the "merk ymage" be reformed to the image of Christ, an image the anchoress is to love and delight in. Medieval England had no single discourse about vision and / or images, and not every discussion of mental, imaginative, literary, or optical "images" or "idols" is necessarily part of the conversation about the religious uses of material representations. Hilton's and other writers' discussions of images may be colored by contemporary controversy, but Stanbury's arguments would be more persuasive if she showed that English writings were more leery about images than those earlier in their respective traditions.

The two chapters of section 3, "Moving Images," argue that two works of affective piety, written by authors whose agendas are explicitly anti-heterodox, respond in similar ways to Lollard controversy. Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ directs his readers to imagine interacting with a living Christ, and in her exuberantly sui-generis Book, Margery Kempe details her conversations with a talkative and animated Jesus. For Stanbury, these writers' vigorous Jesus "counters reformist polemic that decried images as 'dead stocks"' (215)--though it would be an unusual Christian who prayed to a dead and powerless Christ. Stanbury's search for Lollard valences in common Christian language often distracts her from more central issues: if Love's and Kempe's meditations engage with a Jesus like the living-dead Man of Sorrows, they're less likely responding to Lollard formulas about dead images than attempting to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. If Kempe sees herself kneeling before Jesus, it's not because she's imagining herself in the posture assumed by donors of church furniture in their portraits, as Stanbury argues, but because that was the usual stance of worship.

Stanbury's interest in all this material is not primarily religious; as her introduction makes clear, for her the image debate "articulat[es] some of the ideological and material concerns of late medieval England" (13), and images themselves provide "touchstones for many social and economic hot topics" (16). Yet for the Lollards the hottest topics were religious. They wished to reform both doctrine and practice, and Stanbury seems ill at ease on these matters. While not precisely wrong, her discussions of theology and ritual don't hit the nail squarely on the head. Some slippage is minor: Jean du Berry's Tres Riches Heures is not a calendar, though it has one (82); a monstrance is not used at Mass but at rituals of Eucharistic adoration (85); John of Damascus did not compose an "Apostacy" but an Apology (222). But the central argument of the book concerns how Christians of various stripes viewed images, relics, and the Eucharist as places where spirit met matter, and on these questions Stanbury often misses the mark. She repeatedly paraphrases iconodule doctrine as "exhort[ing us] to worship the idea beyond the image and not the image itself" (6) as if God were an "abstraction" (8). At one point she speaks of "incarnate bodies" (37), and her Incarnation involves "the conversion of immaterial to material" (178). The Trinity is a "God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost" (19) who were sometimes represented as "God, crucifixion, and dove" (211). One must take exception to some of Stanbury's understandings of both traditional and heterodox views. No iconodule would think it acceptable to "worship Katherine's image" as long as he also worshipped Christ (40), nor would he think Katherine's condemnation of pagan idols in any way heretical (44). No pilgrim would see in a relic or saint's attribute "the saint as victorious over corporeality," as "trump[ing] matter" (71) but more likely promises of physical health in this world and of a glorified resurrected body in the next. The Lollards distrusted depictions of the Trinity because they thought them idolatrous, not because they depicted its persons "as living beings" (19). Stanbury generally treats the Lollards as if they were Manicheans, horrified by matter itself.

While I find Stanbury in The Visual Object of Desire shaky on religious terminology, I genuinely admire her skills as a literary critic. Her virtues come to the fore whenever she pays minute attention to the language of texts, but especially in the second of this book's three sections, "Chaucer's Sacramental Poetic:' In three chapters focusing respectively on Chaucer's classical romances and dream visions, The Clerk's Tale, and The Prioress's Tale, Stanbury offers sharp-eyed, subtle, and provocative interpretations of the interactions among vision, bodies, and ritual.

Stanbury's readings of Chaucer show the complexity of medieval literary treatments of vision, how acts of seeing raise issues of political and ecclesiastical power, erotic subjectivity, literary authority, vernacular poetics, and the relationship of individual to community. If I was not persuaded by some of the arguments Wing specific texts to the Lollard image debate, I found the book clever and often fun to read. While it cannot be recommended as a primer about the literary influences of the Lollard image controversy, it can be appreciated as the work of a mind as lively as the images it contemplates.

Monica Brzezinski Potkay

The College of William & Mary
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Author:Potkay, Monica Brzezinski
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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