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Fragments of Heaven on Earth. Studying devotionalia

When does an object become religiously meaningful? How do you trace such objects and how do you study them? These questions were of central importance for those involved in the Ruusbroec Research Training Day (University of Antwerp, 26 April 2017) on objects used in devotional practices – and, more specifically, on prints and small relics. The workshop aimed to encourage reflection on the historical function, value and provenance of these small devotionalia. The renewed interest in these objects ties in with the increasing interest in lived religion, encouraging scholars from different disciplines to work together. This article gives a brief overview of where we stand today.

Although the material turn in religious history has been well on its way since the 1980s, small Catholic devotionalia such as pocket-sized relics and devotional prints have barely caught the attention of scholars. This disinterest is not due to a lack of sources, as the production of devotional cards between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries was immense and thousands have survived — amongst others in the unparalleled Ruusbroec collection that comprises no less than 40,000 cards. Relics also circulated on a large scale, with small fragments of saintly bones, clothes or cards that had touched these relics carefully preserved.

Nevertheless, both types of sources have largely been ignored, as historians continued to favour textual sources while art historians gave preference to the ‘great’ (or grander) works of art. The ‘ordinariness’ of the items might also have played a role in their neglect, as many of these small objects did not seem to have any intrinsic value, having been produced on a massive scale (especially those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) and made from paper or textiles, not gold or silver. What it appears to come down to is that scholars seldom know what to make of these objects. While they might offer lovely material for illustrations in publications (and they have often been used as such) is that really all they are valuable for?

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Ill.1 Oval paper reliquary with relics from several saints. All on red cloth, with cutout paper decoration and gold painted outlines. There is also a drawing of Jesus' bleeding heart and the wounds from the crucifixion, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute Library, Primary Relic, 1

In recent decades, scholars working on the history of religion have showed an increasing interest in ‘religion as practised’ (rather than ‘religion as prescribed’, William Christian, Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain, 1981). This bottom-up approach addresses the religious practices and interpretations of the faithful rather than the norms and teachings imposed by the Church and clergy (see e.g. Hans Geybels, Heiligen en tradities in Vlaanderen. Lente en zomer, 2017). As interest in ‘lived religion’ (what people actually believe or do) of the past increased, practices that involved the touching, seeing and even smelling of the divine also became a subject of interest, as did the objects that made this possible.

Scholars took their cue from recent anthropological research on the mediatory role of the senses. Work on visual piety (e.g. David Morgan, The Embodied Eye. Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling, 2012), tactile piety (Cynthia Frank, The Memory of the Eyes. Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity, 2000) and ‘sensational forms’ (forms that ‘make it possible to sense the transcendental’, Birgit Meyer, ‘Religious sensations. Why media, aesthetics and power matter in the study of contemporary religion’, in: Hent de Vries (ed.), Religion: Beyond a Concept, 2008) provided significant new impulses. These works have also influenced studies of material Catholic devotional culture, primarily folkloristic studies which list and describe religious rituals and heritage collections.

While for the modern viewer, these small devotional objects – such as glass cases with a cloth fragment – might look strange, for the faithful of previous centuries they were objects to be cherished and venerated. The devotional cards and relics were media that could be used to gain access to the divine in religious practices. As Peter Nissen (Radboud University, Nijmegen) stated succinctly at the workshop: ‘Material objects are not just tools, they produce religious experience and enable a sensual experience of the sacred’. Carefully preserved by the faithful, deposited in museum, church and archival collections, these devotionalia offer scholars a unique view of religious practices and lived religion of the past. Some of them clearly show traces of how the faithful carried them on their bodies and touched them. Others, such as the meticulously cut paper cards (Ill.2), reveal the care and dedication with which they were created, often by religious women. In these cases, the manual labour – the production process itself – was religiously meaningful, a means of meditation.

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Ill.2. St. Matthew, Watercolour miniature, on background of meticulously cut parchment, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute Library

The puzzled and fascinated look of many modern viewers when they stumble upon such objects shows how the meaning attributed to such items can change, and how difficult it is for the modern-day scholar to study them. In an ideal scenario, we can put the devotional objects in their specific historical context (see e.g. the work of Evelyne Verheggen on devotional prints in books and manuscripts of religious orders, Beelden voor passie en hartstocht. Bid- en devotieprenten in de Noordelijke Nederlanden 17de en 18de eeuw, 2006) and they can be linked to Catholic ideas on images and their use in devotional and/or meditational processes of their time (see e.g. the work of Ingrid Falque from the Université catholique de Louvain, Devotional Portraiture and Spiritual Experience in Early Netherlandish Painting, 2017).

Most often, however, the challenge lies in the fact that these devotionalia have been cut loose from their historical context and it is not always easy to determine where they circulated. This does not mean that they are lost as sources for the present-day historian.

We can study the production, distribution, sacralization and consumption of these smaller objects, or the impact they had on the daily lives of the faithful (see e.g. the work of Charles Caspers, Titus Brandsma Institute/Nijmegen, ‘Tegen de pest en tegen de ketters. Amuletten en hun werking volgens de Brabantse norbertijn Augustinus Wichmans in zijn Apotheca spiritualium pharmacorum (1626)’. In: Arie L. Molendijk (ed.), Materieel christendom. Religie en materiële cultuur in West-Europa, Hilversum, 2003). The ‘problem’ is that to achieve the best results, scholars from various disciplines (spirituality studies, art history, history, religious studies and theology) need to collaborate.

In the current academic context, this is not so straightforward. Moreover, it implies going beyond academia, involving other kinds of institutions, and communicating, for example, with museums (Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht (the Netherlands) is preparing an exhibition on relics), national institutes such as the Belgian Royal Institute for Art Heritage in Brussels (which organized a workshop on relics last autumn, primarily on more technical aspects such as preservation and dating techniques, ‘Relics @ the lab’) and, finally, libraries (such as the heritage library of the Ruusbroec Institute).

Another aspect that makes working on these small items slightly more challenging than other sources is that their inventory and digitalization have often only just begun (e.g. the Central Library of the University of Antwerp is launching a new system next autumn, see the work of Karen Bowen). Such digital platforms will allow us to see recurring and changing topics, related sources (devotional books, etc.), recurring artists, changing subtexts and other patterns. Similarly, the inventories of the Ruusbroec collection now allow thematic and geographic searches of it. There is still a long way to go, but at least those who have embarked on this journey are gradually finding each other. 

Tine Van Osselaer (University of Antwerp).

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