Mobile Matters of Religion. Devotional Objects in the Early Modern Era

Mobile Matters of Religion. Devotional Objects in the Early Modern Era

Anne Mariss, Historical Institute, University of Regensburg; Klaus Unterburger, Faculty of Catholic Theology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich
Regensburg und digital
Vom - Bis
21.04.2022 - 23.04.2022
Maximilian Scholler, Institut für Geschichte, Universität Regensburg

For some time now, the material dimension of religion has formed an essential research focus in early modern history.[1] This conference highlighted the mobility of devotional objects as a specific aspect of their materiality. The aim was not only to determine the nature and function of these objects but also to create an approach to the history of Reformation and Confessionalization that promised to yield less static results than the analysis of texts alone. To this end, the workshop brought together scholars from different disciplines, including history, art history, and museum studies.

In her opening lecture, ANNE MARISS (Regensburg) approached the different dimensions of the mobility of devotional objects by pointing to four perspectives. Firstly, devotional objects exhibit a temporal mobility. Objects often tell other, more unstable stories about religious change or continuity than texts do. Furthermore, time and the temporal limitation of existence were an important factor in early modern practices of devotion. Secondly, objects show a high geographical mobility. Through their transfer, objects were imbued with new meanings and adapted to local customs and practices. A third dimension is that of spiritual mobility: Devotional objects helped people to move between different worldly and spiritual spheres and to enter into a relationship with the Divine. Finally, the aspect of relational mobility focuses on the different semanticizations of devotional objects in specific spatial contexts and touches on the question of how spaces can affect the interaction between people and objects.

DANIEL RIMSL (Regensburg) opened the first panel in the Diözesanzentrum Obermünster by presenting a time capsule found during excavations at Dachauplatz in Regensburg in 2017. The devotional objects were contained in a leaden box fitting tightly into a cornerstone of the nunnery of St. Claire, destroyed in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars. The archeological find was easily identified as a time capsule that the nuns put into the cornerstone when a new building was erected in 1679. The casket contained devotional objects that were produced in large quantities such as small figures of Mary with the baby Jesus made of white clay, several medals of organic materials, contemporary coins, crosses, and a small bottle containing a liquid that has since dried out – probably holy water or oil. The objects presumably stemmed from pilgrimage sites and were in the intimate possessions of the nuns whose names are written on the lead casket.

MATTHEW CHAMPION (Melbourne) dealt with sandglasses as mobile religious objects. Sandglasses exhibited a strong geographical mobility since they could be moved to different locations and were part of early modern modes of measuring time in secular and devotional contexts. Through the trickling of the sand as well as the pictorial representations on their tops and bottoms, they illustrated the ever-present threat of running out of time in a particularly striking way. One of the sandglasses held in the British Museum and discussed by Champion in greater detail features images taken from Petrarch’s “Von der Artzney bayder Glück” (Augsburg 1532). The intermediality of the object as well as handling it were crucial aspects in the performance of devotion as the focus on time was essential to the right disposition of the soul. From a methodological point of view, the objects demonstrate that materials, images, and texts have to be read in a shared historical context.

MINOU SCHRAVEN (Amsterdam/Leiden) started the second panel with her presentation on the blessed beads of the failed saint and mystic Juana de la Cruz (d. 1534). During her raptures, Juana envisioned scenes of the life of Jesus that were not part of the Gospel and brought back blessed beads that had touched Christ’s wounds. Those beads were distributed wherever the nuns who venerated the Spanish mystic travelled: from Spain to the Netherlands and the New World. Women in particular – and not only nuns – studied the life of Juana intensively and attributed to her blessed beads an agency of their own. The Catholic Church struggled to push back the mysticism associated with those devotional objects and their frequently unorthodox uses as they posed a threat to its doctrinal authority and ran in direct competition with its own consecrated objects and their worldwide distribution. Thus, the beads show a spiritual mobility moving Juana’s devotees but also a high geographical mobility. Ultimately, they even had the political power to move the Catholic Church in its often inefficient attempts to regulate forms of private devotion in the early modern era.

MIRELLA MARINELLI (Brest) emphasized that religious objects moved between multi-faceted identities depending on the context and specific use of these objects, with identities sometimes overlapping. She illustrated this thesis with the example of the relic of Saint Coleta, which she understood not only as a devotional object but also as a medical tool as well as an instrument of modelling dynastic identities, since the relic was of great importance for the Burgundian-Habsburg dynasty. This function was demonstrated, among other things, by the fact that the relic was taken to various places and exhibited in processions. The case of the relic of Saint Coleta shows that objects united different forms of meaning and were mobile in themselves, oscillating between the ability to be used as cure, dynastic showpiece, and devotional object that enabled the user to enter into a relation with the supernatural.

The third panel explored devotional objects on the move, a process that often modified their meaning along the paths of religious missions. SUZANNA IVANIČ (Kent) first focused on Prague as a local center from which Catholic objects spread to Europe and beyond. Using examples of several works of agate art, she showed how the analysis of devotional objects can contribute to a new perspective on the relationship between nature, culture, and religion. Specific objects also changed location over time, and subsequently received various uses and were presented in changing ways, such as when Rudolph II included them in his Kunstkammer. Thus, looking at the mobility of sacred objects sheds light on the individual appropriation of the same objects by different actors; the respective religion itself to which the objects are assigned does not appear as a uniform block from this perspective but in a variety of shades.

CORINNA GRAMATKE (Düsseldorf) discussed the importance of devotional objects for the Jesuit mission in Paracuaria in the 17th century. By analyzing cargo lists, she demonstrated that the Jesuits mainly brought printed media, medals, rosaries, and relics to Latin America. Hence, the objects show geographical mobility in a global dimension. However, due to the individual appropriation by indigenous peoples, these objects also underwent new contextualizations over time. In this regard, the discussion referred to similar processes that can be observed in plays and dances used by the Jesuits for didactic purposes which were particularly popular among indigenous peoples. According to that, the field of the Jesuit mission offers rich potential for research into the mobility of religious practices in general.

DANIEL HERSHENZON (Connecticut) turned his attention to the Maghreb and thus to a region that represents a zone of intense cultural contact in the early modern period, especially between Muslims and Christians. He showed how Catholic objects in particular circulated as looted goods in the Western Mediterranean, and how thereby they were made to serve different interests. The captive objects did not simply cross geographical borders and connected demarcated confessional areas. Rulers also deliberately allowed themselves to be depicted with these objects in order to strengthen their own position. The example presented here thus highlights how temporal, geographical, and relational mobility were connected.

The final panel of the conference was devoted to the relational mobility of devotional objects with regard to their collection, display, and musealization. RÓISÍN WATSON (Oxford) explored the confessional mobility of images, using the example of the Protestant church in Kirchheim unter Teck in the Duchy of Württemberg. The images always remained in the same place, but their meaning changed over the course of the Reformation. The church’s pastor, Johannes Schuler, used Catholic images with the didactic purpose of revealing the heresy of those who had produced it. This visual lesson allowed Protestants a Lutheran view of these pictures, thereby reinforcing their confessional self-location. However, further factors than just the perspective of the clergy played a crucial role in the reappropriation of Catholic imagery, among those aesthetic reasons as well as emotional ties between an artwork and the respective community.

KIM SIEBENHÜNER (Jena) argued that the confessional character of Kunstkammern has received too little attention in research, especially since sacred and devotional objects were constitutive elements in the formation of early modern collections. Siebenhüner looked at two examples from Protestant contexts: the Kunstkammer of the Ulm merchant Hans Weickmann and the Franckesche Stiftungen in Halle. While Weickmann placed devotional objects such as Muslim and Catholic prayer beads with other exotic artefacts, the curator and artist August Hermann Gründler created a cabinet crammed with religious objects from all over the world demonstrating the idolatry of those who used them. Thus, the display and arrangement of devotional objects oscillates between the poles of alienation and secularization.

EVA DOLEZEL (Berlin) focused on the framing of a Vishnu shrine from the early 18th century which was transferred to the Kunstkammer of the Franckesche Stiftungen in Halle in the 1730s. The shrine changed its meaning several times from its manufacture in India to its presentation in Halle: While it was still a devotional object in India, it was desacralized in the course of Christian mission, before being re-semanticized in an ethnographical sense in the museum, initially in the taxonomy of the above-mentioned curator Gründler. In the exhibition itself, the shrine was re-sacralized, if in a manner different from the original one: It then symbolized the victory of Christianity over Hinduism and served pedagogical purposes.

The workshop opened up new perspectives on the material culture of Catholicism in the early modern world by looking at small devotional objects and images. The discussions demonstrated that objects and material culture are not to be understood as a kind of methodological addendum to historical texts. Instead, they fundamentally change the approach to religious history as they are embedded in the manifold historical contexts they were surrounded by. The papers also showed that the different strands of mobility that were separated heuristically in the introduction overlap in historical reality. The movement of objects through times and spaces, their ever-changing meaning and (re-)interpretation as well as their various uses points to the complexity of religious change that took place over the course of the early modern era and often contradicts more conventional narratives of confessionalization. In her afterword, Anne Mariss emphasized that the workshop served for a kick-off meeting of a larger project that aims at continuing the discussions.

Conference overview:

Klaus Unterburger (Regensburg): Welcome

Anne Mariss (Regensburg): Opening Remarks

Panel I: Times & Spaces of Devotional Objects
chair: Anne Mariss

Daniel Rimsl (Regensburg): Presentation of the Timecapsule found in a Roman Ashlar (1679) at the Diocesan Museum of Regensburg

Matthew Champion (Melbourne): A Devotion to Time: Towards a Mobile and Material History of the Premodern Sandglass

Panel II: Material Sanctity & Female Devotion
chair: Daniel Rimsl

Minou Schraven (Amsterdam/Leiden): Materiality, Agency and Anxiety: The Blessed Beads of the Failed Saint and Mystic Juana de la Cruz (d. 1534)

Mirella Marini (Brest): The Transformative Power of the Relic of Saint Coleta at the 17th Century Brussels Court

Panel III: Changing Beliefs – Devotional Objects on the Move
chair: Klaus Unterburger

Suzanna Ivanič (Kent): Early Modern Prague at the Crossroads of Catholicism

Corinna Gramatke (Düsseldorf): „La portátil Europa“. Devotional Objects from Europe for the Jesuit Province of Paracuaria (1608–1667)

Daniel Hershenzon (Connecticut): Captive Objects: Catholic Artifacts across the Early Modern Mediterranean

Panel IV: Collecting & Viewing Religious Objects
(chair: Markus Diepold)

Róisín Watson (Oxford): Viewing Catholic Objects through the “Glasses of the Holy Ghost”: The Case of the Lutheran Church in Kirchheim unter Teck

Kim Siebenhüner (Jena): Collected (Un-)Belief. Res Sacrae in Cabinets of Curiosity in South and Central Germany

Eva Dolezel (Berlin): Cracking the Frame. A Portable Shrine of Vishnu in the Kunstkammer of the Franckesche Stiftungen in Halle

Anne Mariss (Regensburg): Afterword

[1] See for example Suzanna Ivanič / Mary Laven / Andrew Morrall (ed.), Religious Materiality in the Early Modern World (Visual and Material Culture, 1300–1700), Amsterdam 2019.

Veröffentlicht am
Weitere Informationen
Land Veranstaltung
Sprache(n) der Konferenz
Sprache des Berichts