- The Eucharist in Romanesque France: Iconography and Theology
Elizabeth Saxon nicely delineates the multifarious ways in which thinking about the Eucharist permeated theology, church reform, and piety during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Debate over Christ's real presence in the two species, the salvific effects of communion, and the role of interior disposition (minister's and recipient's) in the sacrament's validity thrust the Eucharist into the realm of devotional affect and bound it ever more tightly to the discourse of penance/spiritual purification. Saxon supplements her discussion of textual sources with a consideration of pictorial iconography "so that the reader can contemplate, through a wider juxtaposition than that usually practicable in more detailed specialized scholarship, something of the mood of the period" (p. 2). Here in the proverbial nutshell, however, lie the book's twin deficits: a questionable purpose (period mood) and a flat, descriptive method.
Although Saxon's extensive reliance on my own publications is most gratifying, I would be remiss as a reviewer not to point out the limitations of her study. Failing to identify larger questions with which to interrogate the Eucharist as an object of study, she breaks no new ground in the history of medieval Christian culture. Nor does her introduction of French Romanesque sculpture, treated as an extension of theology, advance understanding of the medium that distinguishes the artistic production of this era. The Eucharist in Romanesque France is nevertheless a useful digest for two constituencies: art historians will appreciate the clarity with which it summarizes the key issues surrounding the primary sacrament, and historians of religion will appreciate the cataloguing of recurrent themes depicted in monumental church decoration. [End Page 331]
If the latter specialists may wonder what the author's synthesis of the scholarly literature adds to current knowledge of theological and ecclesiological rumination during the period at hand, the former will find her treatment of Romanesque sculpture disappointing. Why, first of all, focus on sculpture? The rationale, though cursorily explained (sculpture's innovative, public aspects), is not cogently argued. Indeed, the author's preoccupation with iconography as a compositional code undermines the decision to privilege a particular medium. Saxon acknowledges that "art not only illustrates written ideas but can itself actively contribute to debate" (p. 2). But she does not engage the works on their own terms, that is to say, address their material dimension as an integral part of an architectural fabric or reflect on their formal, nonverbal qualities through which they concretize meaning. Yet the physicality, density, and plasticity of the sculptural medium would seem highly relevant to precisely the concerns that she tracks through the vehicle of the Eucharist, namely embodiment, presence, and affect. Saxon's critical naiveté with respect to the functions of Romanesque sculpture is not surprising, though, given the significant bibliographic lacunae, especially of French scholarship. The Eucharist in Romanesque France falls short by the standards usually demanded in academic publishing: an original contribution to a field of study and rigorous research are lacking. Still, the book may be worth consulting as an accessible guide to the controversies in which the Eucharist became embroiled from the mid-eleventh century. [End Page 332]