- Imagining the Passion in a Multiconfessional Castile: The Virgin, Christ, Devotions, and Images in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries by Robinson, Cynthia
Whether Europe’s borders end at the Pyrenees or the Straits of Gibraltar is a question that will be familiar to Hispanists working in a range of disciplines. Robinson’s study, which offers an absorbing insight into problems of cultural specificity, argues strongly in favour of a uniquely Castilian religious identity distinct from that of Europe. Her central contention, which is put forward with conviction in a series of chapters devoted to Christ and the Virgin, is that late-medieval Castilian representations of the Passion display a marked aversion towards engagement with scenes of somatic violence. While in Europe, meditations on the humiliations, torments, and death of Christ had reached mystical, even feverish heights, culminating in personalized passion imagery, designed to elicit procedures of mimetic identification, such devotion was not fashionable in Castile before the final decade of the fifteenth century.
A key feature of Robinson’s case concerns the Meditationes Vitae Christi (MVC), which was not translated into Castilian until the final decade of the fifteenth century, and cannot be thought of as occupying a central place in the devotional lives of Castilian believers. In fact, its place was occupied by a series of excerpted chapters from the Llibre del Crestià, composed around 1400 by the Catalan Franciscan tertiary Françesc Eiximenis. Crucially, parts of this vast multi-volume compendium of didactic material, known as the Vida de Cristo or Vita Christi (VC), were reworked into Castilian by the 1430s, long before the importation of the trans-Pyrenean narratives of Christ’s life sponsored by Queen Isabel in the final decade of the fifteenth century.
In dealing with the VC, Robinson relies on four Castilian manuscripts. One such, BNE 18772, is fragmentary, and is used to sustain observations on Christ’s public works and Passion, while three others (BNE 770, 12688, and 12689) circulated as part of a hagiographic compendium, and interpolate fragments of the VC into their respective sequential positions in the liturgical-sanctoral calendar. These works are supplemented by a printed revision of the VC, undertaken in 1496 by “Jerónimo de Talavera” [sic for the Hieronymite friar Hernando de Talavera], and preserved as BNE I–1126 and BUS I–218. Observations relating to the Virgin and Christ’s infancy are derived from these later editions. [End Page 306]
On the basis of an analysis of its dissemination in manuscript and early printed form, Robinson argues that in contrast to other European countries, where the MVC would have been regarded as the “default version of Christ’s life” (12), the most direct influence on the devotional lives of believers in Castile would have been the VC. In view of this, she spends several pages coaxing out distinctions between the two. Unlike the MVC, she affirms, Eiximenis presents his readers with a Christ who is almost exclusively divine and all powerful, and with a visionary Virgin who is very close to his equal, herself the recipient of divine revelations and celestial knowledge. This distinction was fashioned and deployed with polemical purposes in mind, and is punctuated by observations and chapters that are didactic or exegetical in intent.
Robinson argues that this more cerebral focus allows Eiximenis to avoid detailed or prolonged consideration of the indignities and sufferings to which Christ was subjected, and to produce a text aimed not at somatic identification, but as a means with which to induce repentance and conversion. Its purpose in this respect leads her to claim that “Castilian ecclesiastics were driven by a collective desire to understand the intricate workings of both Judaism and Islam, not so that they might live peacefully with their adherents, but rather in order to better seduce those adherents toward the Christian truth” (19). Accordingly, the defining characteristic of pre-1490 Castilian spirituality, and the factor that renders Castile different...