- The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O! ed. by Mary Dzon and Theresa Kenney
In the introduction to The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!, the editors express a desire to provide an interdisciplinary sourcebook on the figure of the infant and adolescent Jesus in late antiquity through the Middle Ages. In this, they have succeeded with a collection of essays that cover a sweeping variety of forms, genres, and social settings. The central motif is that of Christ as a child whose Incarnation simultaneously prefigures and manifests his Passion, and whose paradoxical divine and human nature fascinated and perplexed medieval Christians, from the highest theologian to the simplest believer.
Part 1 of the volume, “The Christ Child as Sacrifice,” begins with the reprint of a 1973 essay by Leah S. Marcus on the theological fusion of the Incarnation and Passion in the English cycle plays. Marcus’s study was seminal in identifying the basic elements of the Christ Child motif and pointing to the interdisciplinary scope of the theme in medieval culture; although it understandably does not engage with more recent scholarship on such issues as medieval ideas of childhood, the piece has a clarity and focus that sets the tone for the subsequent chapters of the volume. In Theresa Kenney’s contribution, the conflation of manger and altar as the locus of sacrifice in Middle English lyrics is a starting point for discussion of one of the most important aspects of the motif: that of the “collapse” of sacramental time that allows Christ’s birth, death, and all the events in between to be represented as simultaneous. Often identified as a Franciscan innovation, the theological and devotional preoccupation with Christ’s nativity is convincingly traced by Keeney back to fourth-century hymnody. The theme of the Proleptic Passion is taken up by Elina Gertsman in her essay on the iconography of the Child of Sorrows, in which the infant Jesus carries the instruments of his Passion, and by Nicole Fallon in her discussion of both textual and visual presentation of the Child Jesus mounted in a tree that figures at once as the tree of life and the wood of the Cross.
The affective power of the child figure is further explored in the second part of the volume, “The Christ Child and Feminine Spirituality.” Mary Dzon shows how the mystical visions of Birgitta of Sweden exploit the motif of cloth and sewing that are so central to the spiritual identity of medieval women. Here the image of the “fabric” of Jesus’s human body sewn in the womb of the Virgin is continued by the swaddling clothes, seamless tunic, and burial garments, items that are produced by Mary. The role of Jesus’s mother in all the moments of his earthly life is again the focus of Holly Flora’s discussion of the illustrations of one manuscript of the fourteenth-century Meditations on the Life of Christ (BnF ital. 115), which relates that Mary herself performed Jesus’s circumcision; the first to shed Christ’s blood in an act that prefigures the Eucharist, the weeping Mary, anticipating her son’s pain in the Crucifixion, demonstrates an intense emotional engagement and [End Page 605] serves as a model for the female Franciscan reader for whom this devotional work was intended. Reinforcement of the spiritual experience of the female religious is also the objective of the late-medieval German sister books discussed by Richard Kieckhefer. These fourteenth-century volumes tell of visions of the Christ Child that appeared to thirteenth-century nuns, often in moments of illness and at the point of death, and seek to promote an intense spirituality that is both deeply individual and powerfully communal when shared with the nuns’ fellow sisters.
The development of the child Jesus captures our attention in the final three essays of the volume. William MacLehose, through discussion of both polemical treatises and a well-known poem...