- Imagining the Passion in a Multiconfessional Castile: The Virgin, Christ, Devotions, and Images in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries by Cynthia Robinson
In this book Robinson argues, forcefully, exhaustively, and magisterially, that Castilian representations of the Passion in the first half of the fifteenth century centered less on the somatic details of Jesus’s suffering and torment and more on an abstract understanding of the significance of his sacrifice. Castilians’ experience of the Passion in liturgical and devotional settings differed from that of their counterparts elsewhere in Latin Christendom because in Castile the audience of such representations often included Jews, Muslims, and recent converts to Christianity for whom the strong emphasis on Christ’s humanity, typical of Western representations of the Passion, was problematic, if not offensive. According to Robinson, the culture of the Passion in Castile was largely determined by the missionizing, polemic nature of Christianity in Castile, often engaged in religious arguments with Jews and Muslims which facilitated the exchange of ideas about revelation and the nature of the relationship between the human and the divine. In order to make Christianity more appealing to Jews and Muslims (or to newer Christians who required a little extra convincing), Castilian churchmen made Christianity look a bit more like Islam and Judaism.
Robinson’s thesis is very much in line with current thinking about medieval Castilian culture in general. Historians and literary scholars have long noted Castile’s exceptionality in medieval Europe for the fact of the centuries-long military and diplomatic engagement with Andalusi Muslim polities and cultural production. Robinson’s intervention is the first major study to make similar arguments for Castilian devotional culture.
In chapter 1, “The Life of Christ from Polemic to Devotion: Texts and Images” (31–110), Robinson studies an (unedited) Castilian translation of a Vita Christi by the Valencian friar Françesc Eiximenis (ca. 1330–1409) that circulated widely in Castile in various secondary recensions and interpretations. She argues that Eiximenis’s representation of the Passion focused far more on establishing the abstract “truth” of the Passion than on the physical details of Christ’s suffering. [End Page 109] According to her, Eiximenis’s goal was to help his audience, which included many Jews, Muslims, and new converts to Christianity, to comprehend the magnitude and meaning of Christ’s suffering, rather than imagine themselves undergoing the physical tortures and emotional depredations that Christ endured. Robinson then maps the concepts in Eiximenis’s text onto specific features of Gallardo’s iconography in the Retablo de Ciudad Rodrigo.
Chapter 2, “Christ Crucified” (111–54), focuses on how visual representations of Christ on the cross center on the internal state of the viewer, and attempt to lead him or her away from meditating on Christ’s physical pain and toward a more mystical experience of Christ’s union with God. Robinson argues that Eiximenis and his predecessor Ramon Llull (ca. 1232–ca. 1315) wrote texts influenced both by Andalusi mystics and Jewish Kabbalists that focused on the ecstatic union of the devout with God. These texts, she claims, mediated through secondary formats such as sermon manuals and handbooks, would have predisposed Castilians in liturgical and devotional practice to imagine an internal Passion that, in Robinson’s words, “converts the pain experienced by both the devotee and Christ into the tears and sighs of the lovelorn” (133).
The focus shifts to representations of the Virgin Mary in chapter 3, “Virgo Triumphans” (155–240). Here Robinson explains that in Castilian sources the Virgin is portrayed as the gatekeeper to salvation in Christ and, more importantly for her argument, as a mediator of conversion to Christ. She bases her observations on Eiximenis’s Vita Christi and other texts that circulated in late medieval Castile, applying these textual concepts to a visual analysis of the Chapel of Saint Jerome at the convent of La Concepción Francisca in Toledo. Robinson stresses that in Castilian devotional traditions the Virgin is often portrayed as performing miracles of conversion, an aspect...