BOOK REVIEW: The Materiality of Devotion in Late Medieval Northern Europe: Images, Objects and Practices—Review by Caroline J. Croasdaile

Henning Laugerud, Salvador Ryan, and Laura Katrine Skinnebach (eds). The Materiality of Devotion in Late Medieval Northern Europe: Images, Objects and Practices. (Dublin: Four Court Press, 2016) pp. 218, ISBN: 978-1-8468-2503-3

This slim yet intellectually dense anthology considers medieval sensory devotional practices and their role in bridging the divide between physicality and spirituality through the use of text, images, artefacts, and instruments of piety. The book comprises eight essays that explore the ways in which Christians paradoxically engaged their senses in order to overcome them and access the divine through varied methods such as gazing at an icon, hearing the echoes of mass in a cathedral, touching the tomb of a saint, smelling aromatic myrrh, or tasting the Eucharist. In the late medieval period the senses were commonly held to be the gateway of the soul, and images were thought to leave an imprint on the brain which could then transform into memory. According to Augustine, the medieval saint and theologian, sensation dwelled in and traversed a threshold between the materiality of the body and the immateriality of the soul.[1] This medieval understanding of the senses thus heightens the importance and impact of sensory-based religious practices and art in the late medieval era, a consideration that is seriously addressed in this book, which occupies an interesting and developing place in historical research today.

The contributors to this anthology approach their subject matter from a valuable interdisciplinary perspective, and the authors come from fields that include not only art history but also theology, ecclesiastical studies, linguistics, communications, and aesthetics. As one would expect, and in line with much of the recent historiography of the Middle Ages, the theories and methodologies that they apply are equally diverse. Scholarship in this book includes a medium-based examination on the significance and hierarchy of material applied to a John the Baptist’s head reliquary entitled “Don’t Judge a Head by its Cover: The Materiality of the Johannesschussel as Reliquary” by Soetkin Vanhauwaert and Georg Geml. Another essay is a sharp iconographical and etymological study of the Annunciation and its corresponding biblical text by Barbara Baert, “The Annunciation and the Senses: Late Medieval Devotion and the Pictorial Gaze.” The essays in this anthology are reliant on art and imagery as primary sources, and the contributors of this book appropriately look to and support their research with the aid of the glossy and crisp illustrations found in the centerfold of the collection.

In an anthology of this kind, the title is a key element in uniting the corresponding essays collected in the book. However, it seems not all of the authors are in complete accord as to what the term materiality entails, and this definition tends to morph problematically throughout the book. Some articles focus on the literal material nature of objects, as in the essay regarding the Johannesschussel reliquary, while other authors focus more on what seems to be the issue of immateriality, as with the articles that address medieval memory or the visions of mystics like Hadewijch and Julian of Norwich. Despite this, all the contributing essays are consistent in demonstrating the interconnectivity of the sensing body and the receptive soul, as well as engaging with the medieval understanding of the senses as faculties that can be experienced together and interchangeably—both key goals set out by the editors in the introduction.[2]

According to the European Network on the Instruments of Devotion (ENID), which is the scholarly group responsible for producing this volume, their mission is: “gaining a deeper insight into the mechanisms of piety and devotion, in order to understand the phenomena and their instruments as essential features in the religious and cultural development of Europe.”[3] In spite of this goal, none of the essays included in this third published anthology attempt to broach the broader modern cultural impact of medieval practices in piety. ENID’s own website includes an array of journalistic articles on the transition and application of medieval imagery in modern culture with topics such as nineteenth-century cross-denominational imagery, and the fashion of devotional images on rock stars and runways. While ENID has published a book that bridges into this contemporary sphere, it would have been engaging in the context of materiality to see how this has developed specifically, if only to examine differences in material devotion as northern Europe transitioned into the Age of Reformation and Protestantism.

The Materiality of Devotion in Late Medieval Northern Europe adds to a blooming canon that emphasizes the sensorium of medieval devotional arts, building on the groundwork laid by art historians and academics such as Michael Camille, Caroline Walker Bynum, Susannah Biernoff, Christopher Woolgar, and Daniel Heller-Roazen. There has been a recent outpouring of scholarly work crosshatching this interdisciplinary topic, which includes Sensory Perception in the Medieval West edited by Simon C. Thomson and Michael D.J. Bintley,[4] and the 2016 curated Walters Art Museum exhibit “A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe.” University of St. Andrews Professor Dr. Kathryn Rudy is currently engaging in a topic that unites the senses and religiosity with her research considering the use-wear analysis of manuscript material in her publication “Dirty books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer.”[5] This growing archive of recent scholarship is indicative of the relevance and attention that materiality in late medieval studies is currently receiving. The Materiality of Devotion in Late Medieval Northern Europe is a welcome read for scholars engaging in research on medieval history, theology, or the history of art, and hoping to add their own perspective and contribution to this cross-disciplinary subject considering the role of materiality and senses in past religious practices.

Caroline J. Croasdaile, University of St. Andrews

Caroline J. Croasdaile is a Master’s student of Art History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She is currently completing a dissertation on the symbolism and annotation of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century alchemy manuscripts associated with Nicolas Flamel.


[1] Stephen G. Nichols, Andreas Kablitz, and Alison Calhoun, eds. Rethinking the Medieval Senses: Heritage, Fascinations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 14.

[2] Henning Laugerud, Salvador Ryan, and Laura Katrine Skinnebach, eds. The Materiality of Devotion in Late Medieval Northern Europe: Images, Objects, Practices (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016), pp. 1-9.

[3] “ENID Charter,” 2017. <; [accessed 8th February 2017].

[4] Simon C. Thomson and Michael D.J. Bintley, eds. Sensory Perception in the Medieval West (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016).

[5] Kathryn Margaret Rudy, “Dirty books: Quantifying patterns of use in medieval manuscripts using a densitometer,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (2010), pp. 1-26.