Between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries, European Christians worshipped with a surprising plethora of things: not only prayer books, statues, and paintings, but also pieces of stone and earth thought to be infused with sacred power; dolls that represented Jesus and Mary; even bits of consecrated bread and wine understood as miraculously preserved flesh and blood. Theologians and ordinary worshippers alike explained, utilized, justified, and warned against objects which might, at the same time, testify to violent anti-Semitism and to the glorious promise of heaven. The proliferation and the reaction to such holy objects form a crucial, yet often overlooked and misunderstood, background to the European movements we know today as the Protestant and Catholic “reformations.”
In a set of independent but interrelated essays, Caroline Walker Bynum considers examples of such holy things — beds for the baby Jesus, headdresses of medieval nuns, and linen strings that pilgrims returning from the Holy Land had cut to the measure of Christ’s footprints. Continuing and expanding on her work on the history of materiality, Bynum offers two arguments, one substantive, the other methodological. First, she demonstrates that the objects themselves communicate a paradox of dissimilar similitude: in their very details these objects of worship both image the glory of heaven and show the impossibility of representing heaven in earthly things. Second, Bynum uses the theme of likeness and unlikeness to interrogate current practices of comparative history. She proposes that contemporary students of religion, art, and culture should avoid comparing things that merely “look alike.” Instead, they should embrace a cross-cultural comparison of objects which worshippers and theorists alike identify as the locus of the “other” that gives religion its enduring power.