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Fall 2020

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An Essay by Caroline Walker Bynum
Looking at Medieval Objects

In a new essay in the Princeton University Press Ideas Blog, Caroline Walker Bynum takes a stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of art, discussing the underlying meanings of Medieval objects. Click here to learn more about Bynum’s new book Dissimilar Similitudes. Click here to read the full essay. An excerpt appears below:

“Historians of the Middle Ages, even art historians, have tended to assume that we should read the works of theologians, devotional writers, and poets to find out what images meant. Medieval philosophers in the universities, learned monks and nuns in their convents, wrote much about abstruse topics such as ‘negative theology’ or ‘the names of God’ that elaborated complex ideas about how language and mental concepts might refer to the ineffability of a Divine beyond all naming. I argue that, if we look with care, as I tried to help the father and his two children to do in the Metropolitan Museum, medieval art itself tells us much about how to look and feel and know. After all, most medieval people did not read theologians and philosophers nor did they fully understand the Latin liturgy they heard. But they used the devotional images in chapels, churches, even in their own bedrooms, to reach beyond their daily lives toward complex, paradoxical, and liberating meaning. They thought with objects, and objects taught them how to think. A medieval person might, for example, move around in a single prayer card, such as this depiction of Christ’s suffering, to contemplate the common human experiences of grief, loss, responsibility for evil, and redeeming love.”