Fount of mercy, city of blood: cultic anti-Judaism and the Pulkau Passion Altarpiece.

Author:Merback, Mitchell B.
Position:Art history research - Critical Essay

In 1931 the German Benedictine scholar Romuald Bauerreiss, who thirty years later would write the definitive church history for Bavaria in seven volumes, published a small book entitled Pie Jesu: Das Schmerzensmannbild und sein Einfluss auf die mittelalterliche Frommigkeit (Pie Jesu: The Man of Sorrows Image and Its Influence on Medieval Piety). (1) Building on an already sizable literature concerning the imago pietatis (the traditional Latin name for this image type), (2) Bauerreiss juxtaposed in provocative ways the sacramental, liturgical, devotional, and mortuary contexts in which the image appeared north of the Alps after 1300. (3) In particular, the author drew attention to a set of connections between the image of the wounded, suffering Christ and a family of pilgrimage shrines, most of them in German-speaking lands, whose foundation legends linked them to Eucharistic miracles (Hostienwunder) of the kind centered on the sacrilegious abuse of the host (Hostienfrevel): the so-called Holy Blood (Heilig Blut) churches. (4) With great resourcefulness but little of the art historian's iconographic rigor, Bauerreiss traced the Man of Sorrows and its major variants to the expected places of Eucharistic consecration, reservation, display, and celebration (sacrament houses, tabernacles, ciboria, altars, and their predella niches). But he also pursued the image beyond its principal identity as a "Eucharistic cult image" (eucharistische Gnadenbild) and beyond the church interior, notably to the cemetery, where the devotional formula and its narrativevisionary counterpart, the image of the Mass of Saint Gregory, found frequent use on epitaphs. (5) Finally, and with some regret, Bauerreiss also linked the Man of Sorrows to the sites of anti-Jewish accusation and violence, destroyed synagogues and places associated with massacres, executions, and expulsions of Jews, places that carried names--ominous to us now--like Judenberg, Judenbuchel, Judenstein, and Judengrube. (6) This trail of clues led back, via the stereotyped legend of Jewish host desecration in its many localized versions, to a core group of Eucharistic miracle shrines and their bleeding-host cults. Despite the subsequent disappearance of key monuments at several important sites in this group, Bauerreiss concluded that the Man of Sorrows had, in this context, received special veneration as an intercessionary and wonder-working image, particularly in the most sacred zone of the church, the legendary locus of the host's profanation, concealment, recovery, and elevation. Pious tradition, sharing a term with archaeology, called this sacred center the "find-spot" (Fundstelle, or Fundort) of the host. (7)

Thus had the imago pietatis, which Gertrud Schiller called "the most precise visual expression of the piety of the Late Middle Ages," (8) become, in effect, a programmatic image for a species of Christian cult station, nearly peculiar to the religious culture of imperial southern Germany and Austria. It was here, in these contiguous regions, where the connections between host miracles, recorded accusations, and persecutions were plentiful; where violence often paved the way for pilgrimage; where Christ himself, in the tradition of crusader piety, was imagined demanding vengeance on unbelievers; where local histories were often permeated with anti-Jewish myths and postmassacre memories--here the Man of Sorrows appeared as a veritable patron of pogroms. Facing this legacy critically at a dangerous time, Father Bauerreiss courageously characterized this species of cult image as a "monument to sacrilege"--meant, I think, in a double sense. (9)

Bauerreiss's is a provocative thesis, one that has received ample support, if not explicit reformulation, in recent historical work on the connections between "Eucharistic piety" and "medieval anti-Semitism" (to use two familiar, if problematic, phrases). (10) Art historians, by contrast, have not shown much interest in following up on Bauerreiss's original research. The neglect is felt, first of all, in the voluminous art historical literature on the Man of Sorrows; this discourse, otherwise bristling with lively controversies, has relegated the thesis to a footnote. (11) It is also found in the even larger area of research, born in the decades following World War II, devoted to the "iconography of anti-Semitism" (a third problematic phrase). Until recently this discourse has committed itself almost exclusively to the task of accounting for the great array of stereotyped themes, figures, motifs, and "signs of otherness" through which Christian culture constructed its image of Judaism and "the Jew" from about the late eleventh century on. Along with this cataloging impulse came a model of interpretation entirely dependent on the theological, polemical, legendary, and folkloric sources. (12) Within this model it was either the allegorical image of Judaism--as developed, for example, in the iconography of Ecclesia and Synagoga--or the "image of the Jew" (Judenbild) that has anchored research. In the case of links between visual culture, Eucharistic cult, and anti-Jewish ideas and practices, then, scholarly interest has focused on surviving narrative depictions of the host-desecration legend, especially those of broader art historical significance, such as Paolo Uccello's predella panels for the Corpus Domini Altarpiece in Urbino. (13) Much solid scholarship has come of these efforts, but often overlooked has been the broad relevance of many other types of imagery, especially nonnarrative "devotional images" (Andachtsbilder) and cult images (Kultbilder), and the possibility that they, too, served as symbolic vehicles for the Christian majority's struggle with the presence of Jews within medieval society and the world order. Without its familiar foothold on Christian art's stereotyped figurations of Judaism and "the Jew," art history, with only a handful of exceptions, (14) has been unable to find purchase in the vast and shifting terrain of premodern Jewish-Christian relations.

Another hindrance to expanding the discourse beyond this older set of concerns is the general aversion among Anglophone art historians to the problems raised by premodern popular religion, folklore, and "nonartistic" visual cultures--this despite the rapprochement between art history, psychology, and religious ethnology announced in David Freedberg's oft-cited book of 1989, The Power of Images. (15) Medievalists, along with scholars in non-Western areas, may tend toward a greater affinity for anthropological approaches to meaning than their counterparts in other fields of art history, but old commitments remain. Interest in the myriad cultic and magical functions of premodern imagery (represented by anthropological terms like effigial, votive, amuletic, talismanic, apotropaic, and so on) has been slowly aroused in recent years, however, by another great work of synthesis--keyed, in contrast to Freedberg, to historical explanation (16)--Hans Belting's Bild und Kult (translated as Likeness and Presence). And Belting's more recent explorations and program statements toward an "anthropology of the image" will undoubtedly broaden the impact of his overall approach in the coming years. (17) For the specialized problem of "art and anti-Semitism," however, any approach to visual culture sufficiently open to Belting's Bildanthropologie, as well as to the "historical anthropology" practiced in other disciplines, (18) will have to learn new, integrative ways to interpret and contextualize the great array of objects at our disposal: cultic and votive images, relics and reliquaries, altar panels and miracle cycles, pilgrimage paraphernalia and devotionalia, broad-sheets, engravings, and printed books, as well as the manuscript illuminations and monumental sculpture traditionally studied under this rubric. (19)


Against the backdrop of this double accumulation of artifacts--the "iconography of anti-Semitism" together with the art and architecture of pilgrimage (20)--the art historical pursuit of Bauerreiss's thesis encounters a surprising obstacle: surviving evidence for the veneration of a Man of Sorrows cult image at any known Holy Blood shrine from the later Middle Ages is not especially plentiful. By contrast, the Counter-Reformation counterparts of these images are distributed more widely. Was Bauerreiss, at this relatively early stage of research, misled by the abundance of Baroque evidence into assuming widespread patterns of image veneration before the Reformation? My own review of the evidence, undertaken elsewhere, (21) and recent art historical work on the Wilsnack pilgrimage (22) indicate that we can pursue a qualified version of Bauerreiss's thesis and its implications. The present essay is devoted to the best case study in which a Man of Sorrows cult image can be securely linked to a documented Holy Blood church and its pilgrimage, one with demonstrable connections to anti-Jewish violence and myth, and all of this predating the Reformation. (23)

At the Church of the Holy Blood (Filialkirche zum Heiligen Blut) in Pulkau, Lower Austria (Fig. 1), a building first documented in 1396--possibly as an enlarged version of a chapel founded in 1339 (21)--the cult image in question stands at the center of a three-figure ensemble, carved in limewood, polychromed and gilded, and set within a magnificent winged altarpiece that stands today as the church's high altar (Fig. 2). (25) On an ornate stage bounded by filagree-relief socles and baldachins of overlapping ogival arches, the athletic and overlife-size Christ figure, crowned by a massive wreath of thorns, strides diagonally outward (Fig. 16). Swathed in a heavy drapery that dances around his body in great orbital folds, the figure raises his arms as if to address the spectator, whom the composition locates just before and slightly to the left of the shrine's center line. Saint...

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