Tag Archives: modernism

From Stigmata to Golf: Praying through the ages

This post was contributed by Clare Brown, a student on Birkbeck’s MA History of Art. Clare blogs at Renaissance Utterances.

This was an interesting start to Birkbeck Arts Week. Given the MA Catholic reformation module, I thought it would be an on topic diversion. As the blurb said, ‘in our secular world, prayer has become unfamiliar, and past cultures where prayer was more central are harder to understand. Dr Isabel Davis (Birkbeck), Revd Dr Jessica Martin and Dr Nicola Bown (Birkbeck) discuss representations of prayer in literature and art in the Middle Ages, the seventeenth century and the Victorian period. Technique of prayer; what it is and what it is like’.

Dr Isabel Davis and her band of pilgrims set out from the late Middle Ages. For the church going population kneeling was a natural, obvious, submissive posture. And yet, where did this invented and culturally specific idea come from?

Early Christians sat, knelt or stood, nothing was prescribed. Kneeling was a gesture of defeat in Roman images of slavery. And indeed the translation of  ‘doulos‘ is variously slave or servant and in Romans 1.1, Paul is a doulos of Jesus. So when we kneel to Jesus we are demonstrating our submission. Dr Davis stated that Christianity is a stigmatic religion, so as I understood it, if stigmata is from the greek ‘stigma‘ meaning brand or cut into the body, then it was an honour to be the slave of Christ and carry his mark.

So if the people are slaves to Christ then kneeling is a default position. For kings it was a gradual process throughout the middle ages; the magi went from standing, then kneeling on one knee, then both. Affected piety was all and she once again used linguistic sources. Isadore of Seville linked the Latin genua and genea :

The knees are the meeting-points of the thighs and lower legs; and they are called knees (genua) because in the womb they are opposite to the cheeks (genae)… Thence it is that when men fall on their knees they at once begin to weep. For nature has willed that they remember

Pity is the central emotional devotion so kneeling takes one the ultimate sign of piety. The cultural cloud has assimilated the multifarious meanings of kneeling. By the late Middle Ages kneeling ubiquitous in brass, stained glass, wall paintings, manuscripts. The Bolton Hours shows the family kneeling in prayer, stressing their pietate (compassion) in miniature. They are appropriately humble yet by their clothes and beautiful prayer book, extremely well to do

And then along came reformation and the Black Rubric of 1552 which made clear the controversial nature of kneeling. It’s not adoration to kneel but actually signifies humility and gratitude of the heart. Therefore for protestants, kneeling needed interpretation to change the meaning of the same action. The bread and wine is now a fixed substance…but the meaning and interpretation of kneeling has changed. This very specific Eucharistic situation had been downgraded to a memorial. It was now a created image not real presence.

In Scotland, Knox said kneeling was wrong and suggestion of real presence and he rejected catholic practices as idolatrous. However for Anglicans, kneeling wasn’t idolatry, it was the congregation being properly instructed. But just how metaphysical were these people, and did they think this through? But for Pecock in ‘The repressor of over much blaming of the clergy’ images were just images.

The second talk was by Revd Dr Jessica Martin whose focus is Public and private piety. What people did when they weren’t in church from 1530-1700. She outlined the radical reforms instituted in 1630s laudian reforms where kneeling at altar rails was introduced.

Elevation of the Eucharist was a major part of the service pre -reformation but the 1549 Common Prayer Book said there should be no elevation or adoration. These reformed practices were intensely communitarianist and authorities were suspicious about private prayer, which was suggestive of secret Catholicism. So people would do their best to show that they weren’t praying; even carrying a devotional book you could be prosecuted. So you prayed loudly as a body.

But then she stated that there was a rise in the use of spiritual diaries especially in conjunction with the availability of the vernacular bible. This is not easy to police so there would be commentary to tell you how to read it. For instance, the Geneva bible had margin notes because there were things in the bible the state didn’t want to encourage, eg. killing of kings etc. There was also anxiety about private reading groups. Are they safe reading on their own? This tension between public and private reading is quite interesting.

She speculated on private prayer; posture was your own choice. Given the lack of privacy in early modern homes, prayer was  done in a prayer closet and done loudly because introspection was seen as catholic. How autonomous would this private prayer be? The devil might tempt you whilst you prayed alone. Therefore ‘praying alone’ actually means praying with others as a community. In Scotland you might go for a walk alone possibly because household prayer was inspected. A comment at the end of the evening was about linking this walking and pilgrimage, this was discounted. However they suggest that it evolved into  Rousseau and solitary walks, Wordsworth and romanticism. And I would suggest modern life and golf…

For the first time in the evening, gender was brought in. At this time women started reading the bible by themselves, however, it was not really encouraged; neither was praying in the preserve closets – women should be doing the house work. Next time I am snoozing in my jam pantry, I shall claim I was praying.

During the Restoration there arose an opportunity to look at practice with Church of England and non conformists. Bishop Sanderson mediated and as he was a Calvin ceremonialist, it was thought he could bring the two sides together. Where did it fall down? Kneeling…

Finally we were on to Victorian prayer practice and possibly the most contentious talk. This was presented by Dr Nicola Brown. She works with images of people praying and when she set out on this research she assumed that pictures would have clasped hands and kneeling people. Represented by Morning prayer by Holman Hunt where her knees are resting on the bed, a  locus classicus of kneeling by bed morning and night.

She found many images of single females in private prayer, they are the praying sex.The Widow’s Prayer by JF watts where her book is open and eyes closed. She pointed out that the prayer book was an important item of devotion, even if they weren’t reading it. Because non Eucharistic services like matins and evensong were so familiar, they wouldn’t have needed the words. So it was a symbol of prayer.

image for prayer blogShe did a close reading of the Three Girls Praying – I didn’t catch the artist but I got a bad snap. It is always assumed that the girl on the right, reading was praying whilst the others are distracted. However she suggests that the middle one with her abstracted gaze is the devout one. She continues this train of thought with Convent thoughts. This Pre-Raphaelite image of intense devotion shows the nun holding the catholic missal so that the viewer can see the open pages. The image of the Crucifixion is connected with fingers not eyes as she is looking at visual symbol of passion flower. She is clearly praying.

She then went through a number of images where the woman is depicted with an abstract gaze, whilst holding letters, flowers, rings and suggests that in each, the woman is praying. One had a woman leaning over a grave ‘resurgam’ holding a flower which is normally read as a decline of Christian belief. She cast doubt on this saying it was actually a high watermark of church attendance and feeling, with palpable outpouring of devotional piety. This is a woman praying, laying her doubts before god.

As the c19th draws to a close, secularisation is rising and private devotion retreats inside; psychology takes it place. She ended with Whistlers ‘Symphony in white no 2’ which she suggests is  a prayer piece. The image is reverie, a psychological state, internalised abstraction and they do not hold prayer books or any sign of visible devotion.

I can’t say I liked the Victorian images and I don’t see all of the women in them lost in prayer. I think this is a both a wide and narrow interpretation and each needs to be taken individually. Some of these mawkish, sentimental pieces may just be encouraging women to be humble, enslaved and submissive, an ideal Victorian women. And that takes us back to the Middle Ages. An interesting evening and excellent to have the spread of history covered.