Questions on Devotional Images and Imaginative Devotions

Questions on “Devotional Images and Imaginative Devotions”



  1. What role does art play in miraculous visions according to Ringbom? Do you agree?


  1. Does the primacy of the text overshadow the significance of the visual tradition?


  1. Which medieval thinker/writer after Augustine advanced the “cause of art history” the most in your opinion?


  1. What was the fate of imageless devotion?


  1. Should Sts. Augustine and Gregory be the patron saints of art history? Discuss! How did St. Bernard conceive of corporeal and spiritual vision?

8 responses

  1. For a while I have been skeptical of the idea of “imageless devotion” precisely because those who seem to have achieved purely intellectual vision of God and the saints (visionaries, nuns, and monks) so frequently meditated upon images; the prescriptions of “imageless devotion” written by various theological thinkers always seemed to be rather idealistic and detached from the reality of devotion.

    In a similar vein, I think that the medieval writer after Augustine who most advanced the “cause of art history” would be Abbot Suger (from the French abbey of Saint-Denis, which is considered by many to be the first Gothic church). After overseeing the reconstruction of his church’s east and west ends in the new style, he wrote a book–drawing heavily on the ideas of Pseudo-Dionysus–where he describes the building and justifies its grandeur, expense, and beauty by explaining how the beauties of the church cause the devout mind to ascend in an anagogical manner towards God. He really articulates what Ringbom discusses in his article about using images in order to surpass corporeal and spiritual vision in a way that I believe was heavily influential throughout the later Middle Ages.

    • I totally agree that Suger was a far more persuasive champion of the visual arts and their transcendent powers—-and his prose is wonderfully hyperbolic to boot. The bottom line seems to have been penned by Alcuin in stating that human beings think in images. Does imageless devotion really exist? And what about memory? I think the recollection of images is a very important aspect of this discussion. Onward! And thank you for your insightful comments.

      • I don’t think I ageless devotion can exist in the Christian tradition. The religion is essentially based around Christ on the cross and about seeing and receiving divine light.

      • I agree with Kimberly. The event of Christ on the cross became an essential scenario/image for Christianity and therefore the logo of sorts. The memory of the crucifix or memories of the story are engrained in any follower’s head.

  2. Imageless devotion is indeed an ideal and can exist only in some Platonic concept of a pure idea. Christianity developed in a world in which images seemed to be at the foundation of all other existing religions. Greco-Roman gods were anthropomorphic and embodied in lavish materials/statues. Artists didn’t need to comply strictly with texts to represent a devotional scene.

    Ringbom’s opening argument in a way seems to miss the point of art in a way regarding the problem of “artificial images.” I know we’re talking 10+ centuries later, but given that images were so important early on, I can’t imagine they lose this value in our time period.
    Although the text is given primacy, the value lies in the stories and the art/visions they prompt. The images do not need to follow stories per se, but they should represent what the stories prompt. The sculpture and other images, in turn, are supposed to reinforce devotion because they serve as constant physical reminders of the need for devotion. With this line of thought, imageless devotion would signify someone who did not need reminders and were basically enlightened. On the contrary, the images, like Gerson says, should serve as stepping stones in the devotional experience where the individual is supposed to move on to higher purer thoughts, prayers, devotion, etc. without corruption by images which are only representations given by the perspective of an artist. Spirituality merits primacy rather than the corporeality/tangibility. I think it is important to consider Gerson’s indignation of the connection of indulgences with statues. This corrupt mingling of religion and religious images certainly affected the views of many theologians.

    Something else that came to my mind from this reading was a trope that developed in Greek novels, as in Daphnis and Chloe by Longus (2nd century AD). The trope was for someone to stumble upon a random painting in the woods that just so happened to fit their mood, feelings, circumstances, etc. This is just an interesting comparison of an early trope that could’ve been picked up in the development of literature, certainly known by St. Augustine.

    • I love the trope you sketch at the end of your post—-imagine walking into a tableau vivant of Christ’s Passion—St. Augustine surely would have known of that tradition. I am also troubled by Ringbom’s starting point and the conviction that verbal culture trumps visual culture. Not only Plato, but Aristotle also said one couldn’t create a triangle without making a triangle in one’s mind—so imageless devotion seems like a useful fiction this evening.

  3. I am skeptical about the idea of imageless devotion, especially in light of our discussion last class. The devotions we discussed were so potent because of the strong emotional connection that the meditant formed when picturing herself in detailed scenes and scenarios with Christ. Imageless devotion seems to imply crystallized emotion, but it seems that images, either mental images or works of art, are often necessary to conjure up emotion. I wonder what role the sense of touch, which we also discussed last week, would play in all this. Would it play a similar role to images or is it different because it is something that is felt?
    I found Ringbom’s discussions of the rise of popularity of The Book of Hours and indulgenced images especially interesting (164-165). Indulgencing images not only gives them more power, but also legitimizes that power, which seems contrary to the idea of discouraging image use. These examples also reveal the give and take between the church and the lay populace. The church would rather have people who are engaged (even in less than ideal ways), than people who are not participating at all. Did the church always act with this much political savvy or is this an isolated incident?

  4. I think the ideal was imageless devotion but doesn’t that involve mental imagery? Or am I so wed to art history that I can’t imagine a world without images? You are quite right about the indulgencing of Books of Hours giving them legitimacy and agency, which was indeed a very shrewd move on the part of the Church. The latter did not sanction all of the laity’s ideas about piety, particularly when the populace started to toy with the eucharist! But I think Books of Hours were an extension of the liturgical hours and thus within the ecclesiastical grasp, as it were. I am eager to discuss this article in class!

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