Holy Beds and Holy Families: Encounters with Devotional Objects from Fifteenth-Century Europe

A small, highly ornamented bed, now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and acquired from a convent of religious women known as beguines, remains a mystery to art historians. Even more mysterious is a fifteenth-century limestone carving of the Nativity that, unlike other known devotional objects, features two beds for the baby Jesus, one floating above the other. Bynum’s lecture explores how far we can discover more about the use, religious meaning, and social context of such objects not only from contemporary records and devotional literature but also from looking carefully at the objects themselves.

Caroline W. Bynum is University Professor emerita of Columbia University and Professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Her work focuses on medieval notions of the body, investigating the way medieval people conceived of the nature and physicality of the human body in relation to broader theological questions and religious practices. Author of numerous books, including Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987) and The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christendom (1995), her work has introduced questions of gender and the history of the body into premodern European Studies and the study of medieval Christianity. Professor Bynum’s current work, from which this lecture is drawn, looks at Christian devotional objects in a comparative perspective.

Co-sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Rhetoric Department. Part of the Rhetoric Department’s Histories of the Self: A Lecture Series.