Group: Frances, Jonah, Spencer, Jo
As St. Margaret undergoes torture at the hand of the Roman Governor, she seemingly negotiates her legacy with God. She implores, “God… hear my prayer that whoever writes out my passion or hears it read from that time have his sins blotted out” (133). A dove descends and grants Margaret her prayers. What theological backstory does this call to the reader have? In his work Defaced, Valentin Groebner explains the Medieval relationship between art depicting passion narratives and the reader. In this post, we will explore this relationship and apply it to St.Margaret.
Christ’s passion, or his suffering on the cross, was the main and practically only depiction of Christ in medieval times. These artistic renditions were seen as mere images of Christ since he left no evidence of his body after ascension. Passion depictions were seen as a tool for affective piety, a Christian method of devotion involving one’s emotions. The depicted agony of Christ was to inspire compassio in the viewer; however, this term was not to emphasize the compassionate emotions themselves but rather the compassionate means to piety.
Artistic renditions of Jesus on the cross were used as a rich memento for Christ’s passion, meant as an object of contemplation. This contemplative process was explained by the Dutch devotio moderna group; one would first remember the crucifixion, then ponder it, then emotionally respond to it. The emotional distress caused by gruesome images could deepen religious understanding.
Used in individual prayer and dire circumstances, the crucifix seems to have also been slightly fetishistic, meaning passion objects contained certain supernatural qualities to them. Viennese theologians thought that those who were on their deathbed could stare at the crucifix to get into heaven. These somewhat magical properties are evident in St. Margaret’s narrative.
Unpacking St. Margaret
St. Margaret’s passion draws many parallels to that of Jesus. Thus, in light of the relationship between depictions of Christ’s passion and the viewer-witness, we can understand St Margaret. St. Margaret herself seems to establish a relationship between the reader-witness and the very narrative of the text; she explains that anyone who hears the account of her passion will be washed of sin. Bearing witness to her gore can yield religious piety as watching Christ’s passion can, making her bloody narrative comparable to the recreation of Christ’s wounds. We must understand this quote as meta, essentially breaking the fourth wall. The narrator of her speech, Theotimus, essentially signals to the reader that they have beared witness to St Margaret’s passion via writing and will have their sins wiped because of it.
Yet St. Margaret does not qualify her salvation request by asking for the reader to contemplate her passion narrative; the gesture of lending one’s ear to it seems to be enough. The dove does add that anyone who “wholeheartedly calls out [St.Margaret’s] name will be released from all his sins,” suggesting that honest conviction and wholehearted piety are rewarded (135). However, certain magical, fetishistic qualities run deep in other examples Margaret lists. St.Margaret expands on the magical aspect of her narrative by saying “where the book of my martyrdom is kept may there not be born a child who is blind or lame or dumb or deaf or afflicted by an unclean spirit” (133). The mere presence of the testimony to her passion is enough to keep a village healthy, similar to how the passion narrative could magically cause salvation on one’s deathbed. The dove even sweetens the deal by saying that anyone who touches her relics (evidence of her passion) will be healed, the most physical manifestation of her passion.
Understanding St. Margaret’s passion narrative in light of Medieval affective piety and art’s role in it shines light on how the narrative attempts to extend a hand to the reader to offer salvation. The reader of this tale was not meant to just passively learn the account of St. Margaret; rather, the narrative implies a specific reader, constructing a relationship between the text and the witness. In this relationship, the reader was blessed by mere proximity to the story. The narrative insists that its story is a tool to assist pious endeavors.