Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Introduction: Material Culture and Catholic History

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Introduction: Material Culture and Catholic History

Article excerpt

After setting out some of the reasons Catholicism developed a rich array of devotional and liturgical objects, this introduction to the centennial special issue of The Catholic Historical Review on Catholic material culture traces a brief history of the emergence of material culture studies while noting the contributions of Catholic scholars to it. It also defines material culture and describes several of the field's approaches as exemplified by essays in the special issue. Strengths and weaknesses of these approaches are also noted.

Keywords: material culture, Catholicism, objects, artifacts

The Catholic tradition's engagement with material objects is rooted in the Gospels. Jesus changed water into wine, and multiplied loaves and fishes.1 He taught through parables that imbued common objects with higher meanings: lamps and bushels, new patches on old cloaks, wineskins, and fishing nets.2 When a woman seeking healing touched the hem of his garment, Jesus sensed "the power that had proceeded from him" through the fabric. His healing power was transmitted through material. Thus, many thereafter rushed to touch his garments and were also healed.3 At his last supper Jesus chose the most ubiquitous objects of the Mediterranean table-bread and a cup of wine-to institute the sacrament of his body and blood.4 Material objects in the Gospels can lead individuals to sacred truths, can transmit divine power, and can be transformed into Christ.

Indeed, the mystery of the incarnation, the belief that God took on flesh and blood, becoming fully human while remaining fully God, had radical implications for Christian views of matter and the material. The new faith emerged in a diverse philosophical landscape, but one in which ambivalence or hostility toward matter was widely diffused. Strands of ancient Platonism and neo-Platonism opposed the higher and spiritual to the lower and material or fleshly, whereas Gnostics viewed the material world as the consequence of a primordial error, contaminating and constraining the spirit. The incarnation, of course, was at the root of the most difficult and contentious early Christian theological debates and did not yield uniformly positive attitudes toward flesh and matter.5 But by making matter part of God's plan of salvation, it valorized the use of material objects in Christianity.

These objects multiplied over the centuries. The liturgy came to employ chalices and patens of precious metals, candles and candleholders, bells and basins and cruets, altar coverings and ornamented frontals, sacred vestments, processional crosses and censers. Chinches were furnished with pulpits and baldachins, altar railings and chancels, choir stalls and lecterns, papal and episcopal thrones, confessional booths and bronze-doors. The veneration of relics spurred the creation of myriad forms of reliquaries, from elaborate tombs to hold entire bodies to statues and busts representing the saint, to bejeweled cabinets, cases, and arks to secure and display fragments of holy persons. Private devotions fueled a remarkable proliferation of objects: ex votos, rosaries, medals and pilgrim badges, holy cards, plaques, and statues, to name just a few.6 Objects and their uses often sparked debate and attracted criticism, most notably during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. In response to critique, the Catholic Church sought to control, through sanction and censure, the faithful's use of objects. But it has never renounced the material and today s Church still utilizes a wide array of liturgical and devotional objects, many unique to Catholicism.

Art historians have long feasted on this abundance. But historians have privileged texts in reconstmcting the past, and Catholicism has produced such an effusion of those that the ecclesiastical historian can easily revel in untapped archival sources. There is still much important Catholic history to be discovered and reconstmcted from documents, manuscripts, and printed materials in archives and libraries all over the world. …

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