Hugh of St. Victor on "Jesus Wept": Compassion as Ideal Humanitas

By Coolman, Boyd Taylor | Theological Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Hugh of St. Victor on "Jesus Wept": Compassion as Ideal Humanitas


Coolman, Boyd Taylor, Theological Studies


TOWARD THE END OF THE ELEVENTH CENTURY, interest in the humanity of Jesus surged markedly throughout Europe. Poets, preachers, artists, and monks, in places such as London, Paris, and Rome, gave expression to this apparently deep and widespread shift in religious feeling. Reflecting and extending this development in the twelfth century, theologians as diverse as Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux placed Christ's humanity at the center of their theological reflection and spiritual devotion, a move later medieval generations would emulate. (1) The manifold conceptions of Jesus' humanity produced in what has been called "the uncompromisingly christocentric period of Western civilization" (2) are, however, understudied. (3) Neither their rich diversity nor their distinctive insights have been adequately appreciated (4)

Less commonly noted by medieval scholars is a particular aspect of Christ's humanity that attracted both theological scrutiny and devotional reflection, namely, the nature of his psyche. The psychological dimension of Jesus' humanity drew the attention of many, prompting questions regarding his capacity to feel or experience such things as fear, joy, sadness, and anger. (5) In their terminology, medievals began to speculate on Christ's affectivity. To be sure, interest in his affectivity was not a medieval innovation. Earlier writers, including Hilary, (6) Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and John of Damascus, (7) had proffered various (and variously influential) opinions on the matter. But scholars have noted a certain patristic reserve toward Christ's emotions. (8) By contrast, many medievals pursued the matter with vigor. No merely curious speculation, moreover, their careful probing of Jesus' psyche often emerged from a desire to identify personally and experientially with him in his humanity. For many, Christ's affectivity was paradigmatic of ideal human affectivity generally. A striking instance of these developments may be found in the writings of Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141).

Paul Gondreau has recently published an analysis of Christ's passions in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. (9) A glance at this study will help to situate Hugh's distinctive contribution to the topic. As Gondreau shows, Thomas devoted considerable attention to Christ's affectivity. For my present purpose, however, I note that what Thomas omitted highlights by its absence the particular theme so central to Hugh. Strikingly, Thomas did not consider the compassion of Jesus. (10) Despite ample scriptural attestation to this emotion--including repeated Gospel references to his compassion; (11) Paul's reference in Philippians 1:8 to the visceribus Christi Iesu, "the tender compassion of Christ Jesus" (New Living); and references in the book of Hebrews to Christ's high priestly capacity to "co-suffer" (conpati in Heb 4:15) and "co-sorrow" (condolore in Heb 5:2) with human weakness (12)--the Dominican does not treat this theme. By contrast, Christ's compassion is richly developed in the writings of his Franciscan contemporaries, especially Bonaventure. (13) He is, however, by no means the first medieval author to do so. Indeed, looking back to his teacher, Alexander of Hales, (14) and even further, an identifiable current of thought is visible, wending its way back to the early twelfth century. Standing at the headwaters of this speculation on Christ's compassion stands an understudied treatise of Hugh's entitled, A Little Book on the Four Wills in Christ. (15) Occupying only six columns in the Patrologia Latina, this brief work seems to be the first medieval treatise devoted to the theme of Christ's compassion. (16)

This theme of Christ's compassion in medieval theological discourse has not been sufficiently noted, let alone explored. (17) Nor, despite Rachel Fulton's recent work, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200, (18) has the more general theme of affective participation with the experience of another in the Middle Ages been adequately analyzed. …

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