Birgitta’s Images: Art and visuality in Birgittine spirituality, cult and devotion

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Maria Husabø Oen

Birgitta Birgersdotter, born in Sweden in 1303 and canonized as a saint in 1391, left a monastic order as well as a vast amount of revelations disseminated in Latin by her confessors after her death. Birgitta lived an extraordinary life, and yet, her life was also representative of the developments in female spirituality and the religious roles of women in the later Middle Ages. After a life as a married, wealthy woman with a position at court, Birgitta experienced callings and saw her self as Christ’s bride and channel. She moved to Rome in 1349, where she lived as a mystic together with her male confessors, while engaging herself in papal politics until her death in 1373.

With the present project I set out to explore Birgitta's experience, interpretation and practical use of images together with the institutional contexts, texts and traditions that shaped her conception and use of images. The main hypothesis is that images in general, and motifs from the Passion in particular, played an important part in the devotional life of Birgitta, and thus for her revelations. Furthermore, I propose that Birgitta, through her legacy, the Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris, played an active and resourceful role in shaping the way images were used and apprehended in Christian devotion in Scandinavia, as well as in Italy, in the late fourteenth century and beyond. One of my main objectives with this project is to contribute to the development of a theoretical and methodological framework for the study of images within a new context emerging in the later Middle Ages, namely that of the lay female visionary.

This project is concerned with three interrelated problems focusing on the significance of art and the visual for Birgitta in her religious practice and legacy. The first problem relates to Birgitta’s devotional use of images, in particular during her Italian period (1349-73) characterized by her role as a female visionary living outside of the regulated monastic world. I also focus on the institutional contexts that shaped Birgitta’s conception of images and vision with attention to her earlier life as a wife and mother, her role at court, and later connected with the Cistercians in Sweden, as well as her socially and religiously distinct life in Rome. Based on the literary sources and preserved artifacts, I examine Birgitta’s understanding and use of images with special attention to bodily, imaginative, and intellectual responses to them. The second problem concerns the relationship between Birgitta’s pictorial understanding, visuality, and revelations. I explore the specific function of images in the mystical experience of the female visionary, as well as the hierarchy of vision, its implications regarding gender, and its significance for the pictorial language in the revelations. The third problem focuses on the legacy of Birgitta regarding the activation and dissemination of certain cult practices, in particular the cult of Veronica, which was the most famous holy image in Rome in the later Middle Ages, and which cult was brought to the northern countries by Birgittas’s followers. Within this context I also examine the role of images in the Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris. I focus on two convents belonging to the first generation of Birgittine monasteries; the mother convent in Vadstena, Sweden, and Paradiso in Florence, which was one of the earliest Birgittine convents in Italy developing in the 1390s. The focus on a Swedish and an Italian convent allows a comparison of pictorial and devotional practices within the frame of the Birgittine regula.
Historically, this project is concentrated upon Birgitta’s life as an adult with an active religious role in the period from her transfer to Italy in the late 1340s, and to her death in Rome in 1373. The examination of the visual culture in the convents is centered upon the first half of the fifteenth century. In this period a certain Birgittine tradition, as well as local traditions, were established, and the Reformation movement had not yet dramatically altered the conditions of the Swedish convent.