People of the Books: Object of Devotion ed. by Paul Williamson

I’m processing a lot this week—seeing old friends again, re-declaring myself for a new path, watching family members waltz with Death, again and again hearing that X job thanks me for my application, but has no use for me.  I’m also gearing up to lead a book study at church, something I’ve never done before, and the preparation for that is alternately overwhelming and wonderful.  In this processing, then, I seek the relatively less intrusive nature of a book review, although do remember that I don’t put the reviews on here idly.  Each book has its own wonder, even the awful ones, for what are we if not a people desirous of sharing experiences and ideas?

Object of Devotion is actually less of a “book” and more of a gallery catalogue for a travelling exhibition of medieval alabaster sculptures.  The Victoria and Albert Museum (to which I’ve been, and it was awesome) culled a sampling of some of their English alabasters (which are marvels in themselves, considering how much didn’t make it through the systematic destruction of holy things by Henry VIII) and sent it off to the wide world to be admired.  This catalogue was actually a textbook of mine, as this past term I took a class built primarily around this exhibit and the use of art in devotional practices in medieval England.

The book, like the exhibit, is beautiful.  Full color glossed photos of each piece in the traveling collection make my dear little medievalist heart patter, even after I saw the real things.  There is something about the physical pieces of the past that forcefully connects me to what I study, that reminds me of the people who loved these pieces—or hated them because Margery down the street could afford a better one, or were unhappy that Jonathan got the commission to do the abbey’s sculpture while they got stuck with the local parish.  There is life in these sculptures, in a way that surprises even me, who makes a living trying to resurrect, in some ways, the dead.

We of the post-Reformation era have drifted from the idea of images (other than the cross, which pops up everywhere, whether it has actual connection and meaning or not) as worship aids, partially because of the  iconoclastic distaste of forgetting the Person behind the image when worshiping.  In these recent decades, though, there’s also a sort of backlash against decor in general; such things are outdated, un-hip, old-fashioned, “churchy.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Reader, but I am myself all of these things.

Perhaps that’s why I so love devotional pieces like this.  I want the shocked look on Mary’s face, I am drawn to the broken-hearted men and women who have to lift their dead lord off the cross.  Even the creepy heads of John the Baptist interest me, if only to see what images these people thought holy.  The Divine is so incredibly untouchable, indescribable, and so should It be.  But we are at a loss (I am at a loss, sometimes) when we deal with this, because we forget about the personable God, as if He has to be one or the other.  In these sculptures, He is both—utterly separate, and yet palpably human.  His followers look like us (even if some of them are riddled with arrow holes), and even the angels wear tunics that actual people wore once.

The biggest drawback to this (let me put on my proofreader hat) is that the editing is SO BAD.  There are typos all over the place and one entry is even missing its inset figure. How did the editors skip that? It’s sort of important, given that it’s referenced at least three times through the other items.  Fail, editors.  Each description is pretty bare-bones and repetitive, but the reference list at the back is very helpful if you want to track down some tidbit or other, and the three articles at the beginning are wonderful in terms of being interesting without being overwhelmingly scholarly. (And, seriously, Eamon Duffy. Win, in church history terms.)

So it’s basically a coffee table book, unless you’re odd like me and you take classes on this sort of thing.  But my, what a beautiful coffee table book it is, and how achingly out of reach are those who knelt before these to beseech a God Who can be just as frustrating and lovely in the 21st century.

Rating:  4/5 stars

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