Object Narratives (Material and Visual Cultures of Religion)

MAVCOR Journal is an open-access, peer-reviewed digital publication published by the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion at Yale University. Its “Object Narrative” division is for explicating religious images, objects, monuments, buildings, spaces, performances, or sounds in 1500 words or less.

Visual culture encompasses not just “art” but also ephemera and what we might call “kitsch.” Because my field is art, I gravitate more to research in that vein, which is reflected in the five object narratives I’ve selected to highlight below. In addition to describing the object’s content, each writer also addresses, if applicable, its liturgical or devotional uses and includes relevant historical or cultural context. Click on the links to read more, and spend some time perusing the other offerings on MAVCOR’S website, https://mavcor.yale.edu.

“Christ Crucified in the Gellone Sacramentary” by Lawrence Nees: This eighth-century manuscript illumination from the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne is one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus on the cross, its viewership restricted to clergy. “He is . . . shown as if nailed to a cross, but this is no wooden cross and indeed no cross at all. It is colored deep blue, studded with white and red flower-like shapes suggesting stars, and indeed it actually is the letter T of the opening words of the Canon of the Mass, the consecration of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, in the Latin version here ‘Te igitur clementissime Pater . . . rogamus’ (‘Therefore we beseech Thee, most merciful Father’) . . .”

Crucifixion (Sacramentary of Gellone)
Crucifixion from the Gellone Sacramentary (Latin 12048, fol. 143v), made in France, ca. 790. Housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

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“Kongo Triple Crucifix” by Cécile Fromont: The west central African kingdom of Kongo, which emerged in the fourteenth century, declared Christianity its official religion in 1509. Kongo participated in the commercial, political, and religious networks of the early modern Atlantic world, and its artists reformulated Christian figures from Europe into objects that are distinctly African—including the many brass crucifixes produced from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. (Read more in Fromont’s 2014 book The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo, which I reviewed here.)

Triple Kongo crucifix
Triple Crucifix, central figure 16th–17th century; top and bottom figures 18th–19th century. Brass, iron nails, copper, wood, ultramarine pigment, 10 1/4 × 5 3/4 × 1 in. (26 × 14.5 × 2.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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“Death Cart (La Muerte en su Carreta)” by Miguel de Baca: “Death carts” were instruments of penance used by the Penitente brotherhood of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth; this is the earliest known one. They were built in the style of an old oxcart, and seated inside was Doña Sebastiana, an allegorical figure of Death, wielding her bow and arrow. Each Good Friday, “an elected brother attached the heavy chassis to his torso with a horsehair rope and dragged it from the morada (meetinghouse) along the path to the calvario (Calvary site), inflicting abrasions upon his body as a demonstration of his faith and desire for closer union with God.” I must say, this skeletal figure with the close-set eyes and large forehead (and is that human hair and teeth?) terrifies me!

Lopez, Nasario_Death Cart
Nasario López, Death Cart (La Muerte en su Carreta), ca. 1860. Gesso, leather, cottonwood, pine, 51 × 24 × 32 in. (129.5 × 61 × 81.3 cm). Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For more on the topic, see Thomas J. Steele, “The Death Cart: Its Place among the Santos of New Mexico,” The Colorado Magazine 55, no. 1 (1978): 1–14.

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“Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Cross with Stars and Blue by Jeffrey Richmond-Moll: During a four-month stay in Taos, New Mexico, in the summer of 1929—her first visit to the Southwest—Georgia O’Keeffe painted four canvases of Penitente crosses with Taos Mountain visible in the distance. The Penitentes were a lay Catholic brotherhood whose rituals centered on the remembrance of Christ’s passion. They erected crosses all over the region, outside their moradas (meetinghouses) and along roadsides, which they picked up and carried on holy days.

O'Keeffe, Georgia_Black Cross with Stars and Blue
Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929. Oil on canvas, 40 × 30 in. (101.6 × 76.2 cm). Private collection.

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“James Latimer Allen, Madonna and Child by Camara Dia Holloway: “Allen operated a studio in Harlem between 1926 and 1943, producing artistic and commercial photographs. . . . By contributing to the development of a new racial iconography, Allen’s Madonna and Child and other black Madonnas offered positive visual and material rejoinders to widely reproduced images that represented black women’s failure to parent their own children. The Mammy stereotype, the legend of Margaret Garner (known as the Black Medea), and portraits of white children held by their black nannies belong to this latter and negative set of portrayals.” This is a religious icon by and for African Americans, Latimer writes—one that reflects and affirms their own self-image.

Allen, James L._Madonna and Child
James L. Allen (American, 1907–1977), Madonna and Child, 1930s. Photograph, 24.4 × 18.7 cm. New York Public Library.

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