Recalling, imagining, and vividly detailing saintly sufferings was a major pastime of medieval Christians. An incredible lust for traumatic recollection undergirds Catholicism’s visual and literary repertoire, and Christ’s body was the prime target for acts of identification. A cultish practice of ‘blood devotion’ flourished in various parts of Europe – what art historian Nancy Thebaut calls an ‘obsessive and anxiety-ridden interest in Christ’s wounds, bleeding, and suffering’ which ‘marked a deep desire to understand the physicality of Christ’s death as well as to achieve a new, body-centered form of piety.’ The famous twelfth-century abbot Bernard de Clairvaux preached the benefits of staring at images of Christ’s blood, asking, ‘What can be so effective a cure for the wound of conscience and so purifying to keenness of mind as steady meditation on the wounds of Christ?’
This special fixation on Christ’s wounds is evidenced in a wide array of manuscripts meant to be used in daily devotional practice. Perhaps the creepiest example is an English manuscript made around 1480–90, now cataloged as MS Egerton 1821, whose first eleven pages are totally covered in images of bleeding wounds. On the first three pages, splotches of red paint drip down a black background, as if the book had been held beneath a wounded body as a receptacle for its emissions. The next eight pages feature detailed, repetitive illustrations of tiny slits dripping red over a pinkish background wash. Most of the book is well preserved, but one of the first blackened pages looks as if it has been mauled in the center, its paint lightly scrubbed away with an anxious-looking claw mark in the middle of the page.
Forensic analysis has been done on books like Egerton to discover why some parts appear to have been weirdly destroyed or messed with, why some parts are dirty and others are clean. Old books of this kind hold evidence particularly well because they are made of vellum, stretched animal skin, whose pores lodge fluids, grease and grime. The conclusion is that the original owners of many devotional books – in the case of Egerton, the owner was probably an aristocratic lady – kissed, licked, rubbed, scratched at and cried upon their pages. They treated the objects as portals or communion devices that could help them get as close as possible to Christ’s body, helping them feel his suffering, while leaving evidence of their skin, saliva, and tears.
Egerton could be ‘read’ even if the user wasn’t literate. Upon opening the book, the reader was likely supposed to count the droplets one by one, in a numerical meditation upon the extent of Christ’s suffering. As evidenced by the damage to one of the pages, the reader probably also fondled or rubbed the imagery in an act of physical devotion (although who knows why that section of Egerton in particular was so compelling). Methodical counting was important, not only for its rhythmic meditative qualities but for the way it might somehow help everyone quantify the suffering at hand. For centuries, theologians had been trying to determine exactly how many droplets Christ had shed, and from how many wounds, before, during, and after the crucifixion. ‘One of these many formulae estimated that Christ had 5,475 wounds and 547,500 drops of blood,’ writes Thebaut. To use the language of current trauma theory, Christ’s body ‘kept the score’ of his suffering, and so should his devotees.
From an art historical perspective, the paintings of blood droplets are somewhere between figuration and abstraction, representation and reality; you don’t really look at them like you might look at a painting. They’re a tool – or a portal. Or maybe those first pages of Egerton are like a musical script, prompting the user to keep time with God by internalizing the steady thrum of suffering that formed the baseline of medieval Catholic life. This is what I imagine, anyway. When I look at pictures of Egerton (I have never seen it in person) I don’t feel any particular identification with the character of Christ (I am not religious). What I do identify with is that claw mark on the page, left by a woman fervently trying to commune with someone else’s experience through a book.
Image: detail from the MS Egerton 1821