Review: Translating Truth

Aden Kumler, Translating Truth: Ambitious Images and Religious Knowledge in Late Medieval France and England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011). 290 pages.

In Theology and the Arts, Richard Viladesau asserts that art can function in two ways as a theological text. It can serve as texts of Christian theology, ‘a locus of the faith tradition and an embodiment of religious practice,’ as well as texts for Christian theology ‘insofar as it expresses the human situation of various ages.’[1] Aden Kumler’s book, Translating Truth, is a good example of what Viladesau suggests art can be. In addition to being a beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover book, Kumler explores the role that images played in the development of religious knowledge in the latter medieval period. While the book would probably be best appreciated by someone with a good working knowledge of this historical time period, there are some aspects that one interested in theology and the arts might find helpful. After a brief summary of the book, I will conclude by exploring one of these aspects.

Kumler divides the book into a short introduction, four long chapters and a short conclusion. The introduction briefly overviews the relationship between image and knowledge up to the 13th-century, followed by Kumler’s suggestion that the Fourth Lateran Council ‘significantly raised the epistemological bar for Christians, both clerical and lay’ (3). Building on this historical moment, Kumler focuses her attention on how ‘images played a decisive part in this epistemological transformation of what it meant to be a good—even an excellent—Christian, not, primarily, as instantiations of the sacred or mediators of divine presence, but as things to think with, important elements in a broader late medieval project to translate religious truths’ (4). The images explored in the book are narrowed to ‘luxury manuscripts containing vernacular texts and painted images…for elite laymen and women’ (9). According to Kumler, the images reveal the extent to which the laity played a role in their salvation.

The four-chapter core of Translating Truth expands on Kumler’s argument, starting with a chapter that details the relationship between clergy and laity, specifically after the Fourth Lateran Council, while discussing how religious knowledge became entwined with salvation (28-29). The three chapters that follow explore the dialogic relationship between the image and the reader-viewer, using the sacrament of penance, the Eucharist, and the cloister as starting points to understand this new means for religious knowledge. In each of these chapters, a recurring theme is the shift to the concern for the interior person. In relation to penance, the images one contemplates help to bring to light unknown and hidden sins, helping the penitent to examine his conscience and the confessor to educate where religious knowledge is lacking (52-53). In relation to the Eucharist, the images not only educate the viewer in Eucharistic theology but, as Kumler suggests, make vision sacramental. At the moment of consecration, the reader-viewer is able to see the divine as depicted in the image, even if the others in the image, including the clergy, are not depicted as seeing the incarnate Christ present at the sacrament (137). In relation to the cloister, Kumler explores how both architectural renderings in an image and depictions of a convent community instruct a reader-viewer in how to construct the interior of his/her life. Kumler draws her argument to a close in the conclusion by stating that ‘[t]hese manuscripts were demanding objects, books that made claims upon artists and beholders, involving laymen and women in the epistemological refashioning of the self, in spiritually powerful ways of looking, in pursuit of salvation and the production of religious truth’ (241).

At times, this book was very technical in its prose for someone without a background in this particular period of art and ecclesiastical history. While I would not recommend this book to the casual reader, especially considering its expense (£45), the book would suit those interested in the historical relationship between images and penance, spiritual devotion, and religious knowledge. However, the casual reader does have something to gain from this book. The full-colour reproductions and the descriptive narrative bring the reader into the devotional mindset of a 13th-century Christian and force one to slow down and deeply consider the depth and layers of religious meaning embedded in these images. While Kumler does not set this out as an aim for her book, a by-product of the way that it is written is tutelage in how to read devotional images. The full-colour illustrations are supported by long narrations of how a 13th-century reader-viewer of the devotional book would engage with and understand these images. Over the course of the book, the images take on a personal devotional meaning as the iconography become more familiar and therefore more appreciated. Overall, I found them to be powerfully constructive as both a text of and a text for theology.

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[1] Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 124.

Image credit: Amazon.co.uk

Author

  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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