Objects that were imbued with sacred potency played an integral part in the medieval religious experience. Even though not all religious authorities agreed on the legitimacy of the phenomenon and no ecclesiastical orthodoxy was ever reached on the role of images and materiality in the medieval West, religious objects, mainly figures and images, frequently animated and acquired life. This could, for instance, manifest itself in movement, speech or bleeding, sometimes by way of miraculous, sometimes by way of mechanical agency.
In this talk, the phenomenon of living matter will be discussed using medieval Denmark as a case-study. Taking its starting point in the recent volume “Materiality and Religious Practice in Medieval Denmark” (ed. Croix & Heilskov, Brepols 2021), living objects from mechanical anthropomorphic figures, via relic-endowed sculptures to miraculously bleeding wonderhosts will be discussed in order to give a full picture of the many facets of object-animation at the fringe of medieval Christianity. Although the Lutheran Reformation means that sources that enlighten us on object-animation are few and spread over a long time-period of c. 700 years, and although quite a few of them post-medieval and biased against animated objects, they paint a picture of a very rich religious culture wherein materiality played a key part.
Dr. Mads Vedel Heilskov is a specialist in medieval religious culture and materiality. His ongoing research project is called “Animated Materiality in the Medieval Catholic West” and is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. Its first instalment was carried out at École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris and focused on the intellectual and devotional side of object-animation. Its current instalment, “Techniques of Life”, is housed at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. It focuses on the phenomenon of objects acquiring life as a process of becoming which can be broken down into specific artistic and artisanal actions.