Kingsley, Jennifer:

The Materiality and Tangibility of Christ in Bernward’s Manuscripts

Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, the founder of St. Michael’s Abbey, is justifiably renowned for his patronage of the arts. Described in a biographical compilation the monks of St. Michael’s produced in the twelfth century as a knowledgeable artist and collector, Bishop Bernward seems to have been particularly conscious of the power of art and its materials, at a time in the eleventh century in which the materiality of art itself was increasingly serving to articulate the relationship between sacred art and the divine.
Among the objects Bernward commissioned, his manuscripts draw particular attention to the question of the materiality of images, and to art’s resulting power to act as a mediating membrane between Bernward’s world and that of the saints. Whether by means of lavish decoration that evokes the appearance of precious materials like silk, in the eclectic use of styles, or in the ways that their paintings place artworks at the center of a complex and multi-directional communication with the saints, Bernward’s manuscripts foreground the materiality of art to suggest Christ’s presence as the Word-made-flesh. As such, the manuscripts engage not only medieval debates about, in the terms of the eighth-century interpolation added to Gregory the Great’s letter to Serenus, the ability of art to “show the invisible by means of the visible,” but also raise the specter of art’s materiality in relation to Christ’s tangibility.

Dr. Jennifer P. Kingsley received her PhD in 2007 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she worked under the direction of Herbert Kessler. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University, where she has just completed her book on Bishop Bernward's precious Gospels: Shaping the Episcopacy: Art, Memory and the Eleventh-Century Bernward Gospels. An article on a related topic is forthcoming in Peregrinations “To Touch the Imago: Embodying Christ in the Eleventh Century.”

Columbia University New York