Master Kip (who may have been Jean Poillevé) created this Folding Prayer Book: The Lord’s Prayer in the mid-16th century. Photo courtesy of The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Medieval prayer comes alive at AGO exhibit

By 
  • August 12, 2021

A small show full of small items on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto opens up a vast world of medieval mystical experience.

“Meditation and the Medieval Mind” highlights elaborate boxwood beads, carved ivory diptychs and 700-year-old prayer books from the AGO’s Thomson Collection of European Art to draw out the evolving prayer lives of 14th- and 15th-century Christians.

While it might seem that the prayers and religious practice of pre-modern Europeans would be lost in the mists of time, through the tools and aids to prayer that medieval people created their practice of prayer comes alive, said the show’s curator Adam Levine.

“It’s embedded in the objects themselves,” Levine told The Catholic Register.

Those objects were all built with a purpose — to pull people into an intimate and intense experience of communion with the spiritual realities of their lives.

“We think of them as art in museums,” Levine said of the miniature carvings and manuscripts. “But I wanted to think of them as objects of design and objects that are tools for focused meditation.”

The small size and elaborate detail of the carvings and illuminated manuscripts actually serve a purpose, Levine said.

“They are densely packed, so that you have to effectively make yourself smaller,” he observed.

Just to see what’s going on in any of the carvings and most of the manuscripts, a person must hold the object up close, strain their eyes and really concentrate. For the craftsmen who made the carvings and patrons who commissioned them, this is a strategy to draw a person into the alternate, miniature world they hold in their hands.

“You have to leave your physical world in order to transition into a meditative space,” Levine said.

That lay people from 1300 on were seeking out their own mystical experience and taking responsibility for deepening and expanding their own prayer lives was part of a larger shift in the religious landscape of Europe at the time. It was a shift that took religion from the political to the personal. As the Roman empire crumbled and new political forces arose, religion had become a corporate, collective, cultural and political system. People identified with the Church and assigned important roles to clergy as a way of being part of society, and a way of shaping that society.

Beginning around 1300, there is a revived interest in the Virgin Mary. In prayer, people turned to saints as intercessors. Lay people took ownership of the Gospel, acting out Gospel stories both in public at festivals and in private in their imaginations.

“One of the aspects of medieval meditation is — and something you really do see in the 13th and 14th centuries — is this interest in how can I enter into this story? How can I become part of the story? How can I construct this and make it make sense to me?” said University of St. Michael’s College medieval studies professor Alison More as she toured the AGO exhibition.

The exhibition is dominated by a wooden statue of Mary attached to the wall at one end of the narrow gallery. A sense of medieval spirituality is reinforced by devotional songs performed by The Boston Camerata coming over speakers in the softly lit, deep-blue corridor.

That emphasis on Mary continues in many of the objects on display, and particularly in an ivory diptych that shows four devotional scenes — all of them featuring Mary. Not much bigger than an open, paperback book, this diptych shows the crucifixion, the adoration of the magi, the Nativity and Mary and Christ seated together as king and queen of Heaven. Mary is featured in dramatic ways in all four images. At the crucifixion, Mary is the only moving figure who must be supported as she swoons. In the adoration of the magi, Mary hands the baby Jesus a crown.

“It’s actually plausible to say that this (diptych) may have been made for a woman patron, because it centres motherhood and femininity in all of these episodes,” Levine said.

The exhibition marvelously demonstrates that our medieval past is not dead, dry and remote history, but still part of our living, spiritual reality, said More.

“In some ways, everyone’s experience is personal, but everyone’s experience is also universal,” she said.

AGO members and anyone under the age of 25 can access “Meditation and the Medieval Mind” for free. Adult admission is $25, but annual membership is $35. The gallery opens at 10:30 a.m. daily, Tuesday through Sunday and closes at 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, and 5:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. COVID-19 protocols are in place.

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