The Phenomenal Lives of Movable Christ Sculptures
Jung, Tanya Ann
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This dissertation deals with a fascinating and understudied group of free-standing Christ sculptures that were moved in imitation of Christ during the dramatic observances of late medieval Holy Week. They adhere to general iconographic formulas, but stand apart from other depictions of Christ in one important respect--they were elaborately kinetic. Congregations animated these images in a variety of ways, from basic manual operation in processions and elevations to the manipulation of fitted joints, wheels, hand cranks, and elevation apparatuses. Scholars who study movable Christ sculptures use them as evidence for liturgical and para-liturgical observances recorded in written texts, they approach them as aesthetic objects or as objects of folk tradition, and they discuss their place in the development of medieval sculpture and architectural space. I argue, however, that these images have more meanings to offer. Accordingly, these meanings are available when we consider not only their material and symbolic forms and their performative functions, but also their shifting cultural locations in medieval and modern Europe. Movable Christ sculptures were edifying and sacred images, disconcerting idols, homely folk objects, and works of art. My aim in this dissertation is to write a cultural biography of the lives of these images--in other words, a history that can account for the varied connotations of movable Christ sculptures in different instances of practice, reception, and response. It is my contention that these images, because of their performative function, experiential qualities, mimetic form, relatively anonymity, and "thingness," present an ideal opportunity to exercise cultural biography from an art historical perspective. Such an exercise elucidates the history of movable Christ sculptures after the moment of production and artistic intent has passed. It describes how these images have remained fixed in human imagination and in life regardless of changing cultural, social and political circumstances, yet it also accounts for the ways in their meanings have changed over time. In short, it provides a more complete account of the lives of these unique and understudied objects and reveals the ways in which movable Christ sculptures create transcendental moments and social realities.