Embracing Jesus: Mystical Union with Christ in Seventeenth-century Art and Imagination

By Jamie Buettner.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

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Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: April 28, 2014 Free Download

Emphasis on personal spirituality in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation had enormous impact on religious art. To give visual expression to this new tenor of feminine religious interiority, European artists drew upon a long tradition of nuptial imagery, utilizing the “bride of Christ” metaphor. Catholic religious women experienced mystical marriages with Jesus, pictorially depicted through corporeal and highly gendered gestures. Mystical union with Christ represented the highest ascent toward God and epitomized the Counter-Reformation female religious experience. Despite reformers’ restrictions on imagery, mystical union was also visually represented in sacred emblem books for use in Protestant devotion. Visual allegories of the biblical Song of Songs provided the source for illustrations that depicted mystical union in scenes of tenderness between the female “Soul” and “Divine Love.” This article traces the influences of art historical precedent on the phenomenon of early modern imagery of mystical union, as well as ties historical evidence of female agency with the use of this imagery in private devotion. Identification as a "bride of Christ" provided a liberating possibility that enabled seventeenth-century women to cope with or circumvent their constricting material existences.

Keywords: Mystical Union, Affective Devotion, Emblem Books

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 3, Issue 4, May 2014, pp.13-27. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: April 28, 2014 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.511MB)).

Jamie Buettner

M.A. Candidate, California State University, Fresno, Fresno, CA, USA

I am currently a M.A. candidate in Art History from California State University, Fresno. I will graduate in December 2012. I am a returning student; my first undergraduate degree was in Physical Therapy, a discipline which I practiced for twenty years. My current course of study is the result of a lifelong passion for art in its social, religious, and historical contexts. My studies focused particularly on artistic representations of marginalized peoples in the early modern period. In 2012, I traveled to Italy to research mystical female saints in Baroque altarpieces. I am also interested in Indian Madubani art, and in 2011 traveled to remote areas of northwest India to learn traditional Indian painting techniques and to support the women artists in the villages there.