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Carolyn Diskant Muir, Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art (Brepols, 2012)

Carolyn Diskant Muir, Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-905375-87-5, x + 198 pp., €100.00.

Reviewed by Catharine Ingersoll


[1] Mystic marriage as a pictorial theme is most often associated with one individual, St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was frequently depicted in late medieval and Renaissance art receiving a wedding band from the infant Christ. Carolyn Diskant Muir, in her comprehensive study, Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art, demonstrates that notions of mystic marriage – a metaphor for the ineffable experience of a human soul’s spiritual union with the divine – were important iconographic subjects for other holy figures as well. This extensively researched volume, an expansion of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Manchester, provides ample visual examples in its 100 black-and-white images and 17 color plates. Concentrating on the art of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France in the years between about 1300 and 1550, Muir draws a number of convincing conclusions about the various meanings behind the mystic marriage theme, especially in terms of the interpretive implications of the gender of both the depicted saint and the presumed viewer.

[2] In her introductory Chapter, Muir traces the spiritual and religious tradition of mystic marriage from its Judaic roots in the Song of Songs to the ecstatic experiences of late medieval female mystics. The Latin word for the soul (anima) is a feminine noun, which in the medieval period facilitated the metaphor of a marriage with Christ for all believers, regardless of gender. Since the primary characteristic of mystic marriage is the ecstatic intimacy of the soul with Jesus, Muir explains that visual motifs other than the giving of a ring can also signify mystic marriage. She identifies only five saintly figures for whom a corpus of images exist from this time period that portray such a spiritual union with Christ: St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Agnes, St. John the Evangelist, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Blessed Henry Suso. Each of the book’s five Chapters focuses on one of these holy persons, with the author addressing the saint’s vita and other textual sources for the mystic marriage theme; iconographic conventions and motifs found in the imagery; and the context and audience for the specific works of art under discussion.

[3] Muir’s examination of artworks depicting mystic marriage demonstrates idiosyncrasies among the iconography, depending on the saint. The mystic marriage of St. Catherine is by far the most common subject, and of the five saints under discussion she is the only one whose union with Christ was also portrayed by artists in southern and central Europe. St. Agnes’s iconography is revealed to be a continuation of the St. Catherine theme, as both virgin saints are most often shown in adoration of the infant Christ, who gives his bride a wedding ring. St. John the Evangelist’s union with Christ is denoted by an embrace, often involving John resting his head on his savior’s breast, a motif taken from the Last Supper. Similarly, in St. Bernard’s vision of the crucified Christ, Jesus reaches down from the cross to embrace the Cistercian monk. Neither St. John nor St. Bernard is ever shown participating in an actual marriage ceremony. Henry Suso is a rather unique case, as he appears as a bridegroom to Eternal Wisdom, a figure that is shown alternatively as male and female but always functions as an allegorical stand-in for Jesus. In some images Suso and Eternal Wisdom embrace, while in others they exchange wedding bands.

[4] Issues of media and regional popularity are also discussed over the course of the five Chapters. While images of St. Catherine and St. Agnes appear most frequently in panel paintings, their spiritual marriages can also be found in print media, manuscript illustrations, sculpture and even metalwork. Contrasting with this situation are the images of Christ embracing St. John, the corpus of which is dominated by carved, polychrome limewood sculptures. These stem mostly from Swabia in southern Germany, suggesting a special affinity of that region for this particular saint. Likewise, images of St. Agnes are specific to the lower Rhine region. St. Bernard appears most often in works made in German-speaking regions of northern Europe, and can be found in a variety of media. Blessed Henry Suso, on the other hand, is only depicted in manuscript illuminations accompanying texts of his own authorship.

[5] In the book’s conclusion, Muir synthesizes her findings, relating them to broader religious trends of the era that emphasized a personal experience of the divine, such as the Devotio Moderna movement and late medieval mysticism. She also addresses the issue of gender as it relates to the diverse ways of representing a mystic marriage. She outlines the differences between the usual depictions of the male saints and female saints as found in the artworks she identified in the previous Chapters. The men are shown as physically intimate with Christ, who appears as an adult and embraces the saint. An embrace between two males was a normal occurrence in medieval culture, designating a power relationship and protection. In contrast to the ecstatic experiences of contemporary female mystics, the women shown in these images do not engage in physical intimacy with Christ, who is portrayed as an infant, but they do receive a ring that is suggestive of an actual wedding ceremony. This accords with contemporary practice for female religious, who received rings when inducted into the order and acted out their maternal instincts by focusing their devotions on Christ as a baby. Again unlike contemporary mysticism, absolutely no erotic undertones are present in the images of St. Catherine and St. Agnes because the most important characteristic of women saints during this time period was virginity. Given that many of the artworks under consideration were intended for convents and monasteries, their primary functions would have been as stimuli to devotion, with the saints shown therein serving as models for an intimate spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. Muir’s broad study of the iconography of mystic marriage skillfully reveals the rich connections among textual sources, visual imagery and contemporary piety that were at play in the religious culture of pre-Reformation northern Europe.

The University of Texas at Austin, November 2014