Last month at SCMS I heard a fantastic paper entitled “Miniature Pleasures: On Watching Films on an iPhone” by Dr. Martine Beugnet, who unpacked the spectator’s sense of absorption with mobile devices in relationship to the history of the miniature. Most critiques of watching films on small devices lament the lack of cinematic experience in a manner similar to this hilarious spoof on iPhone commercials. Beugnet insisted that we still must understand and study this mode of viewership on its own terms, and I happen to agree. In both cases, she argued, the viewer/owner has a sense of intimacy and ownership in relationship to the image on screen. In my lecture course Friday morning, I discussed one such example of a miniature, Jean Pucelle’s The Hours of Jeanne D’Evreaux (c. 1324–28). This work, made especially for the Queen of France, bears an exceptional amount of miniature detail in grisaille and was a personal, tiny object worn and used by the queen throughout the day.
As I thought more about these miniature medieval objects, I couldn’t help but locate some other interesting connections to today’s smartphones in terms of the notion of connectivity as well as a miniature object through which one can be transported into another visual/narrative/affective realm. In medieval Europe, one could argue that being constantly connected – mentally, physically, psychically, and otherwise – to faith was one of the driving desires of daily life: it fueled the cultural migration of pilgrims towards relics (physical connections to those who’ve attained salvation), inspired the affectively and viscerally rich religious theatrical tradition analyzed by Mikhail Bakhtin in relationship to “the grotesque,” and rationalized the dispatch of the knight class to the edges of the Mediterranean in the Crusades. Just as our smartphones connect us to today’s supreme realms of information and capital, so too did small devotional books connect their owners to the spiritual world.
First, these objects were quite often incredibly small, much like an iPhone. Pucelle’s book is even much smaller, its height not even reaching four inches (considering I can blow up a tiny detail of one page to a classroom projector and still discuss the detail is a testament to the intricate craftsmanship of manuscript illuminators). The simultaneous small size and intricate detail of the images presume not only preciousness and ownership, but also portability and constant access.
Beyond the intimate size of personal books of devotion, they were also attached to clothing, and thus tethered to the body in a manner similar to how we think of the constant need to have a cell phone as being “on a leash.” These books, often called “girdle books” were a staple of monastic dress and were also very important in portraiture for the aristocracy, such as quite a few examples of Elizabeth I.
As the caption to my opening photo suggests, contemporary smartphone images are part of a complex matrix of mediation, reproduction, and information flows quite apart from the distinct aura of a handmade devotional book in vellum. If we consider our contemporary desire for and inescapable connectedness within the flows of global information and capital as (extremely roughly) analogous to the web of control held by faith in medieval and Renaissance Europe, however, more connections can be found. When we forget our smartphone at home we are left with this strange feeling of being disconnected. It seems as though many late medieval depictions of books of hours suggest a similar need to be constantly connected to one’s own holy book.
In addition to the role of girdle books in portraiture, images of saints, biblical figures, and patrons with their small devotional texts within such books themselves form a means of reinforcing the essential place the individual, portable book had in the creation of a direct, personal connection with one’s faith. In some selections of details from an early sixteenth-century Netherlandish Book of Hours from the British Library, we notice that this contemporary religious practice has been inscribed into the narratives of the faith. Just as artists of the Gothic and Renaissance period often felt compelled to place biblical stories within contemporary and regional architectural settings and dress, so too do the religious practices of the aristocracy complement the lives of the saints.
Saint Peter reads from his book in a portrait detail, angels simultaneously read from their personal books while attending the Nativity (oscillating between personal image/text and experience in a manner we can crudely compare to Tweeting an event), and even at the most tragic of moments John looks on with Mary at the crucifixion while grasping a devotional book tethered to his dress. In each of these scenes, the book of devotion is not a distraction from the reader’s attention to the event, but rather an extension of that devotional presence or an indicator (in the case of John at the crucifixion) of direct religious and affective experience.
One of the most common such experiences seen in religious art of the late medieval and early renaissance period is the Annunciation. Mary is most often in the middle of reading her devotional text when the Angel Gabriel whisks into her room and tells her she will bear the son of God. One of the most important mysteries in Catholicism, it is quite telling that this is vital scene is understood in terms of contemporary devotional practice. In both Pucelle’s book and the British Library book of hours, this is the case, and in domestic panel paintings like the Merode Altarpiece and larger pieces like Ruben’s later version of the theme.
This theme also extends beyond the overt self-fashioning in the portraits as well as the revisionist interpretation of biblical characters to a meta-analysis of the book’s position within the book itself. In the historiated initial of the Annunciation page of The Hours of Jean D’Evreaux, the queen herself is depicted in prayer with the very book in which we see the image. This reinforces the use of the devotional book while reading and also forms a parallel to the mystical presence above.
Donors and patrons are often depicted in both private and public devotional works rapt in an act of prayer. This not only has a votive purpose for the sake of indulgences (due to their patronage or philanthropy, they are always praying, and thus getting closer to heaven), but it also connects to the notion of the religious vision. It would be sacrilege to include living people within the same narrative space as the bible, but when they are depicted in prayer, the idea is that they are having a vision. While Jeanne D’Evreaux is outside the sacred space (unlike in other examples), the notion of the religious vision is still quite important.
To connect back to our smartphone comparison, this notion of “connectivity” in today’s world of social media also has a high degree of self-fashioning within that very universe. Facebook is not merely a means of staying connected to friends and family, but also a mode by which we construct and validate a certain identity for ourselves. The surveillance of social media and mobile devices is not merely that of the state or even the corporation, but also implicates a manner of participatory self-surveillance. Furthermore, in promotional imagery for smartphones such as the Droid, the imagery of connectivity extends to the body in a sci-fi fantasy where our very anatomy is transformed. The user, like the reader in the Book of Hours, has the world come to them, via their miniature object. Technology configures the body as modifiable and site of enhancement, whereas in the Book of Hours, the fantasy is purely optical.
Just as contemporary connectedness extends to the multiple realms of our daily lives, so too does Pucelle include secular imagery in this devotional book. Below the image of the tormenting of Christ is an image of jousting, a contemporary view of “chivalry” markedly different than the behavior of the Roman and Jewish officials in the scene above. Below the Annunciation children play tag in a hilarious secular punning on the magical, non-penetrative impregnation of the Virgin (my students always chuckle at this part).
In musing on these connections am I arguing that devotional books are no different than smartphones? Of course not. However, to think of objects as connected to a larger web of meaning is vitally important to how we approach material culture studies, and especially when we think of objects people carry with them. The things we carry are not only part of how we fashion our own identity, but conduits for connecting us to the larger structures in which we live. These objects move through space in the same way we do, but they also move through their own realms of meaning on their own. Driver’s licences and credit cards are obvious examples within neoliberal late capitalism, and smartphones operate on even more complex registers of meaning. That we feel the need to be (and are socially compelled to make ourselves) connected to these structures of power is perhaps nothing new. It’s only the structures that have changed.