Religious iconography has always been a prop

This week’s blog is by regular contributor and friend of the blog, and the other half of Medieval Dick Twitter, Dr Sara Öberg Strådal, a kick ass art historian working on medieval medical visual cultureFollow her on Twitter for excellent meme action, and generally correct opinions.

In the last week American police forces responded to demonstrations against state brutality and the recurring extrajudicial murders of Black people with, predictably, more violence. Donald Trump, unencumbered by critical thinking and with an internal monologue consisting entirely of old-timey slurs, called for even more violence. Upon his request, tear gas and rubber bullets were used to drive away peaceful protestors so that he could walk down to St Johns, ‘the Church of the President’s’, and take a series of creepy photos holding a book he has almost certainly never read.

Now, James Martin and I agree on some things, this is certainly revolting. But, I hate to say, Religion is definitely a political tool and it has been for as long as there has been religion and politics. The Bible is not a prop? Tell that to the Bohun Family who had an entire team of scribes and, more importantly, artists producing books that would coincidentally always glorify the family and stress their importance as well as how their political allegiances were divinely ordained.

From British Library Egerton MS 3277

Just look at this historiated initial from the Book of Psalms. (Technically it is a Psalter-Hours, a handy book to help you do your daily devotions. Go look at it.) In the centre of the letter D are four biblical scenes depicting Good Kingship and in the margin we just happen to have the king of France handing a sword down to the king of England (ie the king of Humphrey Bohun, the Earl of Hereford). [1]

It was SUPER COMMON. Here is another example:

From British Library Add MS 42130

This is the Luttrell Psalter, named after the patron Geoffrey Luttrell (bottom right, on horseback). The entire book is a testament to his prosperity and prowess, his knowledge and abundance of his estate (go and have a look at the book, it’s pretty amazing), but it is never as fully realised as it is on this opening. Our boy Geoff, rather than kneeling in prayer in the margins (which is how would commonly see patron’s in medieval devotional books) is in his finest regalia and he is accompanied by his wife and his daughter in law, WHO ARE BOTH WEARING CLOTHES MADE OUT OF HERALDRY. If you wanted to remind someone of how important you and your descendants are, this is a pretty good way.

But donor portraits are not usually given such a prominent position in the middle of a book, so why is it here? Probably because when this image is paired with the initial on the facing folio and the verse it illustrates it becomes an even stronger message emphasising Geoffrey’s right to rule. It is Psalm 109 and it begins, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, come and sit at my right hand, and I will make of your enemies a footstool’. It is usually illustrated with a different motif, but here we see God with a secular king – the artist is making a fairly direct link here between the power and authority emanating from the Divine Lord and the power and military prowess of Geoffrey Luttrell.

In these cases, these biblical books were almost certainly props and ways for powerful men to support their claims to power and right to rule.

The difference, of course, is that Donald Trump does not know the book he is using as a prop, which is why he is just waving it about. The reason these photos look so much like uncanny valley versions of regular religious iconography is because none of the people involved in this charade know or care about the beliefs and traditions they are trying to ape.

From the Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura

Way back in the ninth century, when Charles the Bald (large adult son of Louis the Pious, and grandson of Charlemagne) wanted himself portrayed as the rightful ruler of the Carolingian empire and the protector of the Church, he got himself this spiffy portrait where he is seated surrounded by angels, representations of earthly and divine powers, his (probably second) wife, as well as a poem that explains all this in some detail. (This ruler portrait was added to a pretty amazing bible and given to the Pope, it’s now, still, in a monastery outside of Rome.)[2]

Meanwhile, Donald Trump wants to portray himself as someone ruling by divine decree, but rather than showing himself humble in front of the supreme power of an almighty God, he is just standing there. Perhaps we are meant to read the figure of Christ blessing those walking in and out of the door below as laying his blessing on the president? There is less human emotion and movement revealing of interpersonal connection in this photo than in a manuscript painting produced over a millenia ago.

One thing this image does have in common with the medieval iconography it tries to imitate is the importance placed on marriage. Rather than being surrounded by religious leaders, military commanders or secular authorities that could steer him through a turbulent time, Trump is standing in this vast empty hall, accompanied only by his (third) wife. Like the portrait of Geoffrey in the Luttrell Psalter, it is his lineage (born forth by his wife) that is stressed, adding another worrying and fucked up dimension to this whole mess.

From the St Catherine chapel at Karlsteijn

Compare and contrast that with Eleanor’s monarchy obsession, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV , pictured here with his third wife Anna of Schweidnitz from the castle at Karlsteijn. Here you see all of the emphasis on marriage and ruling by divine right, but absolutely none of the terrifying death stare and confusion about what a church is.

While this entire fiasco is absolutely hateful and disgusting, it is therefore by no means unprecedented. Trump is tapping into a centuries-old tradition. What is jarring about the charade isn’t necessarily that this isn’t something that happens, it is that it is, like all Trump productions, gauche. In order to produce good religious propaganda, one needs to first understand religion and have some recourse to it. This doesn’t work because not even Trump believes this. There’s no conviction here.

While the good James Martin is by no means wrong about this being gross, he is certainly wrong about religion as a political tool. He is probably just not used to it being employed sans religious feeling. There’s a difference.

Anyway Black Lives Matter. Justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. No justice, no peace.


[1] You can look at the entire MS here: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=6851&CollID=28&NStart=3277 and if you want to know more about the Bohun family and their inhouse scriptorium, see: Lucy Freeman Sandler, ‘Political Imagery in the Bohun Manuscripts’ in Decoration and Illustration in Medieval English Manuscripts, English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, 10 (London: British Library, 2002), pp. 114-153 (pp. 117-18, 122-26, 135-145).
Lucy Freeman Sandler, ‘The Illustration of the Psalms in Fourteenth-Century English Manuscripts: Three Psalters of the Bohun Family’, in Reading Texts and Images: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Art and Patronage in Honour of Margaret M. Manion, ed. by Bernard J. Muir (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002), pp. 123-151 (p. 124 n. 5, 125, 127).
[2] For more on this bad boy, see, William J. Diebold, “The Ruler Portrait of Charles the Bald in the S. Paolo Bible”, The Art Bulletin, 76, no. 1 (1994), 6-18.


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For more from Sara, see:
On QAnon and Systems of knowledge

For more on art and art history, see:
Look up, this church is judging you
On the concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya

For more on religion, see:
On Odious Debt
My fav [not] saints: St Guinefort
Emergency post: That is not what Good Friday means
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Prague, preaching, and brothels
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On dildos and penance
A short history of Jan Hus, the Protestant leader you’ve never heard of
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
On St Nicholas
On No Nut November
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
Emergency Pubcast – Why the Pope can’t just say there is no hell and do me like that
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On the medieval separation of church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
Look up – this church is judging you

For more on politics and the medieval period see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
On a world without police
Medieval policing and race reading lists
On Odious Debt
On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making
Emergency Post: That is not what the “good” in Good Friday means
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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