How Sufism and Jewish Mysticism Influenced Medieval Castilian Christianity – By Barbara Mujica

Barbara Mujica on Cynthia Robinson’s Imagining the Passion in a Multiconfessional Castile

Cynthia Robinson, Imagining the Passion in a Multiconfessional Castile, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013, 446 pp., $99.95
Cynthia Robinson, Imagining the Passion in a Multiconfessional Castile: The Virgin, Christ, Devotions, and Images in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, Penn State University Press, 2013, 520 pp., $99.95

An extraordinary sum of Passion-related texts and images produced in late medieval Europe put Christ’s humanity and suffering at the center of devotional life. But in Spain the situation was different: such devotional items did not appear here until the end of the fifteenth century in response to the Isabelline reform. Queen Isabel attempted to promote Christianity in her realm and impose strict orthodoxy on her subjects, leading to the expulsion of the Jews and the forced conversion of the Moors. Prior to these efforts, Spain’s Jews and Muslims exercised a powerful influence on Catholic mystical theology, extending even to depictions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. In Imagining the Passion in a Multiconfessional Castile Cynthia Robinson tells how the larger cultural context of Castilian Christianity encouraged a devotional theology that deemphasized the death and suffering of Jesus and accentuated his birth.

Whereas Western Christianity generally received spiritual nourishment from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century classics such as the Meditationes Vitae Christi, Bonaventure’s Lignum vitae, and Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi, Spanish devotional practices were inspired by the Llibre del Crestià (Book for Christians), written around 1400 by the Catalan Franciscan tertiary Françesc Eiximenis. The books that were popular in the rest of Europe stressed Christ’s humanity and suffering. Eiximenis, however, sees Christ as exclusively divine and omniscient and the Virgin practically his equal. The images and artifacts that were used in other European countries to focus the Christian’s attention on Christ’s Passion had no place in Castile, where the mystery of the Incarnation was prominent.

Eiximenis wanted the Holy Story to humble his readers by inspiring a sense of awe. Elsewhere images that fostered a consciousness of Christ’s and Mary’s suffering as man or mother engaged the devout affectively by inviting them to share in the suffering of the holy personages. The dearth of these images in Spain suggests different interests. Devotional practice aimed for spiritual transformation. The focus was on conversion, understood not only as change from one religion to another — a major concern in medieval Spain, with its large Muslim and Jewish populations — but also as personal spiritual renewal.

Medieval Castilian Christianity shares with Sufism and Jewish mysticism the centrality of interiority and divine revelation leading to ecstatic transformation. Although others have noted Islamic and Jewish traces in the works of sixteenth-century mystics such as Teresa of Avila (known in the Spanish-speaking world as Teresa de Jesús) and John of the Cross, Robinson suggests that Semitic influence in Spanish Christian devotional practice may be much older, “arguably assured by the perceived validity of these motifs in the sphere of interconfessional debate and polemic and by their consequent reification in the context of more private devotions.” Castilian clergy may even have scrutinized the intricacies of Islam and Judaism, not in an attempt to understand their neighbors but to convert them.

How did Eiximenis and other medieval Castilian writers employ characterizations of Christ and the Virgin to engage Judaism and Islam? Robinson examines an impressive number of Iberian devotional artifacts, paintings, statues, and texts in the context of medieval spiritual practice. Meditations on the Crucified Christ were not entirely absent from the devotional landscape, but they were employed largely in monasteries rather than among lay people. In Castilian works such as Eiximenis’s widely disseminated book for women, Llibre de les dones (Women’s Book), the emphasis is on spiritual enlightenment rather than on the Passion.

Those works that concern the Passion do not rely on images of the broken and suffering body of Christ designed to provoke a somatic response from the devout. They turn to poetic metaphors that depict Christ as an entity in continual transformation through which individuals are themselves transformed. Robinson finds similarities between this notion of the Crucified Christ and “the Sufi concept of the ever-oscillating, ever-changing mental image of the divinity.” This image of the transformative Christ remains at the core of Castilian devotion well past the end of the fifteenth century.

In her two chapters on the Virgin dealing with the Virgo Triumphans and the Virgo Patiens, Robinson notes that although similarities do exist between Marianic devotion in Spain and elsewhere, significant differences distinguish Spanish practices due to the multi-confessional Iberian context. This section draws largely on the Mariale sive de laudibus Beatae Virginis, an unpublished anonymous treatise combining the exegetical and Llullian Marianic traditions, the writings of Eiximenis and Juan López de Salamanca, and numerous examples of visual art. In medieval Castile, Mary is most often depicted as a prophetess, associated with light/enlightenment, and celebrated for her conversionary powers. Eiximenis reflects earlier traditions that stress Mary’s stoic or ecstatic experience of the Passion and bear striking and perhaps deliberate similarities to the Qur’anic Maryam.

Later texts that incorporate Eiximenis’s ideas include Psalters and breviaries with Old Testament Psalms rededicated to the Virgin and organized for daily prayer. Robinson examines in detail the Life of the Virgin, composed for the Countess Doña Leonor de Pimental during the fifteenth century by her Dominican confessor, Juan López de Salamanca. López’s emphasis is clearly on the miraculous and unfathomable: Mary’s multiple immaculate conceptions — the Virgin explains that she was conceived many times, the first occurring before the creation of the world — and her roles as prophetess, perpetual virgin (so designated by her “grandfather Isaiah”), and “enlightener.”

López also includes explanations of the many metaphors used to describe the Virgin and the postures of prayer she advocates. The prostrate posture is striking because it is similar or identical to the position of sajda recommended by the Qur’anic Maryam for fervent prayer. There are also parallels between images of Mary with rays of divine illumination and the portrait of “Maryam the Perfect” suggested by the writings of Rūzbihān al-Baqlī, the twelfth-century Sufi poet and mystic. Both López and the Countess possessed books by Sufi writers; these instances of congruence are probably not accidental. Through a meticulous analysis of linguistic and visual metaphors — in particular those referring to vegetation — Robinson concludes that the Castilian Mary is the “kissing cousin” of Maryam: both represent the ever-transformative power of the divine. Trees, which were often used synecdochically to refer to the Passion in Christian texts, have a particular importance in Castilian Marianic writing, just as they do in Muslim and Jewish mysticism. The dominant image of Mary that emerges from this material is that of a powerful source of illumination and personal renovation. Even Spanish images of the infant Jesus at his mother’s breast — such as Berrugute’s “Nursing Virgin” — depict a regal, triumphant Mary rather than a gentle Mary, humble in her humanity.

With regard to the Virgo Patiens, rather than a path toward Christ’s Passion predicated on the individual’s somatic participation in his suffering, in Castile Mary offers an example of mystical ecstasy: “[T]he Castilian Virgin consistently triumphs over the pains and humiliations of her son’s Passion, receiving mystical ecstasy and enlightenment instead.” She invites devotees not to suffer with Christ but to achieve enlightenment through him. She stands between devotees (and also potential converts) and the Passion, shielding them from the gruesome details of Christ’s death and providing them with a vehicle for personal transformation. According to Robinson, the tradition that highlights Mary’s stoicism, ecstasy, and enlightenment before the Passion is unique to Iberia.

Due to the influence of Isabel of Castile, at the end of the fifteenth century a new type of devotional image began to flourish at the Spanish court, one that more closely resembled depictions of the suffering Christ common in northern Europe. The Crown attempted to inject the suffering Christ into the devotional life of ordinary Castilians, but the common people continued to avoid images of the Passion. For a time, conflicting devotional currents existed in Spain, with Eiximenis’s treatises maintaining popularity, particularly among alumbrados. Despite the disfavor of the monarchy, “at least some devotees continued to prefer an image of their Savior as regal and divine, rather than suffering and weak.” The image of the triumphant and mystical Mary similarly continued to dominate in some circles, probably in part because the notions of light and revelation associated with it corresponded to Muslim — and especially Sufi — prayer motifs, which would have been familiar to Spain’s Moriscos.

Imagining the Passion in Multiconfessional Castile contains a wealth of information, detail, and insight, as well as abundant and beautiful illustrations. Robinson brings to light countless unpublished and unknown texts and images and elucidates many understudied works. This volume not only alters our understanding of medieval Castilian devotional practices but also helps to bridge the gap between the Spanish Middle Ages and sixteenth-century mysticism, especially that of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Luis de León. The way we look at early Spanish depictions of the Passion has undoubtedly changed forever.