Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Devotio Moderna

The Crucifixion Scene from Matthias Grunewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece." The altarpiece was painted during the second decade of the C16th for the chapel of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim, the monastic house of which was a hospital run by the monks. In one of the most horrifying depictions of the Crucifixion in Western art, Grunewald addresses the agonies of the terminally ill by incorporating them within the sufferings of Christ and, therefore, within the divine order of Fall and grace. When opened, the Altarpiece reveals scenes of annunciation, Christ child, and Resurrection (view shown left) The themes of sickness, sin, death, and healing are continued here as elements of memento mori meditation are included within the picture. Thus a green, demonic figure appears behind the head of the cello-playing angel and, in counter-point, the infant Jesus has just been bathed (a symbol of baptism), is wrapped in cloth that recalls the Crucifixion scene, and plays with a string of prayer beads interspersed with fragments of coral (a symbol of Christ's blood). The violent pitiableness of Christ's sufferings express a devotional interest found also in the Devotio Moderna. 

Devotio Moderna ("modern devotion") refers to a movement for the renewal of the spiritual life that began in Holland during the late C14th and was influential in Germany, France, and parts of Italy. Both Catholic and Protestant reform initiatives reflect the influence of theological emphases found in the Devotio Moderna. These include an appeal to the original simplicity of Christian faith in a "golden age" now evidently lost; a call to clergy for a truly holy life; a valuing of the interior life with a corresponding lack of stress on the Church's institutionalized aids to salvation; criticism of formalized acts of piety together with any naive reliance on the external aspects of religion; an insistence that the knowledge of God lay open to scholar and illiterate peasant alike; a soteriological urgency in the face of both human sinfulness and the ubiquitous reality of death; intense and emotional meditation to the suffering of Christ; an interpretation of the Eucharist that stresses the sacrament as mediator of an intimate relationship with Christ. You should be able to spot roots of these features in both Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, and also their influence on Erasmus.

The classic text of the movement is St. Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, but the principal founder of the movement was Geert de Groote (1340-84). Groote - who was never ordained priest - became a missionary preacher in the diocese of Utrecht but had his license withdrawn because of the vehemence of his criticisms of ecclesiastical abuses. The Devotio Moderna was successful amongst laity and found institutional expression in the Brethren of the Common Life: associations of laity and non-monastic priests who were called to practice a disciplined life within their existing callings. The monastic form of the movement was found principally amongst the Windesheim Canons, a community founded in 1387 under the direction of Florentius Radewijns.

from Noteworthy Sayings of Master Geert
A man ought never to become anxious over any worldly thing. He who acts upon what he knows deserves to know much more, and he who does not act even upon what he knows deserves to become blinder still.
It is a great thing when a man proves obedient in matters that are contrary and difficult: This is true obedience.

In all things and before all people, seek to humble yourself, especially in the heart but also outwardly before the brothers.

It is the highest of all learning to know that one knows nothing. 

The more a man perceives how far short he is of perfection, the closer he is to it.

The beginning of vainglory is to please one's self.

A man never stands better revealed than when he receives praise.

Seek ever to observe and conceive something good about another.

So often as we inordinately desire something beyond God himself, we become unfaithful fornicators, whence the Prophet says: It is good for me to cling to God.

We ought to be vigorous in prayer and not easily brought to a halt. Nor should we imagine that God does not want to hear us; rather, even when we feel put off, we should not despair. The weak-spirited Temptation lurks in everything in this world, even if a man does not perceive it.

The greatest temptation is not to be tempted: When a man discovers in himself something that needs to be cut off, then he is in good standing. When an evil suggestion comes upon you, think what you would ask your companions, and then the devil will stand confused.

Always put more hope in eternal glory than fear in hell.

Let every person beware lest his behavior scandalize others, and so let him study to correct his ways and to conduct himself uprightly everywhere that others may be edified.

With whatever thoughts a man goes to sleep, he will also rise, so it is useful to pray and to read a few psalms on retiring.

Moderate confusion suffered here forestalls eternal confusion before God and all the saints.

Study to please and to fear him alone who truly knows you and all that you are.

Suppose you were to please all and displease God; to what end? Turn your heart therefore away from all creaturely things, even with great force. Turn it so that you may perfectly vanquish yourself, and raise your heart ever on high to God, as the Prophet says: "My eyes are ever upon the Lord" (Ps 122:2).

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