Jesus through Medieval Eyes by Grace Hamman. Zondervan Reflective. Hardcover. 208 pages. List price: $25.09.
I recently had the opportunity to read Dr. Grace Hamman’s new book, Jesus through Medieval Eyes: Beholding Christ with the Artists, Mystics, and Theologians of the Middle Ages. Hamman is a devotee of old books, particularly those written in the medieval period. She is intimately acquainted with the original Latin and Old English of her beloved authors and has devoted years of her life to walking alongside them. Julian of Norwich is her homegirl. She probably has posters of Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante Aleghieri in her bedroom. Yet even Grace admits in the opening pages of her book,
“We swim in a sea of common assumptions and knowledge about science and the way the world works, what constitutes a human, right and wrong, and the things in between. Like fish, we can’t escape, on our own, this ocean of unspoken commitments and beliefs. More specifically, we read out of our own bodies and places and life experiences. I inevitably read like a mother, trained scholar, and millennial American white woman”.
As L.P. Hartley famously wrote in the opening sentence of his novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The great changes that have shaped the human mind over the past half a millennium have likely made it impossible for us to think like a medieval person, but we have points of access in the surviving accounts of medieval persons themselves. They too were followers of Jesus Christ, and the ways they thought about him can help us spot places where our own understanding may be deficient.
The great changes that have shaped the human mind over the past half a millennium have likely made it impossible for us to think like a medieval person, but we have points of access in the surviving accounts of medieval persons themselves
In seven chapters that focus on Christ as judge, lover, knight, Word, mother, good medieval Christian, and wounded God, Hamman provides a sumptuous appetizer that points readers to the great feast awaiting them in the world of medieval literature. Illustrations often accompany the text, allowing the reader to see as well as imagine. We are drawn into a world that was by no means a monolith, but a rich and colorful tapestry of human experiences.
Hamman provides a sumptuous appetizer that points readers to the great feast awaiting them in the world of medieval literature
Of course, the medieval world was also full of weird stuff and problematic beliefs. Hamman is not suggesting we adopt these doctrines and practices, but rather that we realize our own age is subject to the same failings, and these earlier witnesses can provide a kind of check on our worst excesses. As Hamman argues,
“In reading these exploring, adoring, faithful witnesses from the past, we can come to know Jesus—and ourselves—better. What we find strange or beautiful in these medieval witnesses can reveal our concerns, hidden biases, and even new truths. They also teach us new and profound ways to love him”.
Hamman’s observations are broad, and she engages with a plethora of authors including Thomas Aquinas, Margery Kempe, and Pope Gregory the Great, interpreting them with the help of modern commentators like C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen. It may be tempting to see the book as a sort of intellectual travelogue without a central thesis, but upon close observation, such a theme emerges: the embodiment of Christ and his union of love with us.
As the medieval period (often defined as roughly A.D. 500-1500) stretched on, Western Christians increasingly focused on the physical reality of Christ’s crucifixion and the way that sacrifice was communicated to the faithful in Word and Sacrament. Images of the Holy Rood that displayed a bloodied Christ, his skin covered in wounds, were central to medieval devotion, and becoming united to Christ in his suffering was seen as the ultimate goal for the Christian.
Speaking of Petrus Christus’ painting Christ the Savior and Judge, Hamman observes, “With one hand he cradles his side wound. The other is held open in wounded vulnerability at the consummation of history”. What does this teach us? “Jesus the Almighty Judge is the same Jesus who went willingly to the cross, uncurling his fingers for the nails, refusing to defend himself against the violence of the world. His wounds preach his mercy to us, and that is why he displays them”. While the guilt inducing power of Christ’s wounds could become an unhealthy obsession for some, Hamman notes that for the one who knows they are covered by Christ’s blood, the wounds of Christ are a comfort.
Medieval writers gave significant attention to the Song of Songs, leading to the image of Christ as a lover, something that may make modern readers squeamish. But while medieval Christians are often thought of as being particularly hung up on the issue of sex, they were not afraid to apply such language to Christ. Hamman concludes, “Jesus the Lover speaks to us in the language of sensual love to foster our desire and to reveal his own. The scriptural allegory of embodied, erotic love becomes a dim mirror into which we can gaze to catch a glimpse of the infinitely greater, gleaming love of the incarnate God”.
Medieval writers gave significant attention to the Song of Songs, leading to the image of Christ as a lover, something that may make modern readers squeamish.
This is not simply the language of courtly love. Christ the knight does not conquer through strength, but weakness. He draws his beloved to himself not forcefully, but in his own suffering.
“In an echo of Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross, the lover invites the soul into his embrace, but she rejects him. He will abide until she is ready to come. Love returned through force or fear is not perfect love. The true lover will wait in perfect patience and adoration as long as need be”.
This leads to one of the strangest ways that medieval Christians understood Christ: they were absolutely obsessed with the side wound he received on the cross, and in their numerous illustrations of said wound, they purposely made it look like…well, I will let Hamman explain it.
“The side-wound themes and imagery invert the traditional roles of Christ as bridegroom and the Soul as bride by portraying Jesus as the one who is inviting his beloved into his body. Christ’s side wound was often drawn shaped like a vulva…In some illustrations, Christ even gives birth from his side wound. He is the mother of the church, his wounds the womb through which we are born again. As our lover, he is profoundly fruitful. He forms us in blooming beauty through his tender desire”.
Yes, you read that correctly. There are illuminated manuscripts depicting Christ’s side wound as the female sexual organ through which the church is born. Here the phrase “he was pierced for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5) is interpreted with the church in the male role and Christ in the female, receptive role: a reversal of the way Paul portrays the relationship in Ephesians chapter 5. This may shock and even offend readers, but it is not simply a feminist reinterpretation.
For medieval persons, salvation was a decidedly physical process as well as a spiritual one
Hamman observes that not only Julian of Norwich, but even such esteemed doctors of the church as Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury, and Aelred of Rievaulx spoke of Jesus in maternal terms. Indeed, this was one of the chief ways that medieval Christians understood their Savior. “They wrote Jesus as a pregnant, laboring, and postpartum mother: lactating, bleeding, meant to be adored and imitated in his long-suffering mercy and compassion. The crucifixion and childbirth meet at a strange point of willing love and willing suffering in the service of abundant life”.
For medieval persons, salvation was a decidedly physical process as well as a spiritual one. Hamman writes, “The incarnation is ‘fitting’ not only for God in his goodness but for us as embodied souls…Jesus’s embodiment invites us embodied creatures into divine love”. This is what it means for Christ to become incarnate—for the Word to become flesh.
“When the Word take on flesh, he ‘translates’ himself, speaks in a manner that we can participate in, follow, and worship, and so begin to distantly understand the love of God and one another. God did not have to reveal himself the way he did, through the embodiment of the divine in Jesus…But the Word Incarnate is the embodied form of God’s love”.
Focusing on Christ’s human nature as displayed in his physical suffering helps us to understand the full nature of our union with him: a union that gives dignity to our mortal bodies and includes the promise of physical resurrection. “If we are not attentive, we will understand our human limitations as a curse. But we know they’re not—because God joined us in our full humanity. Jesus calls us into eternal life, love and humility in our present, time-bound bodies”.
Focusing on Christ’s human nature as displayed in his physical suffering helps us to understand the full nature of our union with him: a union that gives dignity to our mortal bodies and includes the promise of physical resurrection.
Hamman’s book provides a vision of our union Christ that is a source of immense comfort, particularly when combined with the fresh understanding of Law and Gospel provided by the Reformation. With that important caveat, I would recommend this book for both history nerds and novices alike, for to the extent that our greatest pursuit is to know Christ, there is much we can glean from the bountiful fields of the medieval age. For Jesus Christ in the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
 Hamman, Grace. Jesus through Medieval Eyes: Beholding Christ with the Artists, Mystics, and Theologians of the Middle Ages (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2023), 5.
 Hamman, 6.
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 Hamman, 39-40.
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 Hamman, 52-3.
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