Cover image for Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna By Elina Gertsman

Worlds Within

Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna

Elina Gertsman


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06401-7

288 pages
9" × 10"
48 color/106 b&w illustrations

Worlds Within

Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna

Elina Gertsman

Winner of the 2018 Karen Gould Prize in Art History from The Medieval Academy of America

“This study of Shrine Madonnas employs a kaleidoscope of lenses to show that perception of these uncanny devotional objects resounded in the viewer’s body, evoked the lore and science of childbirth, displayed the motility of liveness, and offered multiple paths for the remembrance of sacred history. Attentive to cultural context, Elina Gertsman also brings an array of theoretical insights to bear. A rich and immersive experience awaits the reader-viewer of this intellectually scintillating book!”


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  • Table of Contents
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In Worlds Within, Elina Gertsman investigates the Shrine Madonnas, or Vierges ouvrantes—sculptures that conceal within their bodies complex carved and/or painted iconographies. The Shrine Madonna emerged in Europe at the end of the 1200s and reached a peak of popularity during the following three centuries. Gertsman argues that the appearance of these objects—predicated as they are on the dynamic of concealment, revelation, and fragmentation—points to the changing roles of vision and sensation in the complex, performative ways in which audiences were expected to engage with devotional images, both in public and in private. Worlds Within considers these fascinating sculptures in terms of the rhetoric of secrecy, the discourse of containment, and the tropes of unveiling. Gertsman demonstrates how the statues were associated with the processes of seeing and memory-making and how they functioned as instruments of revelatory knowledge and spiritual reformation in the context of late medieval European culture.
“This study of Shrine Madonnas employs a kaleidoscope of lenses to show that perception of these uncanny devotional objects resounded in the viewer’s body, evoked the lore and science of childbirth, displayed the motility of liveness, and offered multiple paths for the remembrance of sacred history. Attentive to cultural context, Elina Gertsman also brings an array of theoretical insights to bear. A rich and immersive experience awaits the reader-viewer of this intellectually scintillating book!”
Worlds Within is wonderful—compelling, clear, sharp, and engaging. Elina Gertsman uses understudied Shrine Madonnas to prize apart understandings of medieval belief and practice, exploring how these objects facilitated embodied and enacted religious experiences that pressed the boundaries between the material and immaterial, the inert and active, the mundane and sacred, the visual and haptic, and the experience of the present and memory. This is accomplished through consideration of theoretical, cultural, theological, and formal perspectives, with particular emphasis on phenomenological and cognitive approaches. The implications of this learned study extend far beyond Shrine Madonnas to medieval understandings of vision and touch, and performance and devotion, that will shape the field.”
“This thoughtful, sophisticated, and at times daring book offers important new insights into the simultaneous popularity and controversiality of the Vierge ouvrante in late medieval Europe. Springing dynamically between medieval theological, devotional, and scientific discourse and modern scholarship on ritual, reception, performance, and play, Elina Gertsman’s wide-ranging argument illuminates, with elegance and verve, the animated and animating role that these distinctive sculptures played in late medieval religious practice.”
“This finely written and pioneering study is not simply a descriptive tract on the Shrine Madonnas—those fascinating sculptures that open to reveal complex iconographical programs. Rather, it is a far-reaching and riveting analysis of their important place in society and belief. Taking an all-encompassing and holistic approach to the forty or so extant carvings that first appeared at the end of the thirteenth century, Elina Gertsman places the works in a central position with regard to private and public devotion and makes the reader aware of how much they embodied and how they functioned. Sister Candide, a sixteenth-century nun at Maubuisson, wrote of the carving in that church that ‘when open it was not a Virgin but the entire world.’ The same could be said of this book—when open, it brings us a far greater world than we are led to believe from the title. Mariological studies are extended with this monograph, which looks at the physicality and meaning of the carvings from a medieval and modern perspective. This is essential reading for anyone interested in medieval art.”
“This book takes on a little-studied class of object with forcefulness and erudition. Beyond elucidating the multiple resonances of Shrine Madonnas for their original viewers, Elina Gertsman’s work will inspire new ways of considering larger questions concerning late medieval sculpture, audience response, the intersections of art and science, and female experience.”
“In this truly multidisciplinary study of one of the most perplexing and beguiling of medieval visual traditions, the so-called Vierges ouvrantes, Elina Gertsman deftly deploys a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches to investigate a staggering variety of objects, performances, and texts spanning three centuries and most of continental Europe as well as England. The book will have long-lasting impact not only on the discipline of art history, as a model of intellectual and scholarly rigor, but also on the broader field of medieval studies, for the way in which it brings together attention to the material and phenomenological specificity of objects and the theological, political, and epistemological dimensions within which they were created, viewed, and handled, or mishandled. One of the book’s most important contributions is its focus on the way the Vierges ouvrantes articulate a relationship between outside and inside, not just on an iconographic level but also and more importantly in terms of bodily process and passage. The brio and humor of Gertsman’s prose are finely balanced with the seriousness of her concern with the fundamental questions of how visual experience not only informs but actively shapes the way human beings experience physical, social, and psychic bodies.”
“Spanning vast temporal and topographical geographies, Elina Gertsman’s fascinating new account of the Shrine Madonnas demonstrates how their performative and anatomical disclosures respond to medieval theology, image theory, the science of medicine, and ritual. As it draws on phenomenology, performance studies, and new advances in affective neuroscience, this provocative book challenges us to rethink the way medieval art is displayed in museums today.”
“With uncanny elegance, Elina Gertsman elucidates one of the most jarring genres in medieval art: sculpted wooden bodies of holy Mary that open and close to display or hide miniature sacred worlds that evoke all of Christian salvation history. Written with exceptional erudition and historically grounded imagination, Worlds Within provides a new way of looking at late medieval material culture through an exploration of the visual poetics of enclosure, concealment, fragmentation, and unveiling. By skillfully guiding the reader through a complex medieval matrix of devotional practices, theological and gynecological beliefs, and sensory experience, Gertsman makes newly accessible the ‘sacred anatomy’ of these strange yet familiar, beautiful yet monstrous objects that have fascinated and offended viewers from the Middle Ages to the present day.”
“Vividly written, compellingly argued, and deeply informed by the latest scholarship, Worlds Within offers innovative and rich insight into the making and meaning of one of the most fascinating, but least researched, Marian images of the Middle Ages. Elina Gertsman’s sophisticated and often provocative book investigates the Shrine Madonna from a wide range of angles, which include, but are not limited to, the kinetics of concealment and revelation, medieval notions of anatomy, mnemonics, optics, the monstrous, and the abject, as well as modern cognitive science. This magisterial, truly interdisciplinary study will be must-reading for anyone interested in the ‘power of images’ in the medieval period and beyond.”
“Handsomely produced and beautifully illustrated.”
Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna is a significant contribution to medieval studies not only for its content but also for the way in which the author leads us to read the text, written with great vivacity, humor and sometimes with that passion for the object investigated that makes us feel the author’s presence on every page.”
“Striving to get a better understanding of late medieval culture, Gertsman draws upon a great variety of sources and concepts. Her meticulously analyzed case studies are based on a wide-ranging and up-to-date knowledge of scholarship that helps her to elaborate complex and sophisticated interpretations. . . . Gertsman’s ambitious book is a strong contribution to medieval art history and to art history in general.”
“Elina Gertsman’s book raises many interesting questions with passionate conviction and intellectual sophistication.”
Worlds Within is beautifully produced, with many full-color reproductions and high-quality paper that makes for a sumptuous reading experience. The inclusion of a gatefold of the Rhenish Shrine Madonna at the Met is a clever touch, allowing readers to enact an approximation of the opening and closing of the shrine. This sense of playfulness, in both the text and the book itself, reminds us that late medieval devotion itself was often playful. It is a welcome approach, and the wide range of possible approaches to the Shrine Madonna presents a model for interdisciplinary research. Worlds Within is an important contribution to current scholarship on late medieval devotion and will surely become a standard text for students and scholars alike.”
“A beautiful book of unusual and delightful sculptures. It is anchored in the scholarship of the last thirty years and demonstrates how an interest in devotional forms of art and the gendering of the Middle Ages has opened up the range of subject matter now acceptable as the focus of scholarly research. Elina Gertsman’s widely read scholarship is evident on every page.”
Worlds Within exercises and synthesizes the past 20 or so years of scholarship on medieval art and related fields, making it a must-read for serious students of this subject.”
“Gertsman’s approach is sagacious and unquestionably original.”

Elina Gertsman is Distinguished University Professor of Art History and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of the award-winning The Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books, also published by Penn State University Press.


List of Illustrations


Introduction: A Cause of Error

1 Secrets: Revealing Bodies, Fragmented Vision

2 Ruptures: Holy Anatomy, Affective Obstetrics

3 Play: Animate Substance, Uncanny Performance

4 Imprints: Hybrid Memories, Interior Journeys

Postscript: The Excavated Body

Appendix: Shrine Madonnas ca. 1270–ca. 1500, in Approximate Chronological Order





A Cause of Error

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I would like to start this book with a terse invective that appears in De Picturis et Imaginibus Sacris, by Johannes Molanus (d. 1585), the Flemish Catholic theologian and king’s censor. Molanus was elaborating on the decidedly vague Tridentine decrees on image making, and several visual aberrations provoked his wrath: the naked Christ Child, the lewdly dancing Salome, the inebriated apostle Peter, and the midwives present at the Nativity, to cite but a few. He had special reprehension reserved for the Trinity misrepresented in two equally inappropriate ways: as a tricephalic monster and as the Godhead enfleshed within the Virgin’s body. Those, he writes, “have elicited disapproval of learned men because they have no origin in the scripture and because our holy fathers did not know them.” The “learned men” he refers to are really one man, Jean Gerson (d. 1429), the prolific and indefatigable chancellor of the University of Paris, whom Molanus cites nearly verbatim and who indeed professed disgust at the sight of those statues of the Virgin that held the Trinity in their interior. In 1402, Gerson mounted a verbal attack on the statue he saw in a Parisian Carmelite monastery that had “the Trinity within its womb, as if the entire Trinity took flesh in the Virgin Mary.” The chancellor was stunned to see an image of hell painted within as well. “In my opinion,” he venomously concluded, such an object has “neither beauty nor pious sentiment and can be a cause of error and lack of devotion.” Molanus concurred with the chancellor’s genuine, if somewhat immoderately phrased, pastoral concern: “This is why Jean Gerson condemns one of these images in his sermon delivered in Paris on the Nativity of our Lord, saying, one must be wary of falsity.”

The image that upset Gerson and, through him, Molanus is no longer extant. It was likely akin to the Virgin and Child statue preserved in the Breton Morlaix, which stood originally on the altar in the city chapel of Notre Dame du Mur. The Morlaix Virgin, which dates to ca. 1390–1400, is a Virgo lactans who gently holds her child on her lap (fig. 1). A vertical gash begins below Mary’s neck and runs all the way down through her hand that cradles the breast, through the child’s knees, and through the Virgin’s cloak, between her legs. The statue opens along this split; inside, the Trinity in the form of the Throne of Mercy is carved in high relief, and six painted scenes, symmetrically arranged within the opening doors of Mary’s body, contain Christological narratives. One of them is the Harrowing of Hell.

The Morlaix Virgin is a so-called Shrine Madonna, or Vierge ouvrante: one of about forty extant medieval examples of such unfolding statues, which appeared in Europe in the late thirteenth century but reached the peak of their popularity between the 1300s and 1500s. They had a wide appeal: medieval examples are still extant in private and public collections as well as in monastic and parish churches in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland; several are now in the United States. The statues vary in size: those likely intended for personal, close engagement are diminutive and doll-like, with the smallest measuring just over 26 cm; others, meant for public display, are monumental, some nearly life-sized. Almost all surviving examples are made of wood, with the exception of three Iberian pieces carved in ivory; records indicate that other ivory statues were in existence and that some may have been made from precious metals. Their exteriors show the Virgin, often crowned, holding the Christ Child; the Child may sit or stand on her lap and is sometimes shown nursing. Mary is thus figured as the Theotokos and the Throne of Wisdom. The unfolding of the Virgin’s body is signaled on the outside by a vertical slit that usually runs from Mary’s neck down to her feet, although in several cases only the Virgin’s chest opens, like window shutters, or, conversely, the head is split open as well; in one surviving example, Mary’s pregnant belly can be removed to reveal a uterine cavity. Within, the Virgin’s womb is inhabited by a rich variety of sculpted and/or painted imagery. A number of statues contain pure narratives: those particular to the Iberian Peninsula center on the Virgin’s life (fig. 2), while those found in present-day France and Switzerland generally emphasize Christ’s (e.g., figs. 101 and 129). The majority of medieval Shrine Madonnas, however, feature the carved Throne of Mercy in the middle, although the lateral imagery varies widely. The Trinity may be flanked by angels (e.g., fig. 3); and several remaining examples feature the painted Annunciation scene neatly split by the sculpted Throne of Mercy, which—especially in light of Gerson’s critique—appears to emphasize the Trinity as the material enfleshment of Gabriel’s words in the Virgin’s womb (e.g., fig. 4). Our Lady of Boulton, which formerly stood on the altar in the Cathedral of Durham and whose liturgical function is described in the Rites of Durham, had the Trinity surrounded by a gilded interior covered in flowers. Treasury accounts of Charles V Valois list two Vierges ouvrantes that held the Trinity joined by saints, an iconographic feature reminiscent of one other fourteenth-century Shrine Madonna, from Toldaos, Spain, carved in wood, which is still in existence. Some Vierges ouvrantes, normally linked to the patronage of the Teutonic Order, figure crowds of the pious gathered on either side of the Trinity: this kind of image, in which Mary’s body doubles as her cloak, is clearly related to the Schutzmantelmadonna type (fig. 5; cf. fig. 80). Others, like the Morlaix Madonna, surround the Throne of Mercy with Christological narratives.

That the Morlaix statue survives nearly—if not completely—intact is a happy accident of history. Few medieval images elicited such sustained disapproval by the authorities and suffered such a streak of bad luck as the Shrine Madonnas. Reformatory and revolutionary zeal was certainly responsible for a good deal of their destruction and mutilation, as were changing aesthetic sensibilities. Gerson’s injunction was used in the official censure of Vierges ouvrantes: in 1745, Pope Benedict XIV referenced it in his Sanctissimi Domini Nostri Benedicti Papae XIV Bullarium, when banning the Trinitarian version of the statues. The Morlaix Madonna escaped this particular purge, but just a few decades later, during the turbulent days of the Revolution, the Notre Dame du Mur was destroyed. Local urban mythology has it that before the building was reduced to ruin, the sculpture was snatched by a town hairdresser, who, under her coat, carried the Virgin’s body next to her own down the street and squirreled it away in her mansard. When the danger passed, she dutifully turned it over to the clerics of St. Matthew’s church, where the statue is kept to this day. In the spring of 1993, the original figure of the crucified Christ was stolen from within Mary’s womb, and as recently as 2004, the Morlaix Vierge ouvrante, along with a new crucifix, was put under glass and raised high on a wall in order to protect it, as the town decree stated, from “regular injuries” because of what was euphemistically called “its particularity”—undoubtedly the very same particularity that so unnerved Gerson.

Other Vierges ouvrantes, which proved to be theologically and aesthetically vexing, were disfigured (glued shut or gutted) or altogether obliterated. A Shrine Madonna originally from Rhineland and now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art lost both the crucified Christ and the dove of the Holy Spirit; God the Father, left to hold the cross and outfitted with a cruciform halo, was thus visually remade into the Son, likely to avoid that very “error and lack of devotion” (fig. 60). A similar fate befell Vierges ouvrantes across Europe—at Leugney, Palau-del-Vidre, and Roggenhausen, among others—while several statues, including those at Berlin, Massiac, and Bouillon, lost their Trinities altogether (see fig. 4). The number of missing Shrine Madonnas mentioned in documents is not inconsiderable, and several that disappeared fairly recently are extant only in photographs. To the latter category belongs the fourteenth-century Shrine Madonna originally from the Cistercian abbey of Notre-Dame-la-Royale in Maubuisson, France, which offers an exceptionally interesting and well-documented case of postmedieval reception of these sculptures.

The Maubuisson Madonna was unusual in several respects: it was one of the largest of the lot, standing at 140 cm; it split down its entire length, bisecting the Virgin’s face; and its interior images, at least as they existed and were understood in the seventeenth century, did not resemble any extant Shrine Madonna iconographies (fig. 6). In 1517, the statue still stood at the foot of the main church altar and commanded respect: according to the abbey account books, a Parisian painter was paid to repaint it in blue and gold. Within a century, however, this sentiment changed, according to the testimony of one Sister Candide, a nun at Maubuisson, who reflected on the statue and its misfortunes with some humor. When she wrote her account, the Shrine Madonna stood behind the altar along with other older statues, and a superstition was attached to her: she was supposed to be opened during times of drought. When unfolded, the nun writes, “it was not a Virgin but the entire world, and even more, because it housed heaven, purgatory, and hell, along with all the mysteries of the Old and the New Testaments, since the beginning of the world until the Last Judgment.” The scenes were separated into small compartments, and the entire statue was held by Atlas-like figures (unaccountably, Sister Candide variously calls them “hermits” and “monks”) who sang and played music. Those figures had their mouths wide open, “like ovens,” and so the local children came to the church in great numbers to amuse themselves by putting nuts, apples, and other treats into the opened mouths of these sculpted men.

What follows is part mystery novel, part soap opera, filled with clandestine orders and iconoclastic actions, scheming abbesses and screaming abbots. There ensued a struggle between the abbess Marie des Anges Suireau, who hated the statue (it was old, ugly, indecent, heavy; it could fall down and kill someone; it was useless; it was widely mocked; its interior was about to disintegrate), and her male superiors, who wanted it restored. The abbess demurred and ordered the “hermits” broken off and the statue removed from its pedestal while M. de la Charité, the abbot, was ill; when the deed was done and the abbot got wind of it, he ran into the church yelling and, per Sister Candide, “annoyed everyone.” The statue was finally removed to a side chapel, where those who chose to “amuse themselves by exploring the small worlds enclosed in the body of the monstrous figure” could do so. Like the Morlaix Shrine Madonna, therefore, the Maubuisson Virgin suffered “regular injuries” for its “particularities”; and like the Morlaix Madonna, it was hidden during the Revolution, this time by a former abbey gardener, and kept in his family; in 1839, it was moved to the Church of Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône. But by this time it had already lost all of its interior scenes, although those who examined the statue (and erroneously dated it to 1240, the year of the foundation of the abbey) could see traces of the central Crucifixion scene. Shortly thereafter, the interior was rather infelicitously reconstructed based on what was likely a fanciful description of the lost sculptures by women who (probably mistakenly) were believed to have been nuns at Maubuisson before the abbey’s dissolution. In 1973 the statue was stolen, only five years before another Shrine Madonna, from the Swiss Yvonand, similarly became a victim of theft. Since then, several scholars have introduced more errors in an attempt to date the statue, relying on poor photographic evidence and (often dubious) existing scholarship.

This is a portion of the original introduction, edited for use on the web.