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Ever since John Toews’ essay ‘Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn’ in the American Historical Review in 1987, cultural historians have seen themselves as turning, re-turning and turning beyond. Recently the turning has speeded up, sometimes propelling us from one turn to another so quickly that we hardly have time to consolidate the advantages of a new emphasis. Nonetheless, turn we must, and surely this volume, ably compiled by Suzanna Ivanič, Mary Laven and Andrew Morrall, represents in two elements of its very title (‘materiality’ and ‘world’) what might be considered the most important new directions of the past twenty years: the material turn and the global turn.
In a productive re-evaluation of what we should focus on in studying culture, anthropologists, art historians, historians, sociologists and students of religion have turned not to reject textual evidence but to add to it what they variously call ‘thing theory’, ‘the material turn’ and ‘object-oriented ontology’. Building on the ideas of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, whose most influential work on the agency of objects appeared just after his untimely death in 1997, and the approach of sociologist Bruno Latour, who seemed to reject many current ideas of a division between subject and object, this turn propelled scholars to new definitions of what they studied. For art historians, the new theories broadened what was once understood as art (painting, sculpture and sometimes decorative or decorated objects such as cabinets and altarpieces) to include all crafted things and indeed some (such as Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades) that are not reworked by an artist or craftsman but simply relocated and relabelled. For students of religion, the focus involved a move away from the study of doctrines (which not all so-called ‘religions’ seem to have) to consideration of practices, performances and rituals (which seem to be found in some form in all societies, perhaps even primate ones). The approach thus avoided a reduction of ‘religion’ to a set of beliefs, an approach that had been rejected somewhat confusedly as ‘Protestant-izing’, by scholars going back at least to Wilfred Cantwell Smith.
In one of our earliest descriptions of meditation on the crucifix, Aelred of Rievaulx (d.1166) described the body on the cross, pierced by the soldier's lance, as food and urged the female recluses for whom he wrote not only to contemplate it but also to eat it in gladness: “Hasten, linger not, eat the honeycomb with your honey, drink your wine with your milk. The blood is changed into wine to inebriate you, the water into milk to nourish you.” Marsha Dutton, who has written so movingly of Cistercian piety, speaks of this as a eucharistic interpretation of the literal, physical reality of the crucifixion and points to the parallel with Berengar of Tours' oath at the synod of Rome in 1079: “The bread and wine which are placed on the altar … are changed substantially into the true and proper vivifying body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord and after the consecration there are the true body of Christ which was born of the virgin … and the true blood of Christ which flowed from his side … in their real nature and true substance.”
Most of us who inhabit the western, post-Christian world are so accustomed to pictures of the Madonna and child or of the Holy Family that we hardly notice the details. When we encounter such images in museums, on posters, or on Christmas cards, we tend to respond sentimentally if at all. We note whether the baby looks like a baby or not. We are pleased if the figures appear happy and affectionate. Perhaps we even feel gratitude for the somewhat banal support of an institution—the human family—that seems worn a little thin in the modern world. But we are not shocked. Recognizing that the Incarnation is a central Christian tenet, we feel no surprise that Christian artists throughout the western tradition should have painted God as a male baby.