Pavlína Cermanová

“Aroused by the fire of love, she suffered with Christ…”

Pain combined with love for Christ in Medieval Piety


            The High Middle Ages were marked by a great expansion of mysticism directed at the love for Christ and the agony of Christ. In west European culture this phenomenon was particularly prevalent at the beginning of the 13th century coming to Bohemia somewhat later. In relation to the already existing repentant zeal apparent among some religiously exalted individuals, the Christologically orientated mysticism attributed a new meaning and intensity for physical and spiritual pain. In a very narrow defined circle of people, women and men, gifted with an extraordinary spirituality and perception for the agony of Christ, there was an evident attempt at following Christ, coming close to or establishing a loving bond with him while the means of this was the exalted experience of own physical pain. By their own painful experience they attempted on their own bodies to revive Christ’s agony, which he suffered for the salvation of humankind. The feeling of guilt for their own sins and the need to redeem them, which led to repentant self-mortification, also played a major role here. An important condition for the occurrence and spread of mysticism, in which love for Christ was combined with the desire to follow his agony, was the change in the attitude to the body and corporality. The body ceased to be regarded as a mere damnable box for the soul; instead a valorised existence was attributed to it. It found its image in the real physical perception of Christ and also in the attempt to physically imitate his pain and agony. The altered relationship to the corporality of Christ contributed in mystical circles also to a certain obsession of the sanctity of the Eucharist, which, perceived as the real body of Christ, was regarded as the possibility of how to empathise with Christ. In the religious climate of the High Middle Ages the motif of the tortured, bloody Christ was generally widespread. The combination of the stress on personal and Christ’s corporality resulted in this image of Christ, in the case of some individuals, to the conviction that personal agony, caused by self-mortification, self-scourging, piercing the body with thorns or with nails in extreme cases and the like may result in the imitation and discovery of Christ, and in the highest stage to a visual empathy with him. The motif was also clearly evident among male and female mystics of a loving desire for Christ in their relationship with Christ realised through experience with physical pain, which they inflicted on themselves and through which they hoped to come closer to Christ. One of the most distinctive external displays of the visual empathy with Christ was stigmatisation both external (wounds on the body just as the crucified Christ) and internal (tools of Christ’s agony in the heart). At the same time physical pain among mystics was inherently associated with spiritual pain caused by meditations of Christ’s agony. In the Bohemian environment these motifs can be traced for example in the legendary description of the life of Agnes of Bohemia, Milíč of Kroměříž or John of Jenstein. Likewise in the old Bohemian Life of St. Catherine the author displayed a feeling for the thought combination of love scenes with scenes of agony. In the European environment the dolorism of the High Middle Ages represented, among others, Angela da Foligno or Dorothy of Montau. In their case the devotion to the cult of Christ’s pain and desire for a mystical bond with Christ through experienced pain achieved even pathological forms.