Mysticism to Wear
The Virgin Mary looks out at you from the surface of a woodcut. A Spanish-Latin label identifies her as Our Lady of Mount Carmel: MARIA DEL CARMELI. She holds the baby Jesus in her printed arms. She offers something out to you as well, although it is easy to miss at first. From her left hand hangs the rectangular tab of a scapular. Black printed lines connected to upper left and right corners represent the scapular’s cords, draped over María’s wrist. You can imagine reaching out and easily pulling this object off and down into your own space. Normally, a scapular would be worn around the believer’s neck, with one of its rectangular pendants hanging over the chest and the other between the shoulder blades. (The tabs come in pairs, something obscured but understood in the print.)
This woodcut depicts an ecstatic vision. Indeed, it allows the viewer to re-experience that vision for themselves. And the printed black rectangle, representing a pair of cloth pendants seen and unseen, provides a key for understanding this mass-produced ancien régime image: its enacted uses, and its affective powers.1
According to Catholic sacred histories, in the middle of the 13th century Simon Stock had a sacred epiphany. He was an English Carmelite friar, member of a relatively new religious order that traced its origins to a group of hermits living on Mount Carmel (in what was then the crusader Kingdom of Acre). Located about 10 kilometers southeast of the port city of Haifa, and called Har ha Karmell in Hebrew and Jabal Al-Karmil in Arabic, the mountain was the site of a cave where the prophet Elijah had lived. Increasing tensions in the Holy Land pushed the Carmelites to establish monasteries in Europe starting in the 1230s. Stock is said to have been one of their first leaders in England2
The oldest account of his visionary experience was recorded in the early 1400s. This was a century and a half after the elusive saint's death, a time delay that has long been vexing for hagiographers and historians:
… saint Simon of England, the sixth prior general. He begged the most glorious Mother of God that she would give some privilege to the Carmelite Order which rejoiced in bearing the title of the Virgin, reciting in a very fervent voice:
Flower of Carmel,
splendor of heaven
Whom no man didst know
To the Carmelites
Star of the sea.
To him the blessed Virgin appeared, surrounded by a multitude of angels and bearing the scapular of the order in her blessed hands, saying: “May this be to you and to all the Carmelites a pledge, that whoever dies wearing it will not suffer eternal fire, that is, wearing this, he will be saved.”
Medieval scapulars were poncho-like garments made of cloth (brown wool for the Carmelites), about 18 inches wide and ankle-length. They were part of the habits of a number of monastic orders, and indeed the story of Stock’s vision was probably modeled on similar stories told by Dominicans. When adapted for use by non-monastics (lay devotion to the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel first became popular in the early 16th century) scapulars took the minimalist form shown in our woodcut: a looped cord with two cloth rectangles attached. Scapulars are still made today, and they often ornament one side of the cloth tabs with identifying images. The example in the photo shown here is spectacularly self-referential. One of the decorative panels depicts Simon Stock’s vision: above him Mary holds the baby Jesus, who holds out a scapular to the saint. The other panel retells Our Lady’s centuries-old promise in an appropriately medievalizing font: “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire …” Delightfully, the S of “Scapular” has been transformed into the whiplash curve of a looped cord, to which are attached two cross-adorned pendant tabs. Letter becomes image as the scapular illustrates itself.
All of which brings us back to our woodcut. You can’t tell this from the photo, but it is quite small: only 7.5 by 5.2 centimeters. In person, it’s a bit taller than my pinkie. The diminutive scale would have made for a very efficient use of materials. The original matrix would have been a carved wooden block, which would then be inked and pressed over and over across the surface of a sheet of paper. One common size of early modern paper, “Royal,” measured 60 by 42 centimeters (not accidentally, twice the size of today's A3).3 You could stamp as many as 72 of these prints on one Royal sheet (in a 12 by 6 grid), then add some color by hand, and then cut the prints apart for individual distribution.
You can see the traces of this mass-stamping process on our woodcut. At the bottom, in addition to the well-inked lettering of the MARIA DEL CARMELI label, are the phantom traces of another MARIA DE … It seems that the printer began to stamp this section of the sheet with a block that had run out of ink, and so had to recharge before starting again, slightly higher up. The rather sloppy paint job, blotches of vermillion and verdigris and brown (complete with stray splash marks of color—look just above the patch of vermillion by María's veil) is due in part to the small size of the print, but also to its mass-produced manufacture (the artist had to color dozens of other identical images, and then move on to add colors to the next printed sheet, and on again …).
As David Areford brilliantly chronicles in his 2010 The Viewer and the Printed Image, late medieval and early modern religious prints were put to all kinds of DIY uses by their owners: glued into prayer books or onto pieces of furniture, cut apart and collaged, painted and written on. Such intimate material engagements point to sacred efficacy. Prints were sites for devotion, helping their viewers visualize and so re-experience—with the body no less than the mind—the sufferings of Christ, the tribulations of his mother, and the ecstasies of the saints. These physical and affective activations of printed images continued to characterize Catholic spirituality through the end of the 18th century, and beyond.4 And so at least one application for this small woodcut would have been to sew it onto a scapular, and wear it close to one's heart. Backed by a piece of cloth, it would be partially protected from your sweat. Its looped cord would allow you to pull it away from your chest, turn it to face you, and meditate on its image: imagining yourself as Simon Stock beholding María in the sky as she holds out to him—to you—a scapular from heaven. A scapular like the one you are wearing around your neck.
- I date this woodcut to the mid-18th century. Its iconographic source is the Madonna Bruna, an Eleusa-style 13th-century icon at the harborside church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Naples. The star on her cape (probably a post-13th-century addition) refers to Mary’s identity as Stella Maris, patroness of seafarers. The icon does not hold a scapular (not surprisingly, given when Simon’s vision-story began to circulate). A 1605 woodcut shows La Bruna with a crown, but still without a scapular. That feature seems to have joined her iconography sometime in the following decade: she holds one in a 1616 engraving of the “Mad[onna] S[antissim]a del Carmine” printed in Rome. This basic composition would be repeated across the decades (and centuries) to come: in a mid-17th-century engraving of “Nostre Dame de Naples” by Pieter Clouwet (1629–1670) (http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.96116), a less elegant version by Michiel Cabbaey (ca. 1660–1722), 18th-century Germanic examples in Budapest's Piarista Múzeum (https://en.mandadb.hu/tetel/745078/Karmelhegyi_Boldogasszony_skapulareval), the cover of the 1763 Memoria de tres heroes del orden de Nuestra Señora del Carmen … and the NGA woodcut. Significantly, the scapular rectangle in the NGA woodcut is much smaller (relative to María’s body) than scapulars depicted in other prints. This scalar adjustment reflexively reflects the relative size of the woodcut itself. For an excellent history of La Bruna, see Stefano D'Ovidio, “The Making of an Icon: The Madonna Bruna del Carmine in Naples (13th–17th Centuries),” in Saints, Miracles and the Image: Healing Saints and Miraculous Images in the Renaissance, edited by Sandra Cardarelli and Lara Fenelli (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 229–249; for the 1616 engraving, see Emanuele Boaga, “S. Maria dei Carmelitani: Note di iconografia,” in Confraternite, chiesa e società: Aspetti e problemi dell'associazionismo laicale europeo in età moderna e contemporanea, edited by Liana Bertoldi Lenoci (Fasano: Schena Editore, 2004), 709 (thanks to Richard Copsey for sharing a PDF of this article). On the image’s role in a 1647 uprising, see Peter Burke, “The Virgin of the Carmine and the Revolt of Masaniello,” in The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 191–206.
- My key source for Carmelite history has been Richard Copsey's splendid “Simon Stock and the Scapular Vision,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 50, no. 4 (1999): 652–683.
- Neil Harris, “Paper and Watermarks as Bibliographic Evidence” (2017): http://ihl.enssib.fr/paper-and-watermarks-as-bibliographical-evidence
- David S. Areford, The Viewer and the Printed Image in Late Medieval Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010); Suzanne Karr Schmidt with Kimberly Nicholas, Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 66–69, 93–97; Jon L. Seydl, “The Sacred Heart of Jesus: Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Italy” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2003); and also this amazing virtual exhibition: https://en.mandadb.hu/cikk/1199343/Divine_vaccines__Wonderful_memories_of_18thcentury_folk_religiousness.