Objects of Devotion: Religion and its Instruments in Early Modern Europe is an international conference which examines how religious ideas and practice were realized through interaction with objects. We investigate how the presence of sculptures, paintings, books, vestments, and church furniture—their visibility, tactility, and materiality—helped form attitudes toward devotion, sacred history, and salvation. In other words, how did people think with things—both clerics and lay devotee? We will examine the complex role of sacrament houses, altarpieces, pulpits, in molding ideas about the central tenets of Christianity. How, for example, did statues of Christ and the saints make both present and problematic these issues—particularly when they involved performances: carried about the town, taken down from the cross and laid in the sepulcher, or lanced to emit spurts of blood? Tombs helped form ideas about the body, its mortality, and the hope of resurrection.
Historians of the late medieval and early modern period have created an antithesis between spiritual (inward) and physical (outward) devotion, branding the latter as superficial, ritualistic and mechanistic. More generally, from the first Protestant historians to Max Weber and his followers, the Reformation has come to be represented as the classic watershed between material, magical devotion and spiritual, rational belief. In a similar vein, art historians have opposed the notion of the medieval cult image, material and functional, to the early modern work of art, subject to aesthesis (Carolyn Walker Bynum, Hans Belting). Yet, does it make sense to distinguish between late medieval and early modern religious culture, given the fact that the definitions and boundaries of these periods are notoriously problematic and considerably overlap? We will examine the degree to which these differing traditions dictated separate approaches to objects and their role in forming beliefs and practices.