Interior Pilgrims and Uncanny Devotions: the Beguinage as a Work of Art

Hans Belting contends that, ‘[Holy Images] reveal their meaning best by their use’ (1994): a perception foregrounding the centrality of mobile ritual practices – devotion, pilgrimage, relics and shrine cults – to practices, many of which, post-Enlightenment, are ascribed the status of art works. This paper is concerned with neglected late nineteenth-century afterlives of pre-modern object cults, and their tantalizing entwining of religious ritual and art; the spiritual and sensuous. Focusing on the Bruges Beguinage – a pivotal habitus of lay communities of pious women founded in thirteenth-century northern Europe known as Beguines – discussion explores its allure for nineteenth-century travellers and artists as a potent pilgrimage. Associated with Bruges’ other significant devotional ‘attraction’ – Hans Memling’s St Ursula Shrine in the St John’s Hospital – both, is increasingly linked with the romantic nostalgic and touristic. Yet such reimagined ‘pilgrimages’ also complicate purposes of sacral and sensory illumination. Indeed, the paper’s second part suggests how these experiences are further amplified in Georges Rodenbach’s Musée de Beguines (1894): his Symbolist literary evocations of the Bruges Beguinage, intertwining the ritual and museal. In Rodenbach’s suggestive treatment, the very ornaments and ‘artistic’ accoutrements of the Beguines’ devotions for holy feasts and processions – lace, coifs, jewels and decorative bibelots – stimulate acts of transcendent and subversive pilgrimage to occulted sensations and hidden subjectivities. Thus the conclusions suggest Rodenbach’s text as pivotally innovative, evoking via the synaesthetic expansion of medieval cultic practices in the ‘uncanny’ Beguinage as art, a potent route of alterity in new imaginaries of both self and sacred other.

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