"I study late medieval postcards. One such object is a simple image of St Barbara that has a note on the back reading, ‘Sister Lijsbet Vetters shall have this, and it was sent to you by Sister Kerstyne Vetters, your loving sister.’ The image is now bound in a manuscript prayerbook, but its role within the book is its second function. Its first function was to serve as a greeting from one nun to another. The existence of such a postcard suggests both a wealth of images and a desire for them.
In addition to this postcard, I have found approximately 300 other examples of loose paintings on parchment that had careers outside books before they were stuck into them. Cheaper and more accessible than panel paintings or stained glass windows, these images demonstrate a desire for colour and images that permeated all levels of culture in the late Middle Ages, including lay and religious, wealthy and poor.
I have identified these objects as a category for the first time and I have named themflexible autonomous images, or FAIs. FAIs were created to fill real needs, whether those were social (bestowing gifts and counter-gifts), practical (for taking vows and oaths), devotional (serving as altarpieces and enhancing prayer books), or popular (spreading indulgences, special cults, and the latest devotions). They were made, traded, saved, and used because they were thought to be efficacious. FAIs were made by untrained artists (primarily those living in convents) and by highly trained artists (including professionals living in urban environments) alike. They fulfilled many functions: they served as postcards and gifts to create both horizontal bonds (such as between two sisters) and vertical bonds (such as between a sister and her mother superior, or between a convent and a donor). Both women and men made and gave away leaves although women (whose houses outnumbered men’s by far) apparently made many more of these images. The images also served as votive offerings; they marked key passages in books; they formed objects for devotional meditation, either alone or in a series; they created miniature altarpieces; they ratified vows and oaths; they presented metric relics (measurements of the length of the nails, the tomb, the cross, of Jesus and Mary, whose very sizes were sanctified); they embodied the important Christian concept of the word made flesh; they served as souvenirs from particular shrines; they circulated the newest images, prayers, and indulgences; they memorialized the dead; they advertised a corporate identity of particular convents; they activated certain indulgences; they stood in as a transportable ersatz for a person; they brought colour to an otherwise predominantly grey and brown interior world.
A bursary from the Catherine Mackichan Bursary Trust has allowed me to travel to libraries to study manuscripts containing FAIs and to commission photography of them (which can be very expensive!). Manuscripts I have been able to study include anOfficium missae in the Euing collection at Glasgow’s University Library, which contains a colourful painting representing a generalized bishop. The painting functioned outside the manuscript as an independent image, before being inserted in it. These examples will appear in my forthcoming book, which is tentatively titled The Postcard, the Pallium, the Amulet, and the Altar: Manifestations of the Flexible Autonomous Image in the Late Middle Ages."