Arts & Culture

Instruments of the Passion

Decoding the images of a medieval prayer book.

Raymond Clemens is the Curator of Early Books & Manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

The first page above, from a late medieval Book of Hours, juxtaposes flowers and instruments of torture. It may seem troubling to modern eyes. Yet the many smudged fingerprints on the right-hand margin bear witness that in its day, the page was frequently consulted. The cross and surrounding items are associated with indulgences, a practice that was said to reduce a soul’s time in Purgatory. Art historian Kate Rudy, of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has found that in Books of Hours, images linked to indulgences commonly attracted more attention than other devotional images.

Books of Hours were produced for Christian laity so they could imitate the piety of monks. For the laity, reciting the prayers at the same canonical hours when the monks prayed in their structured monastery life was one way to earn indulgences. After the Reformation (c. 1520) in northern Europe, when indulgences turned into sacrilege, Books of Hours became unnecessary. Their production declined precipitously, and it became common to reuse their parchment pages for other purposes. Many books were broken up. Only the pages with pictures valued for their beauty, such as this one, were saved. These fragments ended up in scrapbooks or framed on people’s walls.

We are fortunate that this fragment survives, because it tells us a great deal about a specific medieval practice: devotion to the Arma Christi. Arma Christi means, literally, the (military) arms of Christ. But here, it refers to the instruments of the Passion—the suffering that Jesus experienced in the time leading up to and including his execution on the cross. The praying layperson could scan the rows of symbols arranged around the empty cross, left to right, top to bottom, as one would read text. It was not necessary to “read” the instruments in a specific order—in fact it would be impossible, because the Gospels differ as to the specific nature of Jesus’s torture during his persecution—but it was important to incorporate them all in order to receive the benefit of an indulgence. Indulgences were often enumerated in the text of a Book of Hours, though not in this case.  

Reading from upper left, we see the three nails that affixed Jesus’s body to the cross. Atop the cross is a banderole—a streamer with an inscription—bearing the letters INRI, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. To the right of the banderole are the three dice that soldiers used to cast lots for Jesus’s seamless robe, mockingly placed on him as king of the Jews. To the left, the crown of thorns hangs on an arm of the cross, again a mocking reference to his title as king.

Below, in a row: pincers, used to remove the nails after his death; the hammer that drove the nails through his body and into the cross; the sop of vinegar and water offered to Jesus on the cross; the spear with which the soldier Longinus pierced Jesus’s side to hasten death (in vain, for he was already dead); two scourges used to rip his flesh while he was tied to the column depicted to their right; and finally, the rooster that crowed after Peter had thrice denied Jesus. In the empty space on the lower left, a disembodied hand represents the tormentors who slapped Jesus and asked him to prophesy “who hit you.” The most important symbol of Jesus’s crucifixion—the empty cross itself—gives the whole image structure from the center.

All of these objects are disturbing. Yet they provide a counterpoint to the many graphic images of Jesus’s body hanging on the cross, and they enabled the viewer to meditate on the sufferings of the man who is nowhere present.

The comment period has expired.