Touching the Passion — Seeing Late Medieval Altarpieces through the Eyes of Faith


In Touching the Passion — Seeing Late Medieval Altarpieces through the Eyes of Faith, Donna Sadler explores the manner in which worshipers responded to the carved and polychromed retables adorning the altars of their parish churches. Framed by the symbolic death of Christ re-enacted during the Mass, the historical account of the Passion on the retable situated Christ’s suffering and triumph over death in the present. The dramatic gestures, contemporary garb, and wealth of anecdotal detail on the altarpiece, invited the viewer’s absorption in the narrative. As in the Imitatio Christi, the worshiper imaginatively projected himself into the story like a child before a dollhouse. The five senses, the sculptural medium, the small scale, and the rhetoric of memory foster this immersion.

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Donna L. Sadler (PhD, Indiana University, 1984) taught principally at Agnes Scott College. Among her many publications are Reading the Reverse Façade of Reims Cathedral: Royalty and Ritual in 13th-Century France (Ashgate; 2012) and Stone, Flesh, Spirit: The Entombment of Christ in Late Medieval Burgundy and Champagne (Brill; 2015).
“This compact, thorough, well-illustrated book is a reliable indicator of advanced research in its field over the past thirty years.”
Robert W. Gaston, University of Melbourne. In: Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Spring 2020), pp. 232–234.

“Thought provoking.”
Louise Hampson, University of York. In: Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer 2019), pp. 541–543.

“In tracing the complex relationships formed between altarpieces as objects and loci of memory, and the interior and exterior worlds of the medieval viewer, this book not only fulfils Sadler’s stated intent in demonstrating the importance of the carved altarpieces in late medieval practices of devotion, it also shows their value as evidence for the centrality of the nexus between emotions and the material world in those practices.”
Sarah Randles, The University of Melbourne/University of Tasmania. In: Emotions, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2018), pp. 355–356.

List of Illustrations

1 Coming to Terms with the Late Medieval Altarpiece

2 A Tale of Two Retables from the Benedictine Monastery of Crisenon in the Musée-Abbaye Saint-Germain, Auxerre

3 The Aesthetics of Immersion: The Reception of the Retable by the Worshipers

4 Engagement with the Pathos of the Passion

5 The Role of the Frame

Epilogue: The Late Medieval Altarpiece as House of Memory

Specialists in medieval art, undergraduate and graduate students, medieval historians and scholars in religious studies, lovers of French culture, particularly art historians, historians, specialists in Burgundy and Champagne.
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