Proximity to the divine : personal devotion at the Holy Graves in Strasbourg



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



In this thesis I examine the Holy Grave monument located in the St. Catherine chapel of Strasbourg cathedral, erected by Bishop Berthold von Bucheck sometime between 1346 and 1348. This sculptural sarcophagus currently exists in fragmented form in the Musée de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame; only the four relief panels of the sleeping guardians, the gisant of Christ, and some fragments of the baldachin remain of the original monument. Scholars have been able to ascertain the placement and probable appearance of the Holy Grave based on traces of three lancet bays, wall paint, and bolt holes discovered along the west wall of the chapel during twentieth-century excavations. The numerous copies that the St. Catherine Holy Grave inspired throughout Strasbourg and the surrounding area attests to the significance of the monument within the larger Holy Grave tradition. The Strasbourg Holy Grave functioned liturgically as a prop used by the clergy to reenact the drama of the resurrection during Holy Week. I argue, however, that the monument's permanence, relative accessibility, and pathos-inspiring imagery suggest its use on a more frequent basis. Through its isolation of scenes from the biblical narrative and its visualization of complex mystical metaphors, the Holy Grave at Strasbourg cathedral--and thus also the numerous copies it inspired--reveals its use as an object for personal devotion, much like the group of Rhenish Andachtsbilder that also flourished at this time. The changing beliefs concerning Christ's Passion, the nature of the Eucharist, and the understanding of death and the afterlife are reflected in the style, iconography, and didactic message of the Holy Grave monument. The influence that the mendicant orders and Rhenish mystics had on the spiritual instruction of the laity in Strasbourg points to the understanding of this monument as a tool to aid the faithful in achieving union with God. The popularity of Holy Graves in and around Strasbourg ultimately illustrates the medieval desire for proximity to the divine. As the emphasis on Christ's suffering and death grew throughout the devotional practices of the fourteenth century, art forms like the Holy Grave monument at Strasbourg cathedral increasingly focused on engendering pathos in the medieval devout. The Strasbourg Holy Grave's liturgical, devotional, and anagogical functions coalesce to create a monument that's fundamental purpose consisted of aiding the faithful in their journey toward salvation.