On Holy Saturday 1294, an Umbrian woman found herself in a sepulcher with Christ’s dead body. The woman kissed Christ’s breast, then Christ’s mouth. She placed her cheek on Christ’s cheek. Then Christ placed his hand on her other cheek. Christ pressed the woman’s body close to his in an embrace. Christ whispered lovingly to the woman, though Christ’s eyes and lips remained closed.1
The woman was Angela of Foligno (c. 1248–1309), a widow, a lay Franciscan, a mystic. Angela’s sepulcher scene came in the twenty-fourth step of her twenty-six-step spiritual itinerary. Her itinerary included other extraordinary scenes. Angela denuded herself before a crucifix. She saw eyes appear in eucharistic bread-bodies. She bathed lepers, then drank the bathing water. She drank blood from, and later entered, Christ’s side wound.
How might we make sense of Angela’s sepulcher scene? What ready-to-hand critical terms from the study of religion might we use?
Is Angela’s sepulcher scene an act of belief? Is it a ritual? Or a liturgy? Is it an ecstatic experience? A mystical experience? A transgression? Something else?
And is Angela’s sepulcher scene scriptural? Is it scripted? Or is it improvised, unique?
My response to each of these questions would be well, yes, but . . . None of these terms can contain Angela’s sepulcher scene. None of them really fits. So, well, yes, but . . . articulates incongruity. It also articulates excess. Even working together, these terms can’t contain Angela’s sepulcher scene. Parts of it seep out.
Or we could use the critical term “performance.” Angela’s sepulcher scene is, among other things, a performance. It’s a performance of Angela’s medieval, mystical, feminine, Franciscan, Umbrian, upsetting Christianity. For Angela, Christianity was, or became, a performance. And Angela might be the ultimate Christian performer, or performance artist. (I think she is.)
Considered as a performance, Angela’s sepulcher scene made, and makes, sense. And it made, and makes, sense in ways that it wouldn’t, or couldn’t, in other terms.
That’s partly because “performance” remains pliable. “Performance” resists programmaticity. It resists becoming a prefabricated formula. “Performance” remains, in Catherine Bell’s words, “broadly conceived, flexible, hospitable to difference and experimentation.”
It has to. Performances, Erika Fischer-Lichte tells us, “do not express something that pre-exists, something given.” Performances, Diana Taylor tells us, move “between the AS IF and the IS, between pretend and new constructions of the ‘real.’” And performances, Colette Conroy tells us, “can explore alternative cultural [and/or religious] forms of expression for people who do not fit easily” into existing norms.
So “performance” realizes Bell’s suggestion that critical terms “are best understood as a minimalist set of props with which we can begin to engage ideas and inquire into practices that may well modify the surroundings.”
“Surroundings” might also include critical terms, categories, forms. Performances deform and reform and transform these conceptual containers. Maybe that’s because a performance is a transformation. A performance, Richard Schechner tells us, is “an active situation, a continuous turbulent process of transformation.” This process and its effects—their transformations—linger long after a performance is over.
These effects are often messy. Performances mess with, mess up, make a mess of tidy constrictions of “religion” as a category, or of a religious tradition. Angela’s performances do. They mess with, mess up, make a mess of easy senses of “religion” and “Christianity” (and other terms, too).
What terms might we use to make sense of Angela’s sepulcher scene? How might we translate this scene—with its improvisations, its criss-crossings, its excesses—into the idiom of “religion”? And how might we fit Angela’s sepulcher scene into a tradition called “Christianity”?
These questions evoke the transformations that Angela’s performances, as performances, can make. Responding to these questions demands attending to the particulars of Angela’s performances.
Performances are particular. They live in their particularities. These particulars include contexts. “In performance,” Diana Taylor tells us, “context is all.”
One context for Angela’s performances was her spiritual itinerary. A spiritual itinerary is a performance. It’s a performance made of, and by, performances. And between 1292 and 1296, Angela confessed her itinerant experiences to her Franciscan confessor-scribe, who recorded her confession. (Her confession was another performance.) That made Angela’s performance(s) of her Christianity singular and plural.
Another context for Angela’s performances was her historical location. Angela’s particular performances happened in thirteenth-century Umbria. I’ve chosen these historical performances purposefully, to unsettle presumptions that “performance” is a metonym of “presence” or that a performance is ever unmediated.
The particulars of a performance matter. They show how a performance happened, or happens: in bodies, in contexts. And they show how—in bodies, in contexts—a performance entangles ways of being, ways of knowing, ways of judging, ways of deciding, and ways of living in a body and in a world. Attending to a performance as a performance calls for attending to all of these elements, together, in their messy, entangled particulars.
The particulars of a performance are what make differences. These differences might mean expanding, or maybe exploding, our sedimented terms. They might call either for refashioning existing terms or adding new terms, even if only temporarily, in relation to Angela’s performances.
Angela’s performances—as performances of, or performances that are, “religion”—raise more questions than they answer. They pose more problems than solutions for studying religion. They trouble our term-tools. They make studying religion messy.
These are good things. Critical terms, Bell reminds us, “are not critical because they contain answers but because they point to the crucial questions at the heart of how scholars are currently experiencing their traditions of inquiry.”
Angela of Foligno, Memorial, in The Complete Works, trans. Paul Lachance (Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993), 182.↩