The Age of Sanctity: Images and Cults of Child Saints in Early Modern Europe

In this project, Cloe Cavero explores the images and cults of child saints, a transnational yet controversial form of sanctity that became increasingly celebrated in the early modern period.

Widespread popular devotion to child saints across early modern Europe challenged the prescriptive age necessary for the acquisition of reason, individual autonomy and sexual maturity. The inherent innocence and virtue of childhood, together with children’s weak physical condition and high mortality, were contested by a young saints’ manifestation of resolute faith and miraculous courage. Sacred images and hagiographies represented youth in different ways, exposing how the qualification of a saint at an early age was subject to intricate negotiations between the cultural role of saints and the conceptions of childhood. However, the paucity of research on cults and images of child saints belies their significance within early modern Europe. “The Age of Sanctity” interrogates sacred images to consider how the emotional qualities of infancy shaped the construction of child saints’ visual representation and the reception of their respective cults during the Catholic Reformation.

The case of the children allegedly murdered by Jews that were elevated to the status of martyrs, and eventually of blessed and saints, is particularly related to main themes of SACRIMA. Despite the long-established precedent of the Holy Innocents massacred in Bethlehem instead of Christ, theologians, ecclesiastics and secular authorities recurrently challenged the veneration of child martyrs. This context of institutional tension did not prevent paintings and sculptures, drawings, prints and texts representing the images and lives of William of Norwich, Hugh of Lincoln, Richard of Paris, the Holy Child of La Guardia and Simon of Trent, to be produced, diffused and displayed across early modern Europe. Each child saint originated in a specific time and place, and was embedded in a different context of inter-confessional conflict. And yet, their images presented as many variations as striking similarities. “The Age of Sanctity” questions the construction of the normative image of the child martyr, and sheds new light on the effects of the emotional impact of sacred images in institutional norms.

The key points of “The Age of Sanctity” had to do with the second SACRIMA International Conference Holy Children, Liminal Bodies: The Status and Materiality of Children in Early Modern Visual Culture, which was celebrated in 30 November-1 December 2017. Moreover, Cloe Cavero has discussed different aspects of this research in workshops and conferences across Europe and the United States.