Today, I'm sharing over at Transpositions ... Popular history in Protestant circles has often reimagined the medieval church as suffering from severe illiteracy in lay Christians. Images of Bibles chained to lecterns come to mind and the rally cry of sola scriptura takes on as much a visual argument–a Bible in each and every hand–as it does a devotional and doctrinal one.
It has only been in the past fifty years that the scholarship of researchers like Dom. Jean Leclercq and Caroline Walker Bynum have opened the conversation to challenging this interpretation of the medieval lay Christian. Leclercq and Bynum, along with others, have advocated a reading of the medievals that recognizes a distinction between textual and visual literacy. The medieval Christian might not have had textual literacy, might not have had access to the Scripture directly. However, she would have had access to the doctrinal and mysterious aspects of the Faith through a well-developed visual literacy, thanks to highly iconographic stained glass and the liturgical structure of the Mass itself. Visual elements became the teaching tools of the Church as a whole, which is one explanation for the extensively illuminated copies of the Psalms and iconographic reference books popular in the late middle ages.
One such visual theology in the Mass that remains alive in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and high-Episcopal churches to this day is the representation of the Trinity iconographically through symbolic objects.