A visitor coming today to the beautifully situated convent of Maria-Medingen in Bavaria will find a doll of the infant Jesus proudly displayed in a glass shrine. It is in a chapel dedicated to the fourteenth-century nun to whom the doll once belonged, the mystic Margaretha von Ebner. In the rear of the chapel the visitor will also find about sixty ex-voto images donated to Margaretha von Ebner in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.2 Some of them depict her praying or meditating in front of her doll. Others show her at the bedsides of sick babies for whose health the parents were supplicating. Yet most show her in intense contact with the doll, mediating between the donor’s concern and Jesus’s grace. Through her relationship to Jesus, mediated through the doll, Margaretha von Ebner gained a spiritual power which the laity could recognise. In her own time, the doll enabled her to bypass structures of clerical authority as it responded to her questions about people’s salvation and told her about God’s attitude towards individual saints and male mystics. But why did her devotion focus on an infant Jesus doll? We can only regard this as bizarre. The question takes us back to the context of medieval piety.
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