‘Embodied Words: Reading in Medieval Christian Visual Culture’ explores understandings of reading as a physical and spiritual act during the Middle Ages

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.— The Williams College Museum of Art is pleased to present Embodied Words: Reading in Medieval Christian Visual Culture, now on view. This thematic reinstallation of the museum’s medieval gallery brings together new and long-treasured objects from the WCMA collection with a selection of stunning illuminated manuscripts from Williams College’s Chapin Library.

In the Middle Ages, reading was thought to change you, physically and spiritually. Medieval people believed that words written and read, spoken and heard, could imprint on the brain, heart, and soul. The senses mediated the reception of these words. This ongoing exhibition demonstrates the embodied nature of reading in Christian Europe from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, with art from present-day Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. More than two dozen works on view include several books of hours—ornately-decorated personal guides for daily prayer—and an antiphonary, a large songbook whose letters are large enough to be seen by many and from a distance. Also on display are paintings and sculptures of saints holding books or texts. Saints, whether male or female, were often depicted with books to represent their understanding of scripture, and to signify their power and wealth.

Highlights of the exhibition include two gifts to WCMA from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation— Taddeo Gaddi’s 14th-century depiction of the prophet Isaiah holding a scroll, and a 15th-century Dutch panel painting depicting the Passion of Christ—as well as an illuminated Book of Hours (French; 1496) on loan from Williams College’s Chapin Library. Visitors to the exhibition are also encouraged to visit the Chapin Library, located on the fourth floor of Sawyer Library, across the street from the museum at 26 Hopkins Hall Drive, where they can see and hold manuscripts and printed books of hours.

Exhibition curator Elizabeth Sandoval, a specialist in medieval art and Curatorial Assistant at WCMA, drew inspiration for this reinterpretation of the collection in part from her 2018 doctoral thesis, “A Material Sign of Self: The Book as Metaphor and Representation in Fifteenth-Century Northern European Art.” In the Embodied Words introduction, Sandoval explains that during the Middle Ages, text was not confined to the pages of books but could be found everywhere in homes and public spaces: on paintings, architectural decoration, sculpture, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and bodies. How artists combined text and image informed the reading practices of medieval people. 

Despite the pervasiveness of text, however, societal norms around gender, class, and education determined whose words could be read. Women were considered readers, whereas certain educated men of means could read, write, and create. The physical aspects of reading, including eye movement and speech, were thought to interconnect with spiritual ones, including memory, understanding, and the soul’s arousal.

“I hope that visitors are surprised by how much our reading practices mirror those from centuries ago in the West, and especially by how rich WCMA’s collection is of such minutely detailed, precious medieval artworks,” Sandoval said.

“Elizabeth’s reinterpretation of medieval art in WCMA’s collection through the lens of visual culture, and the fundamental role of the written and spoken word, has breathed new life into the gallery space,” states Lisa Dorin, Deputy Director for Curatorial Engagement. “We are delighted to collaborate with the Chapin Library to bring these remarkable objects together for museum visitors to appreciate in new ways.”

Exhibition Credit

Elizabeth Sandoval, Curatorial Assistant, with Claire L’Heureux, MA ‘22, and Nicholas Liou, Mellon Curatorial Fellow and MA ’24.

Related Program

Curatorial Close Looks with Elizabeth Sandoval, curator of Embodied Words
May 18, 2022, noon ET, Zoom

About Williams College Museum of Art

The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) creates and inspires exceptional experiences with art that are integral to a liberal arts education, lifelong learning, and human connection. The Museum is a partner in nurturing the cross-disciplinary arts in support of a liberal arts education; advancing the academic and experiential preparation of arts leaders; enriching the cultural ecosystem; engaging artists; and creating a shared learning community that spurs new thinking, creative making, and civic engagement. Located on Main Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on the Williams College campus, the museum draws on the collaborative and multidisciplinary ethos of the surrounding college to enliven the more than 15,000 works in its growing collection. Admission is free. For current hours and more information, visit

About the Chapin Library

The Chapin Library is part of the Special Collections department at Sawyer Library, located at 26 Hopkins Hall Drive in Williamstown, on the Williams College campus. Special Collections advances the mission of Williams College by connecting rare books and manuscripts to teaching, research, and creative expression. The Chapin Library collects books, manuscripts, and other primary sources from antiquity to the present, as a foundation of learning for the Williams liberal arts curriculum. Researchers may use library material in the Weber Special Collections Reading Room on the 4th floor of Sawyer Library. The Special Collections department is open to the public Monday through Friday, 10 am–5 pm.

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