Marilyn Aronberg Lavin

title.none: Derbes, Picturing the Passion (Lavin)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.001 98.02.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, Princeton University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Derbes, Anne. Picturing the Passion in Late Medieval Italy : Narrative Painting, Franciscan Ideologies, and the Levant. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. 270. $75.95 (hb); $22.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-521-47481-7 (hb); 0-521-63926-3 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.01

Derbes, Anne. Picturing the Passion in Late Medieval Italy : Narrative Painting, Franciscan Ideologies, and the Levant. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. 270. $75.95 (hb); $22.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-521-47481-7 (hb); 0-521-63926-3 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin
Princeton University

Sporting yet another stylish headline in participial form, the title of this book promises to demonstrate the relationship between Italian Passion iconography, the early Franciscan movement, and the "Levant," by which the author means the Holy Land, Greece and Crete, Constantinople, and Cyprus. In reality, the eastward vision holds true only through three Passion subjects of the five discussed; the other two are said to depend not on Byzantine art but on representations from northern Europe. A more serious dilemma stems from the fact that only about 25% of the examples surveyed are verifiable as Franciscan commissions. Derbes owns up to this problem, but not until her concluding chapter (p. 168 of 172pp.), much too late to calm the nerves of the reader who found it evident from the word 'go.'

Although generally terse and well-written, the text of the book reflects a dissertation fleshed out, perhaps on the advice of the publisher, with material to enlarge the context of the analyses. I would speculate, moreover, that thereafter the author had no further benefit of editorial comment. There are many rambling and confused patches of writing (e.g. pp. 66ff., 71), many notes that seem highly inflated, often stringing out irrelevant stylistic analyses of other authors (e.g., n. 4, p.243). There are besides, a couple of serious lapses of taste (describing Cimabue's great Cross in Santa Croce as an "act of monumental chutzpa [sic]", pp. 32-33), as well as lapses of historical sophistication (in saying that "Even the Conventual Franciscans remained, after all, Franciscans," p. 33). The accumulation of material and bibliography, nevertheless, is full of merit and we may once more be grateful to art editor Beatrice Rehl for turning Cambridge University Press around to receive scholarly endeavors, like this study, no other contemporary press would touch.

The text is richly illustrated with 95 back and white illustrations, a few of which are repeated for convenience. (It is not clear why a nineteenth-century drawing was used instead of a photograph to illustrate a mosaic in the Cathedral of Monreale [fig. 87].) The majority are of small scenes on crosses and altarpieces that would be difficult to see in situ. The collection, therefore, provides a great service to the reader. There are 73 pages of notes, a 14-page bibliography, plus a useful index.

The material is organized into six chapters, the first of which covers issues of historiography, bibliography, the status of Byzantine art, the early Franciscan ideological mission and St. Francis's interest in carrying his new form of religiosity eastward. One must proceed with caution here, for as opposed to Derbes's report (pp. 25ff.), it is no longer believed that Francis got to the Holy Land, having been stopped by illness in Tunisia. And the Franciscan "custodie" in Jerusalem, brought up as proof, were not accomplished until more than a hundred years after his death, that is, during the reign of Robert of Anjou and his wife Sancia who succeeded in making the actual arrangements (1342, with strict proscriptions against proselytizing).

The rest of Chapter 1 focuses paradigmatically on Cimabue's Santa Croce Cross and the dramatic shift from Christus Triumphans to the Christus Patiens type it embodies. The task is to prove the Franciscan character of this famous image. The argument, supported by a great deal literature, is based on the premise that nudity of the dead Christ hanging on the cross was a "key metaphor" for Franciscan poverty. Trouble begins when the argument continues that the transparency of the knee-length loin cloth represents nudity. In Cimabue's version, the luminous drape calls attention to sensuous, undulating hips and thighs that seems quite the reverse of pauperism. For me, it is difficult to conceive of the compellingly suave and graceful figure as a Christ "suspended destitute and naked..." (quoting Bonaventure, p. 31 and 33).

This point aside, the method of analysis, relating the Dugento work to its foreign sources, sets the pattern for the chapters that follow. Chapters 2 through 6 deal with the following episodes of the Passion: the Betrayal of Christ, the Trial of Christ, the Mocking of Christ, the Way to Calvary, and the Stripping of Christ and Ascent of the Cross. (The Last Supper, and quite mysteriously the Flagellation, as well as all post- death scenes are omitted.) The Conclusion then mirrors the analytical paradigm as a review, applying it to a twelve- episodes Passion cycle on the Dei Candeli Altarpiece in the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego.

The pattern of analysis is quite standardized: 1) A review of the Biblical or apocryphal sources of the subject; 2) Description of pre-Trecento Italian examples; 3) History of Byzantine or Northern prototypes in art and literature; 4) Relevant Franciscan theology from liturgy and thirteenth- century writers (Pseudo-Bede, Pseudo-Anselm, Bonaventure, the Meditations on the Life of Christ, and others); 5) And finally, characterization of the visual examples that reflect and amalgamate the sources. In each instance, the objective is to delineate the new real-life emotionalism and humanization of Christ's tribulations, reflecting the impact of Franciscanism on visual expression. As is evident, the pattern is fairly complicated, often difficult to follow, and it makes for some quite tedious, repetitious reading. Nevertheless, with persistence, one finds much that is valuable and worth the effort. Derbes has done a heroic job of describing literally dozens of Passion scenes, and identifying their affective power. She conveys narrative sequences and iconographic sources in a succinct and pertinent manner. She amasses and categorizes examples in a relevant and thorough way. Her description of visual details and their prototypes is observant and, for the most part, reliable. Most useful of all is her recognition of Franciscan factors in the visual elements. She shows that the subjects of the "Stripping of Christ" often combined with "His Ascent of the Cross" were genuine Franciscan innovations. A rope around Christ's neck was equated with St. Francis's self abnegation. Frequent emphasis on "Jewish" aspects of the narrative represented Franciscan anti-Semitism (although this argument at times wears thin, e.g. p. 90f.). Most persuasive is the relation of scenes of the Via Crucis to Francis's battle cry to "take up the cross" and the seals and signs it generated. However, to claim Christological scenes as representing the theme of Franciscus alter Christus, as Derbes frequently does, is to reverse the sequence: such expressions must show Francis as similar to Christ, not the other way around.

While it is the basic premise of the book, less constant insistence on the precedence of ideas and motifs taken over from the outside in Italy would have been appreciated. A more challenging issue is that of "influence" in the opposite direction, that is from West to East in the latter part of the thirteenth century. Many of the Byzantine examples cited actually post-date their supposed Italian derivatives: e.g., scenes on the Portland, Ore., panel (figs. 4, 91-95), which has original qualities, as opposed to the frescoes in the monastery church in Arilje, which looks like a reduced version (figs. 42 and 43). By the time of Giotto, Duccio, and Pietro Lorenzetti, Paleologian art was absorbing and reflecting the very elements of Italian Dugento affective realism Derbes describes.

In the end, Professor Derbes achieves her stated aim by showing that the Franciscan role "in recasting Passion scenes (from around 1245 onward) went well beyond the image of the crucified Christ," and that the painters who fulfilled (Franciscan) assignments made "conscious selections of new motifs, manipulating them to construct images of compelling emotional power." She is thereby able to assert that Dugento painters were by no means as "static" in their production as traditional art historical appraisals (including Vasari's) made them out to be. My guess is that there is not an art historian alive today who would deny these assertions. They are nevertheless worth making since here they are indeed applied methodically to narrative scenes for the first time.