Kirk Ambrose

title.none: France, The Cistercians in Medieval Art (Ambrose)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.005 99.03.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kirk Ambrose, University of Michigan,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: France, James. The Cistercians in Medieval Art. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1998. Pp. ix, 278. $50.00. ISBN: 0-879-07870-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.05

France, James. The Cistercians in Medieval Art. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1998. Pp. ix, 278. $50.00. ISBN: 0-879-07870-7.

Reviewed by:

Kirk Ambrose
University of Michigan

In its attempt to synthesize the vast corpus of representations of Cistercian monks and nuns in medieval art, the scope of James France's work is extremely ambitious. Previous surveys typically have focused on the order's architecture in specific regions, including P. Ferguson's on England, A. Dimier's on France, and R.A. Stalley's on Ireland. Studies on Cistercian figural art have tended to concentrate on very specific problems, such as Citeux's scriptorium (e.g., C. Rudolf and Y. Zaluska) or representations of Bernard of Clairvaux (e.g., J.- C. Schmitt). France's book, in contrast, examines a wide range of figural imagery and is lavishly illustrated with medieval works of art from throughout Europe, many of which have been rarely published. Their collection in this volume provides a welcome addition to the study of medieval monastic art. Although the small size of many of the illustrations makes viewing difficult, most provide a useful visual resource. It should be noted that France sometimes discusses works at length for which no illustration is provided. This can be frustrating.

Readers familiar with Cistercian injunctions against virtually all figural art in the early twelfth century or with Bernard of Clairvaux's invectives against the excesses of Romanesque art, may be surprised by the sheer number of historiated images in France's volume. In their sumptuousness, many of these do not seem to reflect the austere aesthetic so often associated with the order. The author remarks: After a relatively short period conforming to Bernardine ideals, Cistercian manuscript illumination became indistinguishable from what could be found elsewhere. Architectural sculpture gradually abandoned the block-like capital in favour of foliate, animal and human representations. (p.ix) Unfortunately, France offers no further commentary on this dramatic shift in attitudes, but rather chooses to examine these images as contributing to our knowledge of daily life in Cistercian monasteries. Art, according to France, provides a rather straightforward illustration of history, an assumption many may find problematic.

France discusses visual material as an historian; chapters are divided by various topics of Cistercian history and culture. In a style that is accessible and often entertaining, the first three chapters outline the early history of Citeaux and of its earliest dependencies. The first fifty years were crucial, according to France, because they defined a uniquely Cistercian culture (presumably this excludes the order's early proscriptions of figural art). The relationship between the images and the history France recounts, however, is not always clear. The reader is left to wonder, for example, how well works of art that are chronologically and/or geographically distant from twelfth-century Citeaux can futher understanding of the monastery's early history and ideology.

Chapter 4 focuses on Bernard of Clairvaux and his "portraits". It is appropriate that a figure of such profound importance in European history receives a comparatively lengthy discussion. France, who is clearly very familiar with Bernard's biography, provides a lively discussion of the saint's iconography, from his Embrace by Christ to his Teachings to his Nursing from the Virgin. Sadly, France often writes rather disparagingly of later images. This is particularly evident in his discussion of the Lactation, which he considers to be "kitsch...far removed from the simplicity and purity of early Cistercian spirituality." (p. 31) Although Bernard himself certainly would not have approved of such images, France's categorization of these later works as mere "popular culture" ignores the complex forms of religious life in which such images can take part. Important studies like J. Hamburger's Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent (University of California: Berkely, 1997) have demonstrated how even the humblest of images can yield deep insight into forms of medieval devotion.

Chapter 5, "More Cistercian Portraits", discusses individuals important to early Cistercian history: Henry Murdac, Aelred of Rivaulx, Otto of Freising, Baldwin of Ford, St. William of Bourges, Folquet of Marseille, Pope Benedict XII, and Guillaume de Degulleville. France provides brief descriptions of these figures' lives and of their representations in medieval art.

The remaining chapters address the following topics: "The Monastic Community"; "The Abbots"; "Lay Brothers"; "The Nuns"; "God's Work - Opus Dei"; "Manual Labour - Labor Manuum"; "Sacred Reading - Lectio Divina"; "Edification, Entertainment, Exposure". These chapters are filled with illuminating anecdotes, which would be of particular interest to those unfamiliar with basic aspects of medieval monasticism. A rather lengthy and illuminating discussion of abbots' croziers, for example, traces the development of their form during the Middle Ages. Yet perhaps save for that on manual labor, these chapters discuss features characteristic of virtually any cenobitic community in the West. The ideological differences between Cistercians and other Benedictines, to which France draws attention in earlier chapters, become less and less evident later in the book. Furthermore, France casts much of the subsequent history of the order as a declension narrative: its early ideals erode as its financial holdings increase. This story will be familiar to historians of other monastic orders, from Cluniacs to Franciscans. France does not challenge conventional historical narratives, nor does he further elucidate what he considers to be peculiar to Cistercian culture, particularly in the later Middle Ages. A thorough discussion of the latter would have been especially illuminating. Because what France considers to be "Cistercian" culture seems vague, the scope of his study can sometimes seem arbitrary. If there is nothing distinctive about the order's art, as the author argues, or its culture, as the chapter divisions themselves suggest, what do we learn by grouping images of Cistercians in medieval art? Although France does not always provide satisfying answers, his book lays a foundation for future research on this and related questions.

Surveys are an extremely difficult genre and are easily criticized. Despite any shortcomings, France provides a study that will be of great use to students, particularly undergraduates. The notes and bibliography, for example, easily guide the reader to further studes on issues raised in the text. France has written an important introduction to Cistercian art and culture.