Marcia Kupfer

title.none: Hahn, Portrayed on the Heart (Marcia Kupfer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0210.012 02.10.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Marcia Kupfer,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Hahn, Cynthia. Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 442. $60.00. ISBN: 0-520-22320-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.10.12

Hahn, Cynthia. Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 442. $60.00. ISBN: 0-520-22320-9.

Reviewed by:

Marcia Kupfer

One of the most important developments in medieval studies over the past two decades has been renewed attention to sainthood as a historical phenomenon. Research across academic disciplines and periods has shown that the study of Christian saints -- how and why they came to be venerated -- sheds light on communities, their social dynamics, ritual practices and cultural production. What makes a saint? In a word, a cult. Cynthia Hahn's Portrayed on the Heart is concerned with a key, indeed essential, element of saints' cults, namely their vitae. Through an insightful and challenging analysis of pictorial lives, she examines how hagiography staged its own reception. Tacking back and forth between generic paradigms of holiness and particular works that visually recreated, re-invented and reshaped those paradigms, the author builds a convincing case for understanding sanctity as an effect of narrative. Medieval audiences recognized sanctity through their emotional response to a discursive performance. Compunction elicited, the saint's life molded the heart.

The book revolves around a corpus of illustrated lives in some twenty manuscripts, each devoted entirely to one or, on occasion, two saints. Francis Wormald designated this type of illuminated hagiographic manuscript by the term "libellus" (little book) in a now canonical article of 1952. His preliminary inventory of libelli has since been expanded by other scholars, who have mainly focused on individual manuscripts. Hahn's project is original as it is ambitious. Because libelli preserve the most extensive narrative sequences, she takes the group as a logical point of departure for exploring the broader field of pictorial hagiography across media.

After briefly reviewing the importance accorded the depiction of saints' lives in early Christian and early medieval art, the first chapter surveys the emergence of the libellus, a new, quintessentially monastic tradition. Its patterns of development, resembling a bell-shaped curve, determine the study's chronological boundaries. The earliest libelli appear in the tenth century. The few extant examples are linked less to the celebration of a monastery's patron saint than to the dissemination of a cult for geopolitical reasons. By far the great majority of libelli date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a period of increasing monastic power within Christian society but also of intense competition between religious houses for pilgrims and privileges. These more richly decorated, densely illustrated books typically glorified their owning institution's founder and heavenly patron in whose name the community solicited earthly support. Thirteenth-century books, their cycles imbued with courtly values for royals' and nobles' consumption, represent the tradition's end-phase. Urban arenas, worked by the mendicant orders, now superseded monasteries as loci of spiritual and artistic energy. Accordingly, public media (stained glass, panel painting, fresco, relief sculpture) replaced manuscripts as the primary venue for pictorial hagiography. Libelli served various functions: used in the context of private devotion within religious houses, their cycles also addressed lay audiences whom monks hoped to convert, edify, and mine for donations.

Hahn nicely balances an appreciation for libelli as a distinct genre of artifact with an inquiry into the rhetorical operations common to hagiography as a genre of narrative. Chapter two outlines narrative strategies followed through the rest of the book: repetition (fashioning saints' vitae in imitation of Christ's life; cross-referencing between vitae), reversal (a denouement defying logic, hence a sign of grace), and frames ("a literary or artistic device that controls both the narrative and the audience's reception of it," 44). Subsequent chapters consider how iterative models, contradictory outcomes (the more incredible, the more authentic), and guiding structures are inflected within different sorts of lives. Here the author proceeds by categories of saints to which the litany refers: martyrs (chapter three), virgins (chapter four), confessors (chapters five through eight, broken down respectively into bishops, monks and abbots, kings and nobles, nuns and queens). Turning from a synchronic to a diachronic perspective, the last chapter discusses Matthew Paris and his hagiographic cycles of the 1240s and 1250s.

A glance at the category-driven table of contents might lead to a mistaken impression that the book offers a pat or facile catalog. Yet in a manner reminiscent of the hagiography under study, Hahn reverses readers' erstwhile expectations through subtle, nuanced argumentation. Far from imposing a reductive, classificatory schema on the material, her treatment of saintly types allows us to grasp not only the resonance of hagiographic conventions, but also the cross-contaminations and disruptions that reset, and expand, the genre's "horizon of expectations."

The generosity of Hahn's approach impressed me a great deal. She refuses to isolate pictorial from literary forms of hagiography and easily moves from libelli to legendaries (manuscripts in which abbreviated lives are arranged in liturgical sequence), from manuscripts to reliquaries. Pictorial hagiography in contemporary monumental settings is given short shrift, however. Major mural cycles in the crypts of St.-Savin-sur-Gartempe and Aquileia Cathedral, for example, are not mentioned at all. Surely the public display of saints' lives prior to the proliferation of pictorial hagiography in stained glass is relevant to an exploration of the genre's narrative effects. How might rhetorical maneuvers studied in relation to manuscript and metalwork artifacts have been adapted to architectural space?

Medieval pictorial hagiography may not inscribe itself on twenty-first century hearts, but Cynthia Hahn's refreshing book will definitely grow on students of the subject.