Michelle Erhardt

title.none: Cook, ed., Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy (Michelle Erhardt)

identifier.other: baj9928.0604.004 06.04.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michelle Erhardt, Christopher Newport University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Cook, William R. The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Medieval Franciscans, Vol. 1. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005. Pp. xxii, 297. $199.00 90-04-13167-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.04.04

Cook, William R. The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Medieval Franciscans, Vol. 1. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005. Pp. xxii, 297. $199.00 90-04-13167-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Michelle Erhardt
Christopher Newport University

In his Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy , William Cook has attempted something long overdue--an interdisciplinary look at late medieval art of the Franciscan Order. Gathering scholars, both new and veteran, into one volume, Cook sends the reader on a journey through the first two centuries of Franciscan art. This book serves as volume one of a new series of texts dedicated to medieval Franciscan scholarship of the last twenty-five years. Through a series of complex approaches to the subject, the scholars in this volume continue to explore the art that developed around the humble man of Assisi.

Art played a critical role in the early history of the Franciscan Order. Seen as an immediate and practical way of sending out the message of the Order to the public, Franciscans covered their churches in frescoes, adorned their altars with panels dedicated to their founder, and expressed their theology in colored glass, all with the hope of illuminating the minds of the faithful and inspiring them to turn their hearts to Christ. Cook aptly notes the popularity of Franciscan imagery in his introduction when he observes "the great majority of people who have encountered Francis have done so through images." (ix)

Cook's collection of essays fills a void in Franciscan studies. Scholarship of Franciscan art is as diverse as the interests of the followers of Francis were to the Order. Few books have attempted to define a corpus of Franciscan art, and instead Franciscan publications have been dedicated to specific monuments, chapels, or themes in Franciscan art. One of the strengths of this collection is its compilation of diverse approaches to Franciscan art. Creating a venue to explore and exchange these ideas is a goal Cook has been pursuing for several years.

The collection is composed of nine essays, the majority of which address the decorative program of San Francesco in Assisi. The final two contributions explore the dissemination of Franciscan art throughout Italy. Beginning the book is Donal Cooper's essay on the reconstruction of St. Francis's tomb. Shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years, the tomb of the beloved saint was to be guarded and secured by members of the Order in loco tutissimo et firmissimo (in the safest and most secure place). Basing his study on both archaeological and art historical evidence, Cooper creates for the reader an image of the original tomb. In tandem with Cooper's findings, Janet Robson in the following essay explores the routes early pilgrims took through the Lower Church of San Francesco as they approached Francis's grave. Robson weaves the reader through a path of complex iconography, unifying, for the first time, the iconography of the nave, side chapels and the choir into one comprehensive program. Robson argues that frescoes of the Lower Church were designed as a cohesive program designed to enhance the spiritual experience of the pilgrim as they approached the saint's tomb and reiterating the major themes of the Order--chastity, obedience, poverty and the importance of penance.

The next five essays all address the decoration of the Upper Church of San Francesco. Daniel Michaels enlightens the reader in a subject rarely addressed in Franciscan scholarship--the stone façade of San Francesco. Michaels interprets the design and architectural embellishment of the frontage of the church as a manifestation of the prophecy of Ezekiel and the Franciscan devotion to the Apocalypse. Michaels sees the façade as a symbol of the New Jerusalem, and highlights the role Francis played in the coming of a new era of the Church.

The fourth essay begins a series of studies into the fresco decoration of the Upper Church of San Francesco. Addressing the greatly overlooked Cimabue cycle dedicated to the Life of the Virgin Mary, Marilyn Aronberg Lavin embraces the frescoes as an ideal counterpart to the Life of Christ. As patroness of the Order, Mary was the embodiment of Franciscan virtue. Although commonly ignored because of its poor condition, Lavin elevates the Cimabue program to its rightful status by reminding the reader of its original significance and position around the choir of the Upper Church and proximity to the papal throne.

In the following essay, Thomas de Wesselow bravely enters into the great debate over the date and authorship of the Legend of Saint Francis cycle in the Upper Church. In his unique approach to the subject, de Wesselow presents a strong case for dating the cycle after Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel by arguing that the artists of the Francis cycle borrowed design elements from Giotto's work in Padua.

Beth Mulvaney's essay is an examination of the character of the panels of the Legend of Saint Francis cycle, particularly the Christmas Crib at Greccio . Pointing out the Franciscan relationship between devotional literature and visual imagery, Mulvaney describes for the reader the original intention of the scenes in light of a pilgrimage audience. Ronald Herzman directs his attention to the relationship between the Life of Saint Francis cycle in the Upper Church of San Francesco and Dante. A noted Dante scholar, Herzman ponders whether Dante saw or was influenced by the frescoes in San Francesco. Herzman encourages the reader to consider the multifaceted relationship between the painted and the written word in Franciscan art.

The final two essays of the volume address Franciscan imagery outside of the shadow of the mother church in Assisi. Gregory Ahlquist and the volume's editor, William Cook, survey a number of early dossal panels of Francis that contain posthumous miracles of the saint surrounding a central, iconic image. By considering them as a "collection" instead of as individual panels, Ahlquist and Cook find correlations between the popularity of these rare miracle scenes and the publication of the various early biographies of Francis. They also argue that these early panels were zealously used to promote the cult of the saint after Francis's canonization in 1228 and encourage pilgrims in search of physical and spiritual healing to his shrine in Assisi.

The concluding essay of the volume speaks to a topic seldom breached in studies of Franciscan art, the role of stained glass in Franciscan art and iconography. Nancy Thompson argues that stained glass played a significant role for both patron and friar, as the medium was often more brilliant and visible to the viewer than walled fresco decoration. Thompson focuses her essay on the Bardi St. Louis Chapel in Santa Croce, Florence. Dedicated to Saint Louis of Toulouse, Thompson explores the iconography of the stained glass program and its design of prominent Franciscan saints in light of the chapel's patrons, the Bardi family. Thompson suggests that the glazed windows highlight the relationship between the Bardi's political connections with the Angevin dynasty in Naples and desire to publicly exhibit their piety to their fellow Florentines.

Together, this collection of essays coheres into one thought provoking and unified volume. As divergent as the topics and interests of the scholars are, the essays gel into a complimentary tapestry that provides the reader with an excellent appreciation for the depth and the complexity of early Franciscan art. Rarely is an edited volume so consistent in the tenor and quality of the scholarship. The only criticism of the volume is that the essays leave the reader thirsty for more. Perhaps this suggests that the interest in Franciscan art is so keen, it might be worthy of a second volume.