15.05.31, Seubert and Bychkov, eds., Beyond the Text

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Paroma Chatterjee

The Medieval Review 15.05.31

Seubert, Xavier, and Oleg Bychkov, eds. Beyond the Text: Franciscan Art and Construction of Religion. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2013. pp. 240. ISBN: 9781576593400 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paroma Chatterjee
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

This volume offers insights into the Franciscan oeuvre beyond the textual corpus produced by the Order. It focuses on works of art in various media (although manuscript illumination prevails over fresco, woodcut, and others), and allows a brief glimpse into what scholars of Franciscan literature, theology, art, and history consider to be the basic tenets of Franciscan image theory.

In the introduction, William Cook cogently outlines the vital role of the Franciscan Order in the development of a new artistic style in Italy. Mentioning the foundational work of Heinrich Thode in the realm of Franciscan art, the essay posits that the "new realism and individuation" of the later Middle Ages was partly due to the personality of Francis and the ramifications of his spiritual genius (3). The chapter briefly discusses a few prominent image types of Francis, including painted crosses, narrative dossals, and full-length images representing the saint with the stigmata. Cook closes with "a series of exhortations for those who study Franciscan art, especially the earliest art of the Order" (10). These pertain to asking questions beyond those regarding provenance, patronage, and style; addressing audiences beyond scholars "in our own disciplines and subdisciplines"; and proving definitively that "there is an important causal link between the representation of the life of Francis and the development of the Renaissance style and indeed the Renaissance itself" (11).

The first essay, "The Joy of St. Francis: Bellini's Panel in the Frick Collection," by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin studies the details of that glorious painting to determine "what contemporary Franciscan activity...might have entered into the motivation of the commission" (18)? Aronberg Lavin proposes that the desert landscape in the painting (albeit a luminously illuminated one) resonates with the spirit of the island of San Francesco del Deserto in the lagoons of Venice which Francis supposedly visited, and which was the site of certain miracles he performed. The island's owner, Iacopo Michiel, became an avid follower of Francis and presented it as a gift to the Franciscan Order before he died. Although Aronberg Lavin admits that "no evidence has come to light connecting Bellini's commission directly to the island," (25) the site's importance to the composition of the painting and the implications of the Michiel family's involvement in its commission remain compelling, even if as points of debate.

Theresa Flanigan's essay, "Ocular Chastity: Optical Theory, Architectural Barriers, and the Gaze in the Renaissance Church of San Marco in Florence," examines the fifteenth-century tramezzi in the church which, for its Observant Dominican occupants, "functioned to limit visual access between the nave, transept, and choir-presbytery by framing and focusing the laity's view of the high altar and by preventing the friars from viewing or being viewed by the female congregants located in the lower nave" (40). The essay elegantly delineates the tenets of optical theory as advanced (mainly) by the Franciscan scholar, Roger Bacon, and their importance to the early Renaissance. Flanigan suggests that the tramezzi drew upon the physiological and epistemological implications of the process of viewing in order to focus--and also censor--the roving gaze of the viewer.

William Barcham's contribution, "Franciscans and the Man of Sorrows in Fifteenth-Century Padua," explores the use, development, and interpretation of the image of the Man of Sorrows by the Order of the Friars Minor in fifteenth-century Padua. Arguing that the image "altered in Quattrocento Padua despite its reiteration within the same spiritual milieu" (68), the essay concentrates on the church of S. Antonio and the great number of representations of the Man of Sorrows the foundation claimed between 1430 and 1465. Of all the images listed, perhaps the most intriguing is the tiny silver figurine of the Man of Sorrows embedded in the jawbone reliquary of St. Anthony, the said jaw gaping ominously right below it. One wishes the chapter had engaged in a closer examination of this tiny but spectacularly riveting detail. It ends with a compelling account of the entry of Bernardino da Feltre into the Observant Order and his orchestration of a procession to claim a former Jewish lending bureau as the new Monte di Pieta, all while bearing a banner with the Man of Sorrows emblazoned upon it; a move which Barcham compellingly interprets as the "urbanization" of the figure, "taking it into the streets, and broadening its efficacy to address the problem of the urban poor, a burning social issue for the Franciscans" (83).

The essay by Beth Mulvaney, "Standing on the Threshold: Beholder and Vision in the St. Francis Cycle in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi," analyzes the framing devices employed in the Francis cycle and the beholder's relationship to the scenes depicted. It is argued that the "suggestively illusionistic spaces and sophisticated color choices" of the lower walls "enhance the construction of a fictional reality" (86), and that "to cross the threshold into the Upper Basilica...is to enter another realm...in which biography intersects salvation history and the individual beholder may join in the dialectic of private and public, inside and outside, present and past" (88). A powerful theme informing the essay is participation, or mimesis, the template for which is The Meditations on the Life of Christ, a text that repeatedly urges the reader to "see," "behold," and "look," thus enjoining the sensibility of a witness or participant on the reader. While this is a hardly novel move (the Meditations are often invoked in the context of explicating Franciscan art), the author offers sophisticated insights into the beholder's stance vis-à-vis some of the most exquisite scenes of the cycle, such as the Verification of the Stigmata, the Mourning of the Clares, and the astounding Crib at Greccio.

David Flood's study, "Images of Franciscan History," is a lucidly written description of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript (Rome, MS Vitt. Em. 1167) of an Italian translation of Angelo Clareno's History of the Seven Tribulations (composed 1323-1326). The images in the manuscript have apparently been regarded as primitive, but Flood claims that they hold a genuine, even perhaps charismatic, appeal for Franciscans (of our era, I presume). Although Arthur Danto's remarks regarding the differences between a viewer's appreciation of a wall painting and a miniature in a folio is cited as evidence for the above, it would have helped to know exactly how the Franciscans responded to these particular miniatures and who, in fact, they are (their designations in the Order, for instance). The essay briefly describes the miniatures and their context in Franciscan history and ends with some provocative remarks, observing that "True Franciscan art gets no further than the miniatures" (111). This point could have done with more explication and elaboration, not least in order to convey what characterizes images as 'Franciscan' apart from their contents.

The essay by David Haack, "Artistic Diversity in Color and Style of the Habit in Paintings of St. Francis of Assisi in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries," considers a corpus of images not regulated by the Order which deviate from its stringent rules regarding vestments. The essay proposes that the friars of a specific convent dictated the stylistic differences differentiating their habits from those of other communities (116). It makes the important, but oft-neglected point, that "literature on Franciscan art habitually rewards altarpieces and painted panels by known favored artists, rather than discussing...secondary works of Franciscan art that may have originated in convents and choirs where friars, following the ideal of poverty, could have been reluctant to hire expensive primary artists" (124).

Christina Cruz Gonzalez's contribution, "From Conversion to Reconversion: Assessing Franciscan Missionary Practices and Visual Culture in Colonial Mexico," is a stimulating account of the Franciscan use of images in conversion and reconversion campaigns in New Spain. Offering a detailed historical analysis of the two processes--conversion and reconversion--via texts and images, the essay explores Franciscan image theory and the use of images in the "construction, negotiation, and dissemination of a late colonial Franciscan identity" (126).

Trinita Kennedy's study, "The 1472 Translatio of the Relics of St. Bernardine of Siena: A New Interpretation of a Fresco by Pinturicchio in the Bufalini Chapel in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome," posits that the said fresco depicts the 1472 ritual translation of St. Bernardine's relics to S. Bernardino in L'Aquila, his burial church, rather than the saint's death or funeral as has typically been the case. In addition, Kennedy argues that Pinturicchio's cycle of frescoes apparently "signals a reawakening of St. Bernardine's cult and a new phase in its history...represents a recent event and attests to the dynamic ways that the Franciscan order was promoted during the papacy of Sixtus IV" (159).

The contribution by Holly Flora, "Gender, Image, and Devotion in Illustrated Manuscripts of the Meditationes Vitae Christi," examines two of the earliest known illustrated copies of the Meditationes made in Italy in the middle of the fourteenth century, namely a Paris manuscript (MS Ital. 115 now in the Bibliothèque Nationale) and the Snite manuscript (Snite 85.25). Flora contends, based on the frontispieces, that the Paris manuscript was made for a female Franciscan audience under the direction of a friar, while the Snite manuscript was probably intended for a lay audience, perhaps the kneeling couple depicted on the opening folio. It is further argued that the Snite manuscript reflects familial concerns relating to a prosperous household in medieval Bologna and the vita activa, whereas the Paris manuscript is geared toward the vita contemplativa of its supposed Clarissan readers. Although the contention is reasonable enough, one wonders whether identity and gender are always so transparently inscribed in artefacts, be they textual or visual. And since the argument depends heavily on the concept of "affective devotion" that is deemed so central to the Franciscan experience, the concept and its implications might have been elaborated upon in a more nuanced fashion.

Lynn Ransom's thoughtful study, "The Eyes Have It: The Question of Redemptive Vision in the Verger De Soulas" (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 9220), explores an "unusual" (177) picture book of the thirteenth century which, "through its complicated play of diagrammatic text and imagery...offered its medieval reader a compelling program of catechetical instruction and a manual for penitential devotion…." The essay focuses on an illustrated hymn and full-page miniature of the Lignum Vitae, which aid the reader through the process of compassionate devotion in which "the penitent imaginatively and actively participates in Christ's pain and humiliations...and co-suffers with Christ in order to attain conformity with him..." (178).

Oleg Bychkov's essay on "The Place of Aesthetics and the Arts in Medieval Franciscan Theology" asks "whether there was any theoretical support in speculative texts for the sort of art practices" associated with the Franciscans (196). Thirteenth-century Franciscan thought drew heavily on Augustine's aesthetic theory, but Bychkov discusses John Duns Scotus who, it seems, was not particularly known for incorporating aesthetic parallels in his thought. The essay clearly explains the difficult philosophical and aesthetic concepts the Franciscans (including Duns Scotus) drew on, including the Byzantine tradition, concluding with the insight that "Franciscan speculative theology seems to encourage the arts that use concrete and specific forms..." (209).

Xavier Seubert's contribution on "The Transubstantiation of St. Francis of Assisi: Searching for a Paradigm," examines the juxtaposition of between Francis and Christ Pantokrator in the upper and lower churches of Assisi which were produced in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, "a time of significant theological development with regard to the Order's understanding of Christ's presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist" (210). The essay uses Victor Turner's characterization of Francis as "a perpetual liminar" to advance the view that "Poverty for Francis was a means of movement; absolute poverty was a means of ceaseless movement" (211). The essay nicely elucidates the concept of alter Christus (another Christ) and in persona Christi (applied to the ordained priest, episcopal and papal offices) and proffers a complex argument positing that the life and body of Francis "stand perpetually at the threshold between the earthly and heavenly realities. This is the essence of absolute poverty" and that "He himself becomes...a Eucharistic meal for his brothers and sisters" (226).

Irving Lavin's concise essay on "Bonaventure, Bessarion and the Franciscan Coat of Arms," focuses on an unorthodox coat of arms (two hands crossed and joined by the wound of a nail of the Cross) adopted by St. Bonaventure when he was the pope's chief representative at the Second Council of Lyon (1272-4) for the union of the Greek and Latin churches, as reported in a sixteenth-century biography. Lavin suggests that the Order's emblem did not arise until nearly two centuries after the Lyon conference when Cardinal Bessarion also "adopted a coat of arms markedly analogous to Bonaventure's" (230). Lavin ends with the insightful proposal that "In its descent from Bonaventure, the emblem of the order, in which Christ's arm crosses with that of St. Francis, continued to reflect the major role the Order played in the history of efforts to reunite the main branches of Christianity..." (230).

The volume ends with a poignant essay by Robert Lentz, a Byzantine iconographer imbued with an intense interest "in both Franciscan aesthetics and evangelization" (232). Lentz describes his life as an artist and a friar, "as a Byzantine Christian, living...in this seemingly very Latin Order" (238), between opposites, as he terms it. Lentz's insight into Francis' encounter with the talking crucifix at S. Damiano is one that art historians (including those writing for this volume) would do well to consider seriously for its implications: that Francis "somehow slipped through it to the reality of the Christ it depicted. What happened to Francis at San Damiano that day is what has happened for centuries to Byzantine Christians when they have prayed well before their icons: he discovered in the icon a window into heaven" (240).

The essays collected in the volume are interesting and reasonably wide-reaching; however, very few of them actually broach the critical question of what a specifically Franciscan imagery entails (quite beyond one that depicts Francis and his Order), nor are the usual epithets applied to Franciscan art--"naturalistic," "visionary," or "affective"--interrogated in any substantive way. But despite these problems, the volume is well worth reading by anyone interested in the mendicants, the history of religion, theology, and art in the medieval and early modern eras.

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