15.08.41, Sand, Vision, Devotion, and Self-Representation in Late Medieval Art

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Kathryn A. Smith

The Medieval Review 15.08.41

Sand, Alexa. Vision, Devotion, and Self-Representation in Late Medieval Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. xv, 408. ISBN: 9781107032224 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kathryn A. Smith
New York University

A concern with the nature of vision and the functions of imagery in late medieval religion as these phenomena intersect with gender animates all of Alexa Sand's work, and notably the fine articles derived from her 1999 doctoral dissertation on the richly illuminated, late thirteenth-century manuscript in the Morgan Library & Museum, made in Amiens or its environs and traditionally known as the Psalter-Hours "of Yolande of Soissons." [1] Analyses of some of the most compelling images in that well-known prayer book form the spine of the monograph under review. Yet the chronological and conceptual scope of Vision, Devotion, and Self-Representation in Late Medieval Art extends well beyond the Morgan psalter-hours. As Sand asserts, her study represents the first long-form examination of the later medieval "reflexive" owner portrait, a class of image that she investigates principally through the lens of one-off illuminated religious and devotional manuscripts made in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France and England.

Sand calls these owner images "reflexive," as she explains in her introduction, "Self-Reflection, Devotion, and Vision in the Image of the Book Owner at Prayer," because their three-quarter presentation of the praying book owner creates "a recursive loop between subject and object--the viewer sees herself seeing and thereby attains a heightened awareness of her own visibility and her own vision" (4). Here, and in four lengthy chapters and a conclusion, Sand constructs a narrative of the origins, development, operations, and implications of these images by analyzing a selection of them within the context of developments in later medieval religion and society of longstanding scholarly interest. These include lay aspiration to monastic and clerical prayer regimes, literate and mystical practices, and religious and intellectual culture; the catechetical and pastoral efforts of the post-Lateran IV church and of the mendicant orders; the "explosion of devotional forms," [2] both literary and visual, that characterizes the later medieval period; the expansion of the book trade; and the complex interrelationships among the gaze, the body, and gender, and the material image, spiritual ideals, visual and visionary experience, and medieval notions of the self.

Sand's first two chapters are concerned with those forms and themes, which, as she avers, constitute the artistic and conceptual source material for the reflexive image of the book owner. Chapter one: "Saving Face: The Veronica and the Visio Dei," synthesizes the extensive scholarship on the Holy Face, charting the development in western Europe from the thirteenth century forward of an interest in the true image of God and elucidating the many, complex connections among this phenomenon, escalating veneration of the Eucharist, "the closely related concepts of imago and imitatio" (29), and the venerable idea of God as a mirror of the self. The chapter reviews the histories of the Veronica and the Byzantine Mandylion and the earliest surviving evocations of these acheiropoeta in English and continental art. It then considers the potential functions and operations of the Holy Face as depicted on the folios of a small group of manuscripts, including four of the full-page moralizing diagrams in the now fragmentary, early fourteenth-century English psalter made for baron Robert de Lisle (London, British Library MS Arundel 83 II) and two display pages from the Parisian Hours of Yolande of Flanders of c.1353 (London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 27). Attached to or decoupled from the office and indulgence originally instituted for the Veronica, and incorporated into the visual programs of bespoke prayer books made for both religious and aspirant lay owners, where it was contemplated in conjunction with recitation of the psalms and related forms of prayer, the vultus Dei was a potent tool for self-scrutiny and self-transformation as well as communication with the divine, as Sand's discussion affirms.

Chapter two, "From Memoria to Visio: Revising the Donor," opens with a survey of the conventions of donor, patron, author, scribal, and artist portraiture and self-portraiture in and on a range of Ottonian, Anglo-Saxon, and Gothic works produced for public liturgical celebration or display or personal devotion. Next, Sand scrutinizes gesture, posture, gaze, and other strategies of pictorial fashioning and self-fashioning in three illustrated copies of St. Anselm's Prayers and Meditations and in depictions in some thirteenth-century psalters of the prayerful, penitent David, a potent model for the devout book owner from the early medieval period.

In the succeeding two chapters and the conclusion, the focus is squarely on the owner portraits themselves, as witnessed principally in a selection of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century psalter-hours, books of hours, and other devotional and didactic manuscripts. In chapter three, "Framing Vision: The Image of the Book Owner and the Reflexive Mode of Seeing," Sand positions the emergence of the independent book of hours in the early thirteenth century as a key catalyst for the development of more intimately focused, affectively charged, and semantically wide-ranging owner portraits, images deeply implicated in the processes of aristocratic identity-formation that were supported and facilitated by the use of illustrated religious manuscripts. This is particularly true in respect to female book owners, whose apparent religious interests and pictorial representation take center-stage here. After discussing a sampler of owner images in some of the earliest surviving books of hours, Sand devotes the bulk of this chapter to analysis of the striking portraits of aristocratic women found in the margins, initials, and full-page miniatures in a series of northern French volumes made in the years around 1300, including, in addition to the Psalter-Hours "of Yolande of Soissons," the Madame Marie Picture Book (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS nouv. acq. fr. 16251), a copy of the illustrated moral and catechetical treatise called La somme le roi that was made for Jeanne, countess of Eu and Guînes (Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal MS 6329), and the Cambrai Hours (formerly the Hours of Mahaut of Artois; Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 87).

Sand interprets the "idiosyncratic" portraits in these northern French manuscripts as "represent[ing] a boundary-pushing, imaginative moment in the history of late medieval devotion" (151)--one that, in her view, signals the arrival of the "feminized devotional book" (213) as a religious and cultural genre and the establishment of a feminine mode of prayer that entails both seeing oneself at prayer, and, simultaneously, through self-scrutiny and Christomimetic contemplation, seeing one's soul as God sees it. These ideas set the stage for the analyses in chapter four, "Domesticating Devotion: Body, Space, and Self," in which Sand examines reflexive portraits in a larger group of manuscripts--some treated in the preceding chapter, many considered for the first time in the present one--positioning these images as registering their female owners' "reinscri[ption] within societal norms and clerical authority" (211). The chapter opens with a summary of current thinking on the functions and significance of heraldry in devotional manuscripts in relation to ownership and patronage; lineage, affinity, and allegiance; class identity; and commemoration and display. Manuscripts whose imagery is scrutinized in light of these and other social concerns include the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux of c.1324-28 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection MS 1954 [54.1.2]) and other Parisian books made for French royal women, as well as examples crafted for English owners lower down the social scale that include representations of couples or multiple family generations.

In the conclusion, "Power and the Portrait: Negotiating Gender," Sand reviews the scholarship on the emergence c.1350 in northern European art of the naturalistic portrait likeness, and charts the appearance of the profile portrait in manuscripts made for Valois kings and princes in the later fourteenth century and early fifteenth. For Sand, these princely, profile, mimetic portraits disrupt the "recursive loop between subject and object" that was activated and sustained by the three-quarter view, reflexive portraits of women: the profile portraits, she avers, "endow" the (male) viewer "with a privileged, but other, gaze" (285), one that produces an "alienation" (285) or a dissociation of the self from the self. The conclusion also speculates as to how subsequent generations of viewers might have regarded the reflexive portraits of the destinaires in their manuscripts.

Apparent throughout Vision, Devotion, and Self-Representation in Late Medieval Art is Sand's facility with visual analysis, as demonstrated, for example, in her elegant ekphrasis of a display page in one of the earliest surviving independent books of hours, New York, Morgan Library & Museum MS M. 92 (c.1230, northeastern France). As Sand describes it, a suppliant female figure, depicted larger in scale than the enthroned Deity in the initial D opening Augustine's prayer before the psalter, is rendered as if "floating somewhere in front of the text and image" in a manner that makes her a "mediating presence between the …temporal world of the book's user and the more abstract and timeless space of the page" (164). Valuable, too, is Sand's consideration of little-known works like the mid-thirteenth-century, Oxford-made copy of Anselm's Prayers and Meditations (London, British Library MS Add. 15749), one component of a devotional compendium that originally may have been joined to a psalter and hymnal (Preston, UK, Harris Museum). The initials in these volumes display an intriguing mix of suppliant figures--including a Benedictine monk at Psalm 101 and what appears to be a young, unmarried laywoman before the Virgin and Child illustrating the first prayer to the Virgin--and Sand is right to emphasize the figures' potential polyvalence, even as she offers her own readings of them (124-30).

Sand's narrative is a bold one, yet it is constructed from examples that are, in the main, well known on account of their iconographic singularity and the fact that they are extensively researched. Sand's readings of the material depend significantly on this previous scholarship, and this leads one to question how her conclusions might have been shaped had she considered a larger group of less-studied artifacts, and examples whose imagery is less "idiosyncratic" or which does not conform to the formulas that she has offered in her analyses.[3] One also wonders how information about regional trends or artisanal specializations in book production, and religious preferences both across and within France and England might have inflected her readings of the evidence.

Sand draws on a wide range of literature from numerous disciplines within and without medieval studies to construct her narrative, and she presents the historiography of her large topic in piecemeal fashion: in general, her account appears to reflect the freshness of her encounter with particular sources rather than the actual trajectory of the literature. This historiographical fragmentation also may be the source of some of the less convincing assertions in her text. For example, in view of the rich lode of scholarship on the English material alone that highlights the contributions of professional illuminators, scribes, and other book artisans not only to the creation of the artifacts themselves but also to the production of meaning, Sand's statement that "the role of artists…in the shaping of the visual environment of devotion" has been "largely overlooked" (23) cannot be sustained.

In a suggestive twist at the close of her lyrical text, Sand invites us to assume the theorized point-of-view of the medieval book owner by drawing us into the "recursive" devotional loop whose contours she has traced in her study. Although some readers will take issue with this and other aspects of Sand's presentation and interpretation of the material, none will doubt her commitment either to these compelling manuscripts or to the medieval women and men whose religious experience she has endeavored to evoke.



1. New York, Morgan Library & Museum MS M. 729; Alexa Sand, "Vision, Devotion, and Difficulty in the Psalter Hours 'Of Yolande of Soissons'," The Art Bulletin 87 (2005): 6-23; eadem, "A Small Door: Recognizing Ruth in the Psalter-Hours 'of Yolande of Soissons'," Gesta 46 (2007): 19-40; eadem, "Visuality," in Medieval Art History Today: Critical Terms, ed. Nina Rowe, special issue of Studies in Iconography 33 (2012): 89-95.

2. Richard Kieckhefer, "Major Currents in Late Medieval Devotion," in Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation, ed. Jill Raitt, World Spirituality, vol. 17 (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 75.

3. Missing from Sand's bibliography but perhaps somewhere in her notes and potentially helpful in this regard is Alison Stones, "Some Portraits of Women in Their Books, Late Thirteenth - Early Fourteenth Century," in Livres et lectures de femmes en Europe entre Moyen Age et Renaissance, ed. Anne-Marie Legaré (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 3-27.

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