15.11.07, Debby, The Cult of St. Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy

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Sara Ritchey

The Medieval Review 15.11.07

Debby, Nirit Ben-Aryeh. The Cult of St. Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy. Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. pp. 169. ISBN: 978-1-4724-2057-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sara Ritchey
University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Just as Clare of Assisi's image was contested during her lifetime and throughout the thirteenth century--manipulated at the hands of resistant friars, papal protectors, Damianites, and other would-be members of the Second Order--so also has it been subject to refashioning and polemic in modern scholarship as specialists in Franciscan studies offer shifting interpretations, challenging our image of Clare as it is refracted through various textual sources. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby enters this enduring fray with The Cult of St. Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy, which surveys the presentation of Clare presented by visual and homiletic sources produced in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, with a brief epilogue on her twentieth-century mien. Debby does not seek to challenge recent handlings of Clare by current authorities such as Lezlie Knox, Joan Mueller, Maria Pia Alberzoni, and Bert Roest. Rather, she aims to enhance their picture with evidence from material culture, as well as to extend it into the early modern period.

Debby outlines three main concerns that she wishes to illuminate. First, she is keen to account for the varied ways that art transmits messages, undergoing subtle adaptations to appeal to different audiences in the growth of a saint's cult. Second, she intends to decipher the relationship between visual images and textual sources such as sermons, poetry, and hagiographic material. And finally, she is eager to explore the artistic production of Clare's postmedieval cult, especially in the early modern period when she became a model for reform. In striving to meet these goals, Debby is most successful at the first and last. She carefully tracks the transformation of Clare at the hands of mannerist and baroque artists while demonstrating the political and ecclesiastical pressures that had a hand in shaping Clare's early modern image. At the same time, her thorough attention to material culture reveals the complexity of an early modern Clare who could serve as both fierce warrior and compassionate caregiver depending on her audience. The exact nature of the connection between texts and images in the cult of St. Clare, however, remains nebulous as Debby offers no holistic argument about causal relationship, but rather outlines thematic similarities.

The study opens with an examination of the 1260 panel painting by Guido of Siena now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena. The panel, a shutter from a small reliquary box, presents Clare as a civic saint, defending Assisi from the Arab mercenaries who, according to Thomas of Celano and later sources, attacked the monastery of San Damiano in 1240. Debby suggests that Guido's depiction of Clare represents an attempted martyrdom, aligning Clare with Francis in terms of saintly power and authority. While other early depictions replicate this bold version of Clare as the equal to Francis, there was a notable shift in Clare's status in the visual tradition in Assisi by 1280. No longer a hero and would-be martyr, Clare was portrayed in the late thirteenth century as a modest virgin with downcast eyes and a delicate lily. Examining images in the Basilica of San Francesco, Debby notes the gradual marginalization of the Clarissan nuns and "the refusal to recognize the uniqueness of St. Clare, who then became a standard female saint, excelling in the feminine qualities of obedience and humility" (39). In this context, artists gave little attention to Clare's deeds as abbess and miracle worker, separating her entirely from Francis. Debby proposes that the sermons on Clare by Matthew of Acquasparta, who played an integral role in determining the iconographic program for the upper church of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, may have influenced the visual depiction of Clare as humble, passive, and obedient.

Clare's turn from civic hero to modest virgin in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Assisi can be compared with her portrayal in Naples. The Clarissan community in Naples benefited from the patronage of Queen Sancia of Mallorca, who was ardently devoted to Clare and became a Clarissan nun at the end of her life. She and her husband, King Robert of Anjou, were responsible for building the Basilica of Santa Chiara, which was originally a Spiritual Franciscan convent, and would gradually become an important artistic center. Debby notes, among the art and architectural monuments in the basilica, that Clare and Francis were often depicted together, as paired saints. Turning to Florence, Debby contrasts two surviving Tree of Life images from the Clarissan convent of Santa Maria di Monticelli and the church and monastery of Santa Croce. Pacino di Bonaguido's 1310 Tree of Life in Monticelli places Clare in a parallel position to Francis, both saints kneeling at the foot of the cross. In Taddeo Gaddi's 1360 rendition at Santa Croce, however, Clare is peripheral to the main narrative. Debby argues that these images represent two forces that worked together to shift the image of Clare from civic heroine to modest virgin. In Clarissan contexts, Clare was portrayed as a mystical virgin wearing a nun's habit, averting her eyes, and delicately embracing a lily; in male Franciscan contexts, Clare was rarely visible at all, and when she was, she occupied a rather marginal position.

Just as in the textual tradition chronicled by Lezlie Knox, Debby shows that Clare enjoyed a parallel resurgence in the visual tradition during the Observant reform in the second half of the fifteenth century. At this point, Clare sheds the lily for a book and crosier, which emphasize her role as abbess and legislator, as in Antonio Vivarini's 1451 painting for the Franciscan church of San Francesco in Padua. Debby attributes this shift to the internal reform of the Franciscan Observants, led by the zealous preacher, Bernardino of Siena. Clarissan nuns were integral to the process of reform, contributing to the editing and translation of texts such as Il Testamento and La Benedizione and pushing for the return to the original Rule of Saint Clare approved by Innocent IV in 1253. This renewed interest in Clare's original legislation is reflected in her representation in material culture. She no longer sulks as a marginal figure in niches or small roundels, and instead emerges as a major character--often as Alter Maria, defensor pestilitatis, and as visionary and miracle worker--in panels, narrative predella, and an important painted dossal. Debby argues that Clare's fifteenth-century refashioning with pastoral staff and book was directly related to the preaching and reform activities of the Observant Franciscans who stressed her role as abbess and legislator in sermons. When she appears as miracle worker, however, her image is more inspired by the iconography of Dominican saints Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, with whom she competed for cultic devotion.

The book's third and final chapter turns to Clare in the early modern period, when she became a heroine of Catholic Reformation art after the Council of Trent. Her iconic symbol in baroque and mannerist sacra conversazione panels is a shiny monstrance that she wields to ward off danger. Debby attributes Clare's swelling importance in religious art in this period to the reform of the Capuchin branch of the Clarissan order. By 1630, she notes, there were 925 Clarissan convents with at least 34,000 sisters directly under the authority of the minister general. The increasing size of the order led to an increasing number of depictions of Clare, perhaps most notably her central position as the trunk in Clarissan trees. Such trees mirrored the Albero Serafico which depicted Francis in the center with prominent friars budding from limbs of filiation. The Clarissan tree featured Clare as a founder, independent from Francis, and as spiritual mother to an array of female worthies.

During this period, Clare was most commonly represented in one particular narrative scene, the expulsion of the Arabs from Assisi. The scene appears in 404 drawings and prints conserved in the Capuchin Museum in Rome. Debby observes that, in this scene, Clare gradually takes on a more prominent role, occupying center stage with her monstrance guiding her and protecting the nuns in her care. The expulsion appears in sermons from the period as well; for example, the humanist Baldassare Bonifacio, archbishop of Istria, named Clare as the source of inspiration for the Venetian Republic in its struggle against the Ottoman Turks. The early modern period also saw the rise of public processions and an annual festival in Clare's honor. In Assisi, in particular, a boisterous civic festival celebrated her triumph over the Arab troops on June 22. In Naples, Clare's image as militant defender of her community was re-created in frescoes and on the vault of the Basilica of Santa Chiara, as well as in an extremely popular play by the Capuchin poet Bernardo Valera da Lanciano and sacre rappresentazioni performed in her honor. In short, while Clare took on new prominence in a variety of media through the monumental depictions in altarpieces, domes, as well as drawings and prints, and sermons, the variety of her visual tradition was reduced as she appeared most commonly as the protector of Assisi.

An epilogue briefly recounts how Clare's portrayal as a civic heroine was amplified under the Fascist regime, when she became a national model celebrated for her victory over the Arab mercenaries and was called upon to assist in the fight against Italy's enemies. More recently, Clare has been celebrated as the patron saint of television and, since 1994, in a role that offers endless opportunities for kitsch merchandising, as patron saint of cats.

The Cult of St. Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy is a welcome contribution to the study of Clare's visual tradition in the period from her death to the seventeenth century. No other study takes such a broad approach to her ongoing visual transformation in Italy. Debby draws on a vast range of media, from prints and drawings, to panels, sculpture, and frescoes, and thoroughly contextualizes them within the verbal tradition of sermons, hagiography, and religious theater. While the book does not challenge previously-held interpretations of Clare's representation, it offers a thorough and important diachronic survey of the imagistic shaping of Clare's cult for changing audiences.

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