18.05.011, Cornelison, et al., eds., Mendicant Cultures in the Medieval and Early Modern World

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Linda Burke

The Medieval Review 18.05.011

Cornelison, Sally J., Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby, and Peter Howard, eds. Mendicant Cultures in the Medieval and Early Modern World Word, Deed, and Image. Europa Sacra, 19. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. xviii, 322. ISBN: 978-2-503-55554-6 (hardback) 978-2-503-56201-8 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Linda Burke
Elmhurst College

This superb collection is further proof, if any were needed, that we are living in exciting times for the study of mendicant orders in the medieval and early modern era. At scholarly meetings and in published books and articles, compelling new approaches are being applied to mendicant themes both long-explored and relatively neglected up to now: the sermon, art and architecture, foundational saints and religious leaders both Dominican and Franciscan, their ambivalent engagement with non-Catholic Christians and Muslims, and the spiritual creativity of mendicant women. All of these topics are treated in Mendicant Cultures, often in fruitful combination. True to the mission statement of the series and the title of the book, these eleven essays range widely in discipline, topic, and time. A sole caveat is called for here: almost all of the people and places discussed are Italian. Thus, while rich and stimulating, the collection is not as pan-European in scope as its title appears to indicate.

Perhaps the strongest feature of the collection (or at least, my personal favorite) is its integration of art history (the "Image" of the collection title) into the study of mendicant values in action. This topic incorporates the ever-fascinating question: why and how did two orders founded in apostolic poverty so quickly gravitate to the most advanced, most beautiful, and very expensive developments in art? In "The Franciscans and Stained Glass in Tuscany and Umbria," Nancy Thompson sheds light on the question as it especially relates to the magnificent stained glass windows in the upper basilica of St. Francis in Assisi (1250s) and the resulting "tradition of narrative stained glass among the Franciscans in Umbria and Tuscany" (34). Thompson acknowledges the iconography of the windows with its "complex typological pairings of Hebrew and Christian stories" as a fruitful object of contemplation for "the educated friars" (30). However, the major focus of her study is the specifically Franciscan motivation for such an early commitment to the medium of stained glass per se. According to St. Bonaventure, the visual perception of earthly light is the soul's first step on the "journey of the mind to God" (28). In a sermon on Creation of 1273, Bonaventure likens "the diversity of colors that a stained-glass window creates in an interior environment [to]...the ways that divine light appears to humans in the created universe" (31). For all who enter the basilica, the luminosity of the colored glass is projected everywhere, "on the walls and furnishings of the church, on skin, and on clothing," an "inescapable" motivation for the spiritual journey of the viewer (31).

Over the course of the thirteenth century, the Dominican order also embraced religious art as a value, as explained by Madeline Rislow in "Sacred Signs: Genoese Portal Sculptures in the Dominican Church of Santa Maria di Castello" (208). Providing the only study in English of this important Observant Dominican convent church (186), Rislow focuses on the mid-fifteenth century soprapporte or pictures (usually sculpted) that are placed over the various interior doors in the structure. Perhaps the most intriguing of these images portrays the standing St. Dominic in a Madonna of Mercy position with his cloak extended at the sides and a pair of friars, much smaller, huddled beneath for protection (199-200). The portal sculptures, as explained by Rislow, had a triple purpose: by displaying the patron's image or coat of arms, to remind the brothers to remember the patron in their prayers; to provide a suitable image for the friar's contemplation; and to signal a transition to a different space within the complex (218). For example, a fresco of "Christ as a Pilgrim Received by Two Dominicans is located above the door leading into the pilgrims' hospice," appropriately placed as a reminder of the gospel mandate to welcome the stranger in need, no matter how poor and lowly (213).

As explained in the article by Ashley Elston, "A Painted Saint and Passion Relics: Taddeo Gaddi's Reliquary Cupboard for Santa Croce in Florence," this important church was controlled in the fourteenth century by the Conventual Franciscans, who supported the creation of beautiful spaces adorned with intricate works of religious art (144-45). One such art object is the armadio (reliquary cupboard) originally encased in twenty-six panels decorated in the early 1330s with thirteen scenes apiece from the lives of Christ and St. Francis of Assisi. Elston's focus is the iconography of the panels, especially the portrayal of Francis as alter Christus (144). This typology was displayed through the parallel placement of similar events from the lives of Jesus and Francis, most notably but not limited to Francis receiving the stigmata (155-157, 172-176), an image well-chosen to enshrine the relics of the Passion stored within the armadio. In a choice of topic unusual at this early date, the final Franciscan panel depicts the 1227 Martyrdom of the Franciscans at Ceuta, a graphic image of mass beheading that may reflect the early fourteenth-century friars' concern for the endangered Franciscan missionaries of their own day (156-158).

In "Preaching, Saints, and Crusade Ideology in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence," a study also concerned with the visual arts in their wider context, Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby discusses a selection of late medieval and lesser-known Baroque works of art in this Observant Franciscan church. As she explains, "the goal of the essay is to highlight points of continuity and innovation with regard to the medieval Franciscan tradition. It does so via an analysis of the art works in Ognissanti, which highlights Franciscan perceptions of Muslims and the Crusade ethos in the early modern period" (299). Debby finds the Baroque portrayals of St. Francis to be little changed from their medieval antecedents, even as their purpose has evolved. For example, the Battista Lorenzi pulpit (1565-1570) displays three expert carvings of scenes from the life of St. Francis long established in iconography, including St. Francis before the Sultan, while the position of the pulpit reflects the post-Tridentine movement for an expansive church interior where the preacher could be seen and heard by the laity (300-305). By contrast, the prominence of St. Clare in Florentine Baroque art is a striking departure from the relative obscurity of her visual image (as well as her cult) in the medieval period (309). Debby attributes the rising popularity of St. Clare to a miracle story which clearly resonated with fifteenth and sixteenth Europeans in the context of ongoing military confrontation with the Ottoman Turks (312). Clare is said to have repelled a "Saracen" invasion of her convent in Assisi by courageously upholding a monstrance enshrining the consecrated host (312). At Ognissanti, the event is strikingly commemorated in a painting by Cosimo Gamberucci (1560-1621) where the invaders recoil in fear before the standing saint with her monstrance emitting miraculous rays of light (311-13). St. John of Capistrano, the Franciscan who led the victorious troops against the Ottomans at the Battle of Belgrade (1456), appears in an altarpiece (316). These and other post-medieval art works in the church "should be understood in the context of Franciscan Crusade aspirations" directed against Muslims, but no longer aimed at recovery of the Holy Land (319).

Three studies of the mendicant sermon address the "Word" component of the collection theme. In "Of Bees and Brethren: The Making of an Order of Preachers," Anne Hollaway examines two foundational thirteenth-century treatises defining and defending the purpose of the Dominican order: Vitae fratrum ordinis praedicatorum and Thomas de Cantimpré's Bonum universale de apibus. Although neither contains an actual sermon, both abound with suitable material for sermons (praedicabilia), and both serve to define and justify an Order of Preachers distinguished not only by their skill with words, but even more by the exemplary power of their lives (4). Both works should be understood as rebuttals to the anti-fraternal propaganda generated by the Parisian conflict with the Masters (8-13); to this end, both retell the exempla of the Christ-like friar Jordan of Saxony as well as Peter Martyr, the anti-heretical preacher assassinated by Cathars in 1252 (14-19). Somewhat surprisingly, both treatises define the Order of Preachers as "less concerned with words and more with the interaction between habitus, mores, and how to maintain exemplarity" (18). As occurs throughout the collection, the mendicant "word" and "deed" of the title are presented as inextricably intertwined.

"The history of preachers and their significance has yet to be written," observes Peter Howard, author of "A Landscape of Preaching: Bartolomeo Lapacci Rimbertini OP." This Dominican friar and bishop (1402-66), active in Florence and other Tuscan venues, is well known as a theologian accomplished in Greek who participated in negotiations surrounding the short-lived union of Eastern and Western churches in 1439 (46). Despite his sixteen surviving sermons and contemporary fame as a preacher, however, Rimbertini's historical impact in this capacity has been virtually ignored. In an example of the insights to be gained from sermon studies, Howard analyzes the Dominican's use of Latin and the vernacular in two of the sermons, explaining that Rimbertini when speaking to a mostly lay audience must have improvised in Tuscan based on portions of the sermon recorded in Latin. In a sermon preached at Santa Maria Novella on Pentecost, Rimbertini quotes Dante's Inferno 1.37-40, evidently from memory as he exaggerates the Tuscan dialect, to illustrate "a Thomistic point about divine love as the 'first cause' ('the unmoved mover') of existence" (52), in terms well adapted to move his audience of the moment. Other sermons addressed contemporary issues (such as the call to recover Constantinople from Turkish rule) as well as complex theology, including a question on the Trinity then dividing the Eastern and Western Churches (53, 54, 60).

Another important sermon study based on a primary source is Melissa Moreton's "A Voice from Savanorolan Florence: Fra Succhielli and his Sermon Diary (1481-1512)." The piece is helpfully illustrated with photos of this unique manuscript. "The diary, written by Fra Marco di Pietro Succhielli, includes over seventy sermons and outlines for sermons delivered on...feast days...It very generously provides the place name and date that most of the sermons were delivered--cathedrals, parish churches, and male and female monastic and conventual churches. It also includes the intriguing note that Succhielli produced it while he was at the female Dominican house of San Jacopo di Ripoli" (67), a convent equipped with a scriptorium and a library that may have provided the homilist with source material (84, 70). In a complex analysis, Moreton parses the Diary in order to place Succhielli within the turbulent context of the Savanarolan movement and its brutal suppression. Although Succhielli kept a certain distance from the movement (86-87), his mere presence at San Jacopo may signal his sympathy for the Pagnioni, as the nuns were loyal to the reformer and held a vigil at the time of his execution (85). A value added to the article is its Appendix, which provides a diagram of all the sermons listed in the Diary complete with their descriptive details.

A close encounter with the non-Catholic East is the subject of Anthony J. Watson's "Early Franciscan Missions to the Mongols: William of Rubruck's Itinerarium." Starting in 1255, following his return from a two-and-a-half year journey to the Mongol empire, Rubruck produced a written account of "his experiences for his sovereign, Louis IX of France, detailing a voyage that had taken him from Latin-controlled Constantinople to the steppes of Mongolia" (248). The resulting Itinerarium, as explained by Watson, can only be fully understood "as a missionary text" where non-Catholic Christians as well as Muslims are viewed as "rivals for souls" in opposition to the universal truth of Latin Christianity (249). Intriguingly, the missionary preacher reserved his harshest vitriol for the Eastern Christians whom he demeaned (among other epithets) as Nestorini, i.e. heretics (258), while respecting the Muslims he encountered "as intellectual equals who shared religious values similar to his own" (264), an attitude he shared with contemporaries who admired (for example) the Saladin (265). "Throughout it all, Rubruck presents himself as a faithful missionary of the Roman Church, beset on all sides by idolators and demons in a hostile landscape" (263).

This common self-perception of a Catholic West under siege is also discussed in John Zaleski's "The Corner of Europe and the Fabric of the World: Pius II's Bull and Sermon for the Canonization of Catherine of Siena." One reason Pope Pius may have pushed for Catherine's canonization was to help mobilize "his desired Crusade against the Ottomans" (272), a cause she had also supported (291), now that true Christians have been "driven back into the corner of Europe" as he described it in the apocalyptic discourse of his Bull for her canonization (280). Only by her intercessory prayers is "the fabric of the [Catholic] world" sustained (281). In his Bull and Sermon, Pius also honors Catherine for her powers of reconciliation, especially her speech before Pope Gregory XI persuading him to return the papacy to Rome. Somewhat exceptionally for medieval hagiography of female saints, Pius refers to her admonitory speaking as "praedicare," preaching (289 n. 67), as well as tracing it to the more uncontroversial "prophetic powers" (288) allowed to women.

Not limited to St. Catherine, mendicant women declared their vision of the apostolic life with words as well as their lived examples and even their thaumaturgic dead bodies, as described by male hagiographers and discussed in "Words, Deeds, and the Hagiography of Italian Women Penitents" by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Travis Allen Stevens. Although preaching was mostly forbidden to the laity, the role of inspired prophet, often linked with the verb clamare and a trumpet-like call to action (118, 133, 134) was permitted and even honored in women. Kienzle and Stevens discuss the male-authored vitae of four holy women: Blessed Umiliana dei Cerchi, St. Margherita of Cortona, Clare of Montefalco, and St. Catherine of Siena. These women are described as practicing a wide range of speech modes, from the public silence and effective admonitions in private of Umiliana and Clare, to the public "shouting" for peace by St. Margherita (118), to the overt "preaching" (praedicare) of "sermons" repeatedly credited to St. Catherine of Siena (134-35). Clearly, as detailed by several articles in the collection, the mendicant tradition offered a powerful voice for the spiritual creativity of women, provided it served the male-dominated Roman Catholic hegemony of their time and place. Even medieval church spaces, despite their internal barriers, were not as rigidly gender-segregated as sometimes believed today. In "Accessing the Holy: Words, Deeds, and the First Tomb of St Antoninus in Renaissance Florence," Sally J. Cornelison explains how lay people, including women, might pass through the door of the late medieval rood screen (tramezzo) in order to share in worship at the tomb of the saint.

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