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23.05.14 Flora/Tóth (eds.), The Meditationes Vitae Christi Reconsidered

23.05.14 Flora/Tóth (eds.), The Meditationes Vitae Christi Reconsidered

The Meditationes Vitae Christi Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Text and Image, the third volume in Brepols’ Trecento Forum, is an edited collection of ten studies exploring the origin, reception, and contexts of Meditationes Vitae Christi (MVC). Extant in some 110 Latin manuscripts and translated into several vernacular versions, MVC is a late medieval spiritual text advocating affective meditation in which practitioners imagine being present at events in the life of Christ. Composed by most accounts ca. 1300 in Tuscany for a Poor Clare, others throughout Europe adopted and adapted the text. In England, for instance, the Carthusian monk Nicholas Love’s 1410 translation of the text, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, became a bestseller in its own right. [1] The relationships of the MVC’s various versions to visual and performing arts, as well as to spiritual practices, has drawn scholarly engagement since the nineteenth century, including recent work by Holly Flora and Peter Tóth, editors of The Meditationes Vitae Christ Reconsidered.

As Flora and Tóth describe in their introduction, this collection of essays finds its origin at the 2018 International Medieval Congress at Leeds (England), where drafts of six essays received initial airing in two sessions: respective authors composed the remaining essays for this volume. [2] Flora and Tóth frame the collection within the context of previous research by tracing three key themes: the MVC’s authorship and origins, relationships of its various versions with visual and dramatic art, and its place within late medieval devotional and spiritual culture. This synthesis alone makes the introduction valuable for both new and experienced scholars as the authors’ ease with and measured approach to previous research creates a record of MVC studies to date. What follows here, then, is a series of brief summary-reviews of these essays, which are suggestive rather than exhaustive of the contributions each scholar makes.

The first four essays explore questions of authorship, date, and original contexts. In “Fra Jacopo in the Archives: San Gimignano as a Context for theMeditations on the Life of Christ,” Donal Cooper employs archival and archaeological data to set possible contexts for the composition of the MVC. Noting geographical references in the text that locate it to San Gimignano, Tuscany, Cooper reviews evidence for the nearby Clarissan convent of Santa Chiara and its connection to its neighboring San Francesco friary as the likely site of composition. He then examines archival data to probe authorship and the possible role of “Franciscan families” (35), the social practice of biological family members joining adjacent houses, in the text’s composition. This discussion leads him to speculate, “perhaps we should be open to the possibility that the author of the Meditationes, when addressing his Clarissan audience as ‘dilectissima filia’...was writing, at least in part, to his own daughter” (42). Cooper punctuates his essay with 12 figures illustrating aspects of his discussion.

Evident from Cooper’s discussion, a fascinating debate about date, author, and original language currently animates MVC studies. On one side, Sarah McNamer argues for a late first-quarter or mid-fourteenth century shorter (30 chapters) composition in Italian by a woman; and on the other, Peter Tóth and Dávid Falvay uphold a more traditional origin of a ca. 1300 long (108 chapters) composition in Latin by a man. [3] While neither side questions the MVC’s Franciscan and Tuscan contexts, each advocates for a widely different model of textual history that, depending on where one settles, could underscore or undermine aspects of one’s understanding of or argument concerning the MVC. Where the issue of origin is fundamental to their larger discussion, authors in this volume favor the Tóth and Falvay thesis.

Not surprising, then, in “The Earliest Reference to the Meditationes Vitae Christi: New Evidence for its Date, Authorship, and Language,” Tóth further advances his origin thesis by bringing to light new evidence to illuminate the issue. After briefly reviewing the debate, Tóth identifies, edits (in an appendix), and contextualizes the now earliest known reference to the text: John of San Gimignano’s Good Friday sermon on the Sorrows of the Virgin from a collection of Lenten sermons dating ca. 1304-1310. John was a Dominican friar known for his administrative and preaching skill and, as he explicates the sermon, Tóth details how John quotes and paraphrases chapter 72 of the MVC Latin text. Arguing for this sermon as the earliest known piece of external evidence of the text, Tóth concludes that John’s use of the MVC underscores the text’s original composition in Latin ca. 1300. He further concludes more speculatively that this new evidence reinforces the identification of the MVC author with Jacobus de Sancta Geminiano. In the accompanying appendix, Tóth compares MVC chapter 72 with the related parts of John of San Gimignano’s Good Friday sermon.

Turning from origin to dissemination, Maureen Boulton takes up translation and adaptation in “Contemplation in the French and Occitan Versions of theMeditationes Vitae Christi.” Examining four French and Occitan translations and three adaptations, Boulton surveys all seven before focusing on two, each extant in a single manuscript: a fourteenth-century Occitan translation entitled Contemplacion de la vida e miracles de Jhesu Christ (Paris, BnF, nouv. acq. Fr. 6194); and Jean Galopes’ Livre doré des meditacions de la vie seigneur Jhesucrist selon Bonne Aventure (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 213). While the Occitan version is shorter and, as Boulton argues, seems adapted to a lay audience because chapters on the contemplative life are not included, Galopes’ translation was undertaken at Henry V’s request and, at 96 chapters, offers the most complete French translation of the long Latin version. Along with the other versions, Boulton concludes, both the Occitan and Galopes’ translations illustrate vernacular reception of the MVC north of Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Boulton includes an appendix illustrating Galopes’ translation practice.

Dávid Falvay, in “The Italian Text of the Paris Manuscript of the Meditationes: Historiographic Remarks and Further Perspectives,” touches on textual history as related to the illuminated early Italian manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS ital. 115 (Paris MS). Taking Isa Ragusa and Rosalie Green’s 1961 English translation as a starting point, Falvay first reviews the translation’s place in MVC studies before offering “a corrective of sorts...that allows us to understand the text of this important manuscript more fully within the larger history of the MVC” (100). Turning to that larger history, he surveys the MVC’s textual transmission, arguing against McNamer’s thesis for the Italian version’s primacy, and reinforces his own and Tóth’s earlier work on the text’s origin, date, and authorship. This work leads him to note that, although it is not the original version, the Paris text is nevertheless important in the history of the MVC’s dissemination. Falvay concludes by pointing to his currently ongoing project where, collaborating with several colleagues, he is helping to publish critical editions of Italian versions of the MVC, including the Paris MS. [4]

The remaining essays in the volume shift from textual questions to cultural contexts and reception. In “Reading the Meditationes Vitae Christi on the Mount of Light, Perugia,” Renana Bartal focuses on Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 410, the “only known, full illustrated copy of the long Latin MVC” (111). Revising Otto Pächt’s ca. 1350 date of the manuscript, Bartal posits a much earlier date, perhaps even ca. 1300, which in turn supports the primacy of the long Latin version in the ongoing origin debate outlined above. She then posits the Poor Clares of Santa Maria di Monteluce, Perugia, as “the possible institutional recipient of MS 410” (112). Attending to this particular house, and integrating eleven figures into her discussion, Bartal explores the text’s Clarissan contexts by examining the Poor Clare vocation and the MVC’s thematic reinforcement of it. Teasing out the text’s link to the legendary part of the Virgin Mary’s life, Bartal offers an illuminating insight into the text’s possible use, speculating that Monteluce became a second Mount Zion--a place of spiritual pilgrimage--when Poor Clares of Santa Maria practiced meditatio with the MVC in hand.

Taking a thematic approach in “Feast, Fast, and the Feminine: Women at the Table in the Illustrated Meditationes,” Holly Flora also focuses on the Paris and Oxford manuscripts. Integrating eleven images into her discussion, Flora draws on Caroline Walker Bynum’s insights into the role food played in female spirituality and explores how image and text develop this theme and foster a Franciscan vocation. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 410’s Last Supper miniature, for instance, depicting Jesus and the apostles in a lower panel and Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Martha in an upper, reinforces for Flora the importance of the text’s invitation to women to participate “in parallel events to that of Christ’s male disciples” (147). This provocative insight leads her to conclude that Mary, then, serves as the ultimate model for Clarissan readers of these two manuscripts.

Like Bartal and Flora, Dianne Phillips examines a particular manuscript to explore reception in “Meditations for a Married Man: The Snite MVC and the Elite Urban Male Reader.” Produced in Bologna in the Azzi workshop, Notre Dame, Snite Museum of Art, Acc. No. 85.25 is a mid-fourteenth century illuminated copy of the shorter Italian text. For Phillips, the book “exemplifies the rapid diffusion of this devotional text...beyond the confines of the cloister” (149). Phillips integrates seven of the manuscript’s 48 miniatures as she argues that the book evinces “a considered effort to tailor its illustrations to meet the needs and expectations of the patron” (150), who was likely a doctor of civil law. Adapted for a lay audience, Phillips continues, the text and imagery hold up the Virgin Mary as exemplar and emphasize justice. On folio 74v (fig. 2), for instance, Pilate the unjust judge was defaced at some point in the book’s history: a sharp record of reader response. Phillips’ fascinating case study places this particular book within the ca. 1350 Bolognese contexts of both book production and legal culture.

Also considering Italian book production, Lisandra Costiner introduces “A Newly Discovered Illuminated Manuscript of the Meditationes Vitae Christi Produced in Fifteenth-Century Veneto (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, MS Reg. Lat. 478).” A fifteenth-century manuscript containing an illuminated copy of the shorter Italian text of the MVC, the book has drawn little attention but, as Costiner notes, “the manuscript contributes to the growing body of evidence attesting to the text’s circulation and appeal in the mid-fifteenth century” (178). Costiner offers a codicological introduction, detailing size, support (palimpsest parchment), date, contents, decoration, provenance, and likely production history. Uniquely among extant manuscripts, this book, Costiner notes, employs 44 historiated initials tied closely to chapter headings to orient readers to contents. Its format and size, she rightly concludes, suggest private rather than public use. Integrating nine images from the book in her discussion, she also includes an appendix listing the book’s 44 illustrations.

Flipping the perspective in “The Writer as Viewer: Recollecting Art in the Text of the Meditationes Vitae Christi,” Joanna Cannon first reviews scholarship that sees the “MVC as a sort of iconographic source-book for early Italian art” (202) before pondering whether or not the MVC author may have also used visual sources for textual details. Integrating eight figures, Cannon examines three thirteenth-century works in particular: Coppo di Marcofaldo’s painting, “the Ascent of the Cross,” a detail from his Crucifix (ca. 1261); the anonymous painting St. John the Baptist Enthroned and Scenes from his Life (ca. 1251-1275); and Nicola Pisano’s relief sculpture the Adoration of the Magi (1265-68). Placing each in context, she shifts perspective on the MVC from source-book alone to possible record of the author’s reception of visual art. She rightly concludes that, if this thesis is granted, the MVC “becomes not only a handbook for the practice of visualizing in the mind’s eye...but also a record of the attentive corporeal viewing, with the bodily eye, of one particular Franciscan” (223).

Rounding out the collection, Lynn Ransom explores what she terms the “pictorial Vita Christi tradition” (225) in “Mixed Media: Questioning Format in Late Medieval Pictorial Vita Christi Cycles.” She opens by discussing in detail--including eight figures--two late medieval/early modern pictorial cycles: Simon Bening’s The Stein Quadriptych (ca. 1525); and the “Retablo de Isabella la Católica” (ca. 1494-1495) of Juan de Flandres, with Michael Sittow. Both cycles, she concludes, were intended for private devotion though reset for public display. Although the link between these instances of the pictorial Vita Christi tradition and the MVC is not wholly clear, Ransom’s subsequent discussion of the tradition’s twelfth-century roots offers an overview of the larger cultural context within which the MVC flourished. For those interested in The Stein Quadriptych and the “Retablo de Isabella la Católica,” Ransom includes two appendices listing the Stein miniatures and the panels of the “Retablo de Isabella.”

The introduction to and essays in The Meditationes Vitae Christi Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Text and Image are instructive and illuminating. They record current scholarship, advance particular points, and suggest future work. Like most of us, I suppose, much of my reading these days is from a digital-electronic support of one kind or another. The hard-copy format, quality paper, fine reproduction of images, and heft of this book about a book reminded me of the pleasures of actually holding a book as I read. Aside from a handful of typos, my only desiderata are a bibliography, index, and list of figures. That said, footnotes are thorough and chapter titles descriptive enough to orient readers to contents (the potential cross-referencing an index or list of figures provides, though, is absent and a touch harder to replicate). So, my quibbles are minor. Flora, Tóth, and their fellow contributors have done MVC studies a service. I recommend the book to those new to MVC studies and to scholars working with specific materials discussed in the essays here. Libraries and institutes supporting medieval studies, art history, theology and religious studies would do well to secure a copy for patrons’ use.



1. Nicholas Love, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ: A Reading Text, edited by Michael G. Sargent (University of Exeter Press, 2004), ix, n.1.

2. See sessions 1029 and 1120 in the IMC 2018 program (; accessed 20 March 2023).

3. See Sarah McNamer, “The Origins of the Meditationes Vitae Christi,” Speculum 84.2 (2009): 905-955, and Peter Tóth and Dávid Falvay, “New Light on the Date and Authorship of the Meditationes Vitae Christi,” in Devotional Culture in Late Medieval England and Europe: Diverse Imaginations on Christ’s Life, edited by Stephen Kelly and Ryan Perry (Brepols, 2014), 17-105.

4. The first to be published, The Meditationes Vitae Christi in the Vernacular According to the MS Pris, BnF, en. 115 (Venice University Press 2021), is accessible via open access: