Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thirteenth century religious art - Part II

Master of Saint Cecilia
(active 1300-20 in Florence)
Legend of St Francis: 27. Confession of a Woman Raised from the Dead
Fresco, 270 x 230 cm
Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi

John of Freiburg,
Summa Confessorum 1310
Top: Folio 1.r (First page) ; Lower: f.2r ("Table of contents")
Ink and pigments on vellum
The British Library, London

"In the 12th century, John of Freiburg was lector (reader) at the Dominican house at Freiburg. The Dominicans were a preaching order who were concerned with dogma. Beginning by indexing an important work on penance by Raymond of Penafort, John carried out the ideals of his order by expanding Raymond's book into a larger 'Summa Confessorum' (roughly translated as 'Concise Book on Confession and Penance') so that it included a huge range of material, arranged alphabetically. An aid to preachers and teachers which put the latest theological ideas into simpler form, it proved successful. More than two hundred manuscripts of it survive. This manuscript of it belonged to the abbey of St Albans, where it would have been used as a reference for composing sermons and teaching.

The book begins with a long title in red writing (rubric) and a historiated initial (first letter bearing a picture) of John of Freiburg teaching a group of attentive students. This page has the introduction and beginning of the prologue. In the lower margin, an inscription states that the manuscript belongs to St Albans Abbey and pronounces an anathema or curse on anyone who tries to steal it.

The 'table of contents' giving the section numbers for a long list of titles ends on this page. The rubric (title in red) near the end of the second column tells the reader the the 'Summa Confessoris', Title I, begins, "compiled by John of Freiburg, lector and brother of the order of preachers" (Dominicans). The decoration of the initial letter and border are conventional for the 14th century." (British Library Catalogue entry for the above Book)

The effigy on the tomb of Eleanor of Castile (1241 – 28 November 1290), the first queen consort of Edward I of England at Westminster Abbey, London

The tomb of the viscera of Eleanor of Castile (1241 – 28 November 1290), the first queen consort of Edward I of England at Lincoln Cathedral

Eleanor of Castile (born about 1244, died 1290) has a fine tomb in St Edward’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, London. The gilt bronze effigy, was cast by goldsmith William Torel in 1291. She died at Harby in Nottinghamshire and Edward erected memorial crosses at the places where her funeral procession rested on its way to London. She holds the string of her cloak in one hand but the sceptre in her other hand has now gone. The tomb slab and pillows beneath her head are covered with the emblems of Castile and Leon (castles and lions). On the ambulatory side is a carved iron grille of exquisite workmanship by Thomas of Leighton Buzzard. The Norman-French inscription can be translated as “Here lies Eleanor, sometime Queen of England, wife of King Edward son of King Henry, and daughter of the King of Spain and Countess of Ponthieu, on whose soul God in His pity have mercy. Amen”.

On embalming the viscera were removed. Her viscera were given a separate tomb in Lincoln Cathedral.

"The interest of the thirteenth century lies secondly in the coalescence of these representational changes, however we account for them, and formal doctrinal change enforced by episcopal legislation, for at heart both embody a form of universalism in aspiration, if not always in practice.

Here the doctrines of Transubstantiation, Penance and Purgatory are critical.

The thirteenth century saw no attempts by the Church to regulate the production of art of the sort promulgated in the sixteenth century during the Tridentine reforms.

Those regulations which did appear, such as English episcopal regulations about the dedication and maintenance of altars, chancels and liturgical equipment, were comparatively general and therefore versatile; they represented a lowest common denominator of regulated decency, which visitation records indicate were frequently themselves hopelessly optimistic. Roman prescriptions of the period are represented by those of Durandus, bishop of Mende (d. 1296) and more specialised legislation was produced by the Cistercian and Mendicant Orders.

The functional character of art was affected substantively, if gradually, by formal doctrinal statements by the Church. The canons of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 are typically regarded as central to this process.

Nothing in the canons of the Council pertained directly to the visual arts, though indirectly their impact on the contemporary understanding of the theology of the sacraments is likely to have been significant. Canons 1 and 21 of the Council are the most relevant, the first stating that ‘Jesus Christ is both the priest and the sacrifice, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine, the bread being transubstantiated into the body and the wine into blood by the divine power’, the second requiring that all Christians should confess privately once a year and receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least at Easter, on pain of debarral from church and deprivation of Christian burial.

Formalised attention to the salvific importance of private and communal Masses, and of devotion to the sacraments, was reinforced by the formal acknowledgement of the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264, a major new element in the contemporary theology of the body. Though lay reception of the consecrated elements was restricted throughout the period, the consequences of these formalisations can be traced in the growing scale and elaboration of altar-decoration, especially with retable altarpieces, which developed with extraordinary speed in both northern Europe and Italy before 1300; and in new pastoral literature on lay conduct at Mass (especially vernacular lay folk’s Mass Books) which aimed to articulate lay experience of Eucharistic devotion before what was still predominantly a clerical activity.

The growing importance in England and France from the second half of the century of the illuminated Book of Hours, a lay person’s concise equivalent of the clerical Breviary or office-book, also demonstrated the rising importance of lay patronage of illustrated and increasingly massproduced spiritual material. By such means forms of structured devotional life originating in earlier medieval monastic life penetrated the routines of the laity for the first time on a widespread basis.

A key instance of this was Marian devotion. In keeping with most liturgical developments of this time the period saw an expansion in the scale and duration of liturgical practice of this type: thus the thirteenth century also witnessed the addition to, or within, cathedrals of chapels catering specially for lay devotion to the Virgin Mary. High altars in churches of all ranks were now to be equipped with an image of the Virgin Mary as well as of the titular saint, and Lateran IV further added the Ave Maria to the expectation that the laity should know the Pater noster and Creed. Marian devotion, earlier focused by the Cistercians in the twelfth century, was thus broadened and institutionalised.

Lateran IV’s requirement of annual auricular confession and penance is also regarded as a watershed in the development of late medieval spirituality, literature and art.

It is to thirteenth and early fourteenth-century illuminated manuscripts and parish church wall paintings that we look for some of the first signs of a new and increasingly lay penitential culture. This culture was informed by episcopal reform programmes of the type promoted from 1238 by Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, which enjoined the clerics, and thereby the faithful, to know the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments. Formalised statements of minimum levels of knowledge – for the formal structuring of sin was of course a form of education – were aided by the preaching of the Mendicant Orders.

The highest, especially royal, patrons were beginning to take Franciscans and Dominicans as personal confessors. The exact steps of confession and penance, once set out in penitentials, were now systematised in mnemonically clear diagrams suitable for inclusion in devotional psalters like that made for Baron Robert de Lisle early the next century. And general evidence of lay supervision at parochial level is supplied by thematically novel church and domestic wall paintings which offered lay people pictorial homilies. The earliest examples of popular macabre images like the Three Living and the Three Dead, whose basis is essentially penitential, originated in this climate of reform.

In addition to sacramental theology, the formal codification of the doctrine of Purgatory, first enunciated dogmatically at the second Council of Lyons in 1274, added a final element to the progressive forces operating in the period.

Though the key elements of the doctrine – that Purgatory was a provisional state of cleansing of the soul after death, and that its duration could be shortened by the performance by the living of suffrages, typically prayers and Masses – were already in place by about 1200, at the level of doctrinal debate, social and religious practice rapidly accepted the dynamics of the doctrine irrespective of its gradual dogmatic formalisation by the Church.

Its importance was manifold. It added importance to the sacrament of Mass by placing Masses and Offices, especially the Office of the Dead, at the centre of the economy of salvation from Purgatory. In addition to the special annexation of spaces within greater churches, the endowment of specific private Masses to be chanted for the dead became increasingly common during the century.

Specialised altar-spaces suitable for the commemoration of families or other groups were emerging in France, England and Italy by 1300, as in the case of the chapels at the east end of Santa Croce in Florence. Burial in church, as opposed to in the churchyard, became an accepted form of social and spiritual recognition. Although already of long-standing validity, church burial attained new importance as the focus of the development, again first among the clerical classes, of the effigial tomb as a focus of memory and a stimulus to the performance of suffrages. Tombs of this type were additionally important as a legitimate part of the dossier of sanctity for potential saints in a period when clerical canonisation and so the recording of miracles at tombs remained of formidable importance.

Monasteries, which benefited economically from the possession of the saints’ relics and aristocratic remains, continued, with the new Mendicant Orders, to compete for lay burial. The thirteenth century saw the formation of royal mausolea under the protection of religious orders: the French royal family and sovereigns were buried at Cistercian Royaumont and Benedictine Saint-Denis respectively; the house of Castile was commemorated at Cistercian Las Huelgas, near Burgos; and the Plantagenets formed a royal mausoleum at Benedictine Westminster. All were accompanied by unprecedentedly rich tomb programmes, and the tendency remained to focus such mausolea on the shrines of saints of national importance.

Burial was in this sense tied up with the construction of national history. By the thirteenth century the older Benedictine burial establishments, notably Saint-Denis and Westminster, were all centres of formal chronicle writing. As royal mausolea came to express notions of dynastic continuity, so too the process of historical writing could substantiate this formalised presentation of the past.

But the pull of devotional loyalty to other religious orders in the thirteenth century was sufficiently strong to warrant the division of royal bodies by mortuary practice in such a way that the head and body of a sovereign (which in canon law marked the official place of burial) could go to the established mausoleum, the heart (the focus of devotional loyalty) to a Cistercian or Mendicant house.

Bodily subdivision, of which a remarkable example is provided by the multiple burials and associated monuments of Queen Eleanor of Castile (d. 1290) at Lincoln, Westminster and the Dominican house in London, was a solution to the complexities of competing historical and devotional loyalties. Its importance was such that Boniface VIII’s attempt in 1299 to ban this essentially aristocratic practice failed.

Doctrinal change, together with the new momentum lent to lay spirituality by episcopal legislation and the Mendicant Orders, was thus implicated in the development of several artistic genres, altarpieces, Books of Hours, illustrated penitential manuals, tombs and chantries being amongst the most important.

All these genres served instrumentally to support the implications of clarified sacramental and purgatorial doctrine. Changes in the Gothic system of representation which served to stress the rhetorical projection of spiritual states in a new naturalistic vein served equally the instrumental power of these new images, and formed the basis for the development of much late medieval religious art."

From Paul Binski, University Lecturer in History of Art and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge: Chapter 4 Art and Architecture in The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume V (1198 and 1300) (2008)

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