Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 13, 2011
Alessia Trivellone L'hérétique imaginé: Hétérodoxie et iconographie dans l’Occident médiéval, de l’époque carolingienne à l’Inquisition Collection d'études médiévales de Nice, vol. 10. . Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. 493 pp.; 36 color ills.; 166 b/w ills. Paper €50.00 (9782503528380)

To begin with, I confess that I have some difficulties accommodating myself to wide art-historical surveys such as Alessia Trivellone’s L’Hérétique imaginé, which covers a span of six centuries with the aim of tracing a coherent development of a sole subject, the heretic. I am not stating that my skepticism will diminish if the survey is chronologically narrower or comprehending more subjects; the point is, rather, that I find serious problems with every sort of “coherent development.”

The division of the volume into four sections corresponds more or less with what Trivellone maintains to be a coherent development. In the introduction and in the first section, “Definition of the Field of Research,” she sets up the aim of her study—to deepen an understanding of the idea of heresy by means of images alone and so attain to a Corpus imaginum hereticorum. The primary categories of this corpus are three: the first for images of heretics condemned in late antiquity (Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Felicianus and Faustus, Jovinianus and Helvidius), the second for personifications and emblematic images of heresy, the third containing contemporary heretics. Very often images that fit in the first set may adequately enter in the third, but Trivellone does not reckon it as a weak point to jump from temporal sequence distance (eighth–twelfth centuries), to symbolism (eleventh–twelfth centuries), and from that to realism (thirteenth century).

It would not take too long to see, even reading at random, that in all the examples adduced—excluding those in which a basic explanation is offered by commonsense—it is never the case that an image, without referring it either directly or indirectly to contemporary texts, may speak by itself. But the texts used to support the meaning of the image are often either too general for satisfactorily explaining the case treated (the Gospels, St. Paul, St. Augustine), or too specific, in the sense that very rarely the same document may hold true for two or more distant spatial events. The composition of the corpus is open to similar objections—connection of two or more visual contexts which, however, do not necessarily present a kinship. If Trivellone proposes a three-stage development, it would appear to be because she believes that the Western Middle Ages kept a permanent “discours” on a conception of heresy started during the first centuries of Christianity. But the “discours” and the “great revelatory lines” have to do with “mentality,” a concept used in those histories that have a more confident approach to an ordered recoverability of the past.

In the third section, devoted to personifications and emblematic images of heretics, although she reassures the reader that the political use of heresy in the eleventh and the first half of the twelfth century does not exhaust the topic, Trivellone nevertheless does not fully explain why she devotes an entire chapter (the seventh) to two manuscripts from which she derives only two significant concepts: heresy as emblem of philosophy (Monte Cassino, Cod. Casin. 132) and heresy meant as impiety (Paris, BNF, Ms. Lat. 2508). Moreover, concerning a topic as important as eschatology (in chapter 8), it is an evident unbalance to treat it as coming only from German monasteries of the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century. But what troubled me more is the place Trivellone reserved for women inside the religious debate. One should accept with reserve that Herrade of Landsberg’s contribution to the eschatological debate is to be seen in only six folios of her Hortus Deliciarum (the inclusion of Fiona J. Griffiths’s The Garden of Delights. Reform and Renaissance for Women in the Twelfth Century, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, would have added new insights to the topic of heresy). It is instead questionable that Hildegard of Bingen and Elisabeth of Schönau are depicted more as inciting the suppression of heresy than as free thinkers who created cognitive metaphors to embody worldly and sacred meanings.

Trivellone’s mode of interpreting her materials can be seen in her reading of three twelfth-century reliefs of the Porta Romana, now at the Museum of Castello Sforza in Milan, which she presents as instances of politicized heresy. Trivellone is able to reach such a result by proving that the third relief, which has as its ostensible subject the chase of Arians out of Milan by St. Ambrose, was meant to represent instead the pursuit of all heretics qua allies of the emperor Frederick I Redbeard, the liberation from whom the other two surviving objects are also dedicated, representing the return home of the Milanese troops and citizens in 1167. The elements of interest here are an inscription just above the relief that reads, “Ambrosius celebs iudeis abstulit edes,” as well as the words “S[an]c[tu]s Ambrosius” and “Arriani,” by virtue of which the subject of the relief is suggested. The first inscription is placed over the man clothed as a bishop, wearing a miter and brandishing in his right hand a sword, while the second is positioned over a row of men and women dressed in a rustic manner and carrying tools, luggage, and even babies. Obviously, had the row of people featured the contemporary Patarines, the politicization of heresy would have been more explicit; unfortunately they are the fourth-century Arians whom St. Ambrose by dint of influence did drive out of Milan. Thus, Trivellone is forced to focus on the row of people. In addition to being Arians, they should be Patarines. But Trivellone goes further. Frederick I had some years earlier proclaimed an edict commanding the respect of the “houses” of Jews within and outside the walls of the city of Worms, and since the inscription—which, en passant, does refer to a historical occurrence as well as the relief—includes the term “edes” (temples), which in the Middle Ages was employed also as “houses,” the row of people in the relief should also be seen as Jewish. Engaging the reader in a similar mode of argumentation, Trivellone attempts to prove that the Arians are also Patarines unveiling, iconologically speaking, the very first signs of a power-plot-manufacturing-heretics yet to be born.

In the last section, Trivellone addresses the Inquisition. Only when in the thirteenth century ecclesiastical and political power came to possess a centralized organization could it launch a persecution of heretics on a grand scale. The appearance of punished contemporary heretics in the first two Bibles Moralisées (both in Wien, ÖNB, Mss. 1179 and 2554) made for the French court is interpreted as being the product of this power-alliance, despite the formidable resistance presented by texts concerned with contemporary heretics and written by ecclesiastics (as the third canon of the fourth Latran Council in 1215) and for ecclesiastics (the XXXIII and XIV “Causa” of the Decretum Gratiani). Told in this way, the section repackages accepted historical analysis while at the same time playing a double role in the scheme of the book. First it rounds off the neo-structuralistic, if somewhat rickety, shape of the survey; and second, it exhibits a not entirely convincing exclusion thesis so as to introduce the ideas of Michel Foucault.

L’Hérétique imaginé is worth reading for the following three reasons: proper description of a wealth of material, perceptiveness in examining pertinent arguments in the field, and a commendable disposition to question settled interpretations.

Loretta Vandi
Professor, Art Institute—Scuola del Libro Urbino (Italy)