Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 28, 2015
Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby The Cult of St Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy Visual Culture in Early Modernity.. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 192 pp.; 10 color ills.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $104.95 (9781472420572)

Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby’s The Cult of St Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy is a broad survey and analysis of materials documenting the extraordinary life and robust cult of St. Clare of Assisi (1193–1253) in Italian visual culture. Drawing on diverse representations of St. Clare, ranging from medieval reliquary cabinets, seals, tapestries, and frescoes to monumental baroque sculpture and altarpieces, Debby maps shifts and transformations in the iconography of St. Clare in the service of religious and political initiatives across early modern Italy. She focuses particularly on the diffusion of images of St. Clare as a model for Catholic reform during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and examines the critical role of printed sermons and public preaching in promoting the spread of her cult across the Italian peninsula.

St. Clare of Assisi (sometimes spelled Clair or Claire) was born to Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso, and his wife, Ortolana, and is known to be one of the first followers of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of an order of mendicant friars. Renouncing her aristocratic origins, she established the Franciscan Order of the Poor Ladies at the Chapel of San Damiano in Assisi, and served as abbess of the cloistered female community until her death. The order was officially renamed the Order of St. Clare (now commonly referred to as the Poor Clares) after the saint’s canonization only two years later, and survives today in various iterations worldwide. Debby initiates her study by examining the earliest commissioned images of St. Clare in Assisi and Siena, and explores the visual transformation of the saint from civic defender and devoted companion of St. Francis to a secluded and obedient virgin in the medieval tradition.

St. Clare’s body was transferred in 1260 from the modest sanctuary of San Damiano to the more elaborate Basilica of Santa Chiara, built as both a pilgrimage shrine and as a new convent church for the Clarissan nuns. An iconic painted altarpiece made for the high altar of the Basilica (ca. 1280) features a full-length rendering of the saint surrounded by narrative scenes illustrating her extraordinary devotion and miraculous works. Focusing on the altarpiece as well as an early reliquary panel of St. Clare heroically expelling Saracens from Assisi (Guido da Siena, ca. 1260), Debby points to Clare’s conspicuous absence in the extensive fresco cycles depicting the life of St. Francis at the nearby Basilica of San Francesco. Here, she argues, Clare is virtually separated from St. Francis and framed instead as a humble virgin among pious predecessors, a distinction articulated in contemporary biographies of the saint commissioned by the Franciscans to marginalize her unique ministry and reinforce typically feminine virtues of obedience and humility. Though it appears that this Franciscan model of St. Clare was influential, especially in the fourteenth century, Debby demonstrates the crucial role of female patrons—particularly Queen Sancia of Naples (who became a Clarissan nun at the end of her life) and Florentine Clarissan communities—in perpetuating the cult of the saint from its outset. Indeed, the model of sanctity represented in images of the saint commissioned by and for women corresponded more accurately to Clare’s lived experience and were central to the devotional practices of Clarissan nuns.

Religious reform movements in fifteenth-century Italy have been associated with the growth and development of iconographic representations of female saints such as Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden. Franciscan Observant preachers, particularly the fiery Bernardino of Siena, extolled the virtues of feminine piety and revivified the image of St. Clare in her role as abbess and mediatrix, particularly in public sermons delivered on her feast day (August 12). At the same time Clarissan nuns, particularly those in reform communities (Caterina Vigri of Bologna, for example), authored important devotional treatises lauding Clares’s way of living to be printed as spiritual guides for women. Debby analyzes a variety of images of St. Clare commissioned during this period, emphasizing her appearance on confraternity banners as intercessor for relief from the plague, as a Misericordia saint, and as a powerful miracle worker hailed by cardinals and contemporary popes.

As Debby demonstrates, the fifteenth-century revival of St. Clare as an essential exemplar for reform set the stage for the widespread diffusion of her cult and image after the Council of Trent, which reinforced the efficacy of Catholic sacraments in response to Protestant detractors. In prints, paintings, and, perhaps most notably, in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s monumental sculpture of the saint for the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square (1667), Clare was increasingly depicted raising a monstrance (the vessel used to display the Eucharist) in adoration and triumph. Debby points out that the monstrance had been the typical attribute of St. Clare in the Low Countries and Germany since medieval times, but that her clear identification with the Host in Italy only began in the sixteenth century, a paradox that merits further study. Pictured thereafter as a defender of the faith, Clare embodied the ideal of reformed Crusader for Roman Catholicism and emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist. Eventually, the success of her cult led to a flourishing homiletic tradition devoted to her among reform orders (Franciscan, Jesuit, and Capuchin) and to her entry into religious theater and sacred drama performed in her honor.

The Cult of St Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy is the first full-length treatment of Italian visual traditions associated with St. Clare, and is a significant contribution to scholarship on the visual culture of early modern religiosity and to the fields of gender studies and sermon studies. An investigation of this scope necessarily calls for a wide-ranging, but ultimately selective, presentation of images and sources. Debby’s extensive documentation of lesser-known representations of St. Clare (particularly from the Capuchin Museum in Rome) and of sermons, poetry, and devotional texts related to them, opens up several new avenues for scholars to pursue. In her brief but provocative epilogue, Debby touches on modern depictions of St. Clare—in the service of Fascism, for example—and gestures toward her eventual election as the patroness of television. Indeed, in one of the most startling images in the book, St. Clare is fashioned as a twentieth-century protector of cats (a connection that Debby traces to medieval canonization testimony), shown sitting upright in her bed and looking quite feline, with meticulously tweezed eyebrows and collagen-plumped lips. As disturbing as this image is, it effectively sums up Debby’s observations on the flexibility and mutability of hagiographic representations for an ever-evolving society and Church.

Suzanne M. Scanlan
Lecturer, History of Art and Visual Culture, Rhode Island School of Design

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