Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 28, 2016
Alexa Sand Vision, Devotion, and Self-Representation in Late Medieval Art New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 423 pp.; 7 color ills.; 95 b/w ills. Cloth $125.00 (9781107032224)
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Alexa Sand’s study of owner portraits in Francophone women’s devotional manuscripts, primarily from 1200 to 1350, presents a theoretically aware discussion of essential themes associated with illuminated Books of Hours: individual and family, public and private, space and time. Visual cues for devotion, defined as “striving for transformation through vision” (81), inspire Sand’s analysis of the spaces activated while performing prayer with self-reflexive images and texts. These devotional scenes in manuscripts for women and, in selected case studies, men typically feature kneeling supplicants. Pictured with a manuscript and prayer stand before a spiritually charged image, the figures are posed in such a way that the three-quarter view of their bodies shows both eyes gazing out to address the viewer directly (243, 272, 280). The owner portrait of a perpetually interceding user, previously examined by scholars such as Lucy Freeman Sandler, functions as a votive, talisman, and channel for visionary involvement (204–5, 290). Sand critiques the impression that possessors’ likenesses relate exclusively to an individualized, private sphere by recognizing how devotional acts in spaces that were not completely isolated also included clear references to the spiritual well-being of others through family heraldry and household settings (253, 282). She envisions how the open performance of individual prayer in churches and homes effectively sanctifies spaces through acts of piety (218, 222). The redemption of time, foregrounded in multiple works on medieval devotional books, is thus complemented by Sand’s critical assessment of “situational sacrality” and her definition of the “space of the sacred” as “where the book owner’s body performs” devotion while being viewed (223). A focus on the image of each manuscript’s original intended user, which makes “the self visible to the self” (2), unites the volume’s six sections.

Although Sand sees the medieval owner portrait as “a pre-theoretical practice” (12), following Paul Hills, her argument consistently strives to read these images in light of critical authors, ranging from Dante Alighieri to Gaston Bachelard and Annette Weiner. Additional medieval texts that engage the visual are integrated, such as the Prayers and Meditations compiled by Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) for Countess Mathilda of Tuscany (1046–1115; 109). In Anselm’s prayer guide, one miniature scroll’s use of the term pervidere—“to perceive mentally and . . . visually”—supports Sand’s insistence on the devotional function of artworks in illuminated prayer books (116; fig. 28). While discussing Psalter illustration, Sand cites Saint Bonaventure (1221–1274), a Paris university instructor and Franciscan Order general, to highlight David’s exemplary prayers as a prophet and king (133, 331n134). This Davidic reference thus leads to a rich, underexploited source on devotion that was available before Sand’s core group of reflexive owner portraits were produced (183–95): Bonaventure’s De perfectione vitae ad sorores (available online at https://archive.org/stream/holinessoflifebe00bonauoft#page/n43/mode/2up; hereafter, “archive.org” followed by the page number). The saint’s mendicant devotional text for women harmonizes with Sand’s themes, so the temptation to reject the friar’s treatise because of several inexcusable anti-Semitic sentences will be set aside for the moment. Bonaventure’s resonance with key topics in Sand’s book reveals her argument as a perfect model for ways in which the unquestioned relevance of contemporary theoretical readings may be further elaborated and corroborated through sustained attention to visually sensitive medieval works about devotion.

Essential for understanding the portrayed gaze in devotional manuscripts, the Holy Face representations that Sand analyzes in chapter 1 include originals or copies of the Laon Mandylion and Roman Veronica (28, 36). A fine example is the Psalter-Hours connected with Yolande of Soissons (pls. I–II; select medieval images and search “M.729” in Corsair at themorgan.org for other color photographs), which was the subject of her doctoral dissertation. Prayer books with owner portraits that also contain miniatures of Christ’s face reveal how such manuscripts fuel users’ “urge toward visionary, self-transcending experience” by asserting the “complete self-knowledge” only possible through God’s eyes (59). For Sand, contemplating the frontally represented face of Christ helped viewers identify with him (80). This echoes Bonaventure’s sentiments that nuns “enter into” themselves “as the image of God,” exhorting them to “Fix your eyes upon your own self . . . [and] find the hidden treasure” (archive.org, 6, 8–9). For Bonaventure, Christ is “the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of His goodness” (Wisdom 7:26; archive.org, 70). The saint’s treatise for nuns directly corresponds to Sand’s argument that the depicted Holy Face functions as a mirror (5, 30–31, 73–75). Sand also carries the notion of Christ providing devotees with an accurate reflection into later chapters, where gazing is tied to pilgrimage, witness, and Christomimesis (84, 190).

Chapter 2 surveys a wide range of works in both monumental and portable media that relate to the pictorially reflexive gaze by tracing distinctions between traditional donor portraits, which Sand associates with commemoration, and owner portraits focused on devotion. Her attention to Anselm is flanked by discussions of portraiture before 1200 and illuminated Psalters. Psalm books were the original textual setting for the Office of the Virgin, a prayer cycle initially developed for monastic use, which became the heart of Horae (152–53). Once adapted for those outside the cloister, Sand recognizes “what works for the monk may become a model for the laywoman,” because prayer manuscripts were not “the exclusive domain of women” (168, 212). Sand argues that the lay female audience for the Hours excelled at looking and praying, since some active liturgical and sacramental involvement remained off limits (209, 260). Psalter iconography, specifically the prayer portraits containing a depicted vision of God, offered important precedents for artists adapting supplicant user figures to the illumination of Horae by “collapsing the viewer with the object of the gaze” (85, 143; fig. 44). These images of individuals at prayer reflect available textual sources in the Franciscan-influenced circles of the Francophone aristocracy. Readers who contemplated their own miniature portraits experienced a metaphorical distance for the purpose of self-examination similar to the nuns Bonaventure encouraged to elevate themselves spiritually, both outside and above the self (archive.org, 55). Bonaventure, like Sand, links vision to a revelation of the Divine, whether centered on the Trinity or Christ alone, by asserting “the eye of a heart purified and washed by prayer can see the things above” (archive.org, 59–60). From the sample she constructed, Sand argues devotional “efficacy” is a “power gendered feminine” in medieval illumination (147).

In chapter 3, Sand identifies a number of prayer books with portraits representing “a pictorial form of prayer” where devotion involves “a direct personal encounter” for impactful reflection (185). Owner portraits depict these women’s bodies drawing near and relating with holy figures through devotion (151). Such closeness connects to the emphasis on pastoral care encouraged by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and, in part, successfully carried out during the later Middle Ages by mendicant orders (154). Sand notes how Franciscan and Dominican methods of piety directed and mixed with the laity’s personal religious pursuits (155). Each of the four manuscripts highlighted in this chapter (New York, Morgan Library and Museum, M.729, ca. 1280–90; Paris, National Library, nouv. acq. lat. 16251, ca. 1280–90; Paris, Arsenal Library, MS 6329, 1311; and Cambrai, Municipal Library, MS 87, 1312–15) demonstrate how mendicant spirituality influenced their “highly visual approaches to devotion” (209). Sand’s examples of “reflexive portraiture” are credited with significant results, such as women’s potential to “triumph over sin through devotion” (179, 197). Her focus on the intense, earnest use of illustrated devotional books mirrors Bonaventure’s guideline to “think of naught else but what you are doing” in prayer (archive.org, 52).

Sand’s emphasis on pictorial and social space in chapter 4 extends the critical reading of owner portraits. For instance, Horae possessors were “reinscribed within societal norms” through overt references to family and heraldry, which Sand defines as “a kind of abstract portraiture that situates the individual within the web of his or her relations” (211). One strength of Sand’s heraldry assessment is noting the layers of significance armorial bearings convey beyond a strictly literal reading or simple identification of the owner (231). When found in devotional manuscripts, coats of arms place a Book of Hours “at the service of the family and . . . a specific social class” (227). Sand, therefore, ties devotion to family roles and the broadest interpretations of domestic duty (261). She sees an extensive temporal context, considering how the proprietor’s portrait creates a commemorative image for its subject—before the time any memorial would be required—that influenced later generations of users in the family (240). Sand’s sensitivity to potential efforts toward collective salvation, although pragmatic and efficient, does not correspond to Bonaventure’s perspective: “Earthly desires should be put aside and all love of friends and kinsfolk forgotten” (archive.org, 53). Since Sand is examining books for women outside the cloister, her interpretation that devotional goals are tied to family identity appears understandable.

In the conclusion, Sand contrasts pre-1350 women’s devotional manuscripts with later Valois princes’ prayer books to expand her gender critique. The formal, princely images of the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries found in works for King Charles V (1338–1380) and Duke Jean de Berry (1340–1416) display a difference in quality that Sand contrasts with the women’s portraits of previous generations. The men’s royal gazes are characterized as having “objectified and perhaps commoditized the devotional body,” while their depictions are reminiscent of carefully controlled feudal rituals (281–83). The “masterful, human gaze” Sand reads in later princely portraits is linked to the specific space implied through the images’ perspectival renderings, following Herbert Damisch (281). Perspective is also credited with a constructed distance evoking a “timeless parallel universe” inhabited by the intercessor in profile (280). This final chapter’s engagement with owner portraits made for women and men presents a concentrated summary of Sand’s key points within a broader context, providing one option for course reading from her specialized text.

While those who do not habitually study web-based manuscript images might question the amount of figures in Sand’s abundantly illustrated book vis-à-vis the greater number of folios actually discussed (see 194–202, for instance), this volume helps demonstrate the dedicated progress of librarians and curators providing useful digital humanities resources. As cited above, the full-color iconographic program of the so-called Yolande of Soissons’s Psalter-Hours is one of the Morgan Library and Museum’s many pictorial gifts to researchers. France’s National Library catalogue makes both text and image in Jeanne d’Eu’s Somme le Roi available to all (search “Arsenal 6329” at gallica.bnf.fr). The Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes portal offers easy access to reproductions of manuscripts from provincial collections in France, including the miniatures in the Cambrai manuscript (search “décor” results for “Cambrai 87” at medium.irht.cnrs.fr). Diligent readers can find similar examples to augment their familiarity with Sand’s other rare sources by consulting relevant websites and search engines. Sand and Cambridge University Press have produced a rich, detailed volume that rewards persistent cross-referencing with the extensive repositories of digitized manuscripts currently online.

Margaret E. Hadley
independent scholar

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