Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2021
Anna Russakoff Imagining the Miraculous: Miraculous Images of the Virgin Mary in French Illuminated Manuscripts, ca. 1250–ca. 1450 Text Image Context: Studies in Medieval Manuscript Illumination 7. Toronto and Turnhout, Belgium: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in association with Brepols, 2019. 212 pp.; 94 ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780888442154)

Within the cult of the Virgin Mary, representations of the Virgin and her miracles in medieval sculpture and painting highlight and reinforce her intercessory powers for devotees. Anna Russakoff’s book Imagining the Miraculous adds to studies of Marian iconography through a focus not on the miraculous objects themselves, but rather on the representations of miraculous images in manuscript illuminations. The illuminations studied are found in thirteenth- to fifteenth-century vernacular French manuscripts containing Marian miracles, including Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles de Nostre Dame, the anonymous Vie de Pères, Jean de Vignay’s Miroir historial, the anonymous Ci nous dit, the anonymous Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages, and Jean Miélot’s version of the Miracles de Nostre Dame. These manuscripts are part of the surge in devotion to the Virgin in the Gothic period, though they are differentiated by manuscript type, patronage, and context.

Focusing on miracles that place an image of the Virgin (usually the Virgin and Child) at the center of a narrative, Russakoff considers the complex relationships between text and image. She examines the artistic choices made in representing two- and three-dimensional artworks—often panel paintings and sculptures—that display “signs of life” and interact miraculously with devotees and detractors. The relationship between image and prototype is a recurring theme, as is the increasing visual ambiguity between representations of living beings, apparitions, and images (4). She considers how narrative is conveyed, drawing attention to moments when illuminations diverge from text. Russakoff’s approach to narrative imagery draws on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (Harper Collins, 1994) and the reader-response theory of Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978). McCloud’s articulation of the unique aspects of sequential art, particularly the role of the “gutter” (the space between pictorial scenes), and Iser’s concept of the “blank” (a gap within narrative action that the viewer fills) provide a framework through which these narratives are understood. The illuminations are also placed in wider religious and social contexts, particularly in relation to anxiety about the proper use of devotional images and relations among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Russakoff includes miracles that involve non-Christians and considers the visual representation of difference.

Chapter 1 gives a broadly sweeping introduction to the cult of the Virgin Mary and its attendant devotional practices, from biblical accounts of the Virgin through the late Middle Ages. Liturgical and hagiographic texts, hymns, devotional prayers, and music contributed to the increase in Marian devotion. Marian objects accompanied this rise in devotion. Reliquaries, painted icons, and sculptures gave the Virgin a bodily presence and offered tangible conduits for her intercessory powers. Russakoff discusses the role of images within the Church, their controversial history, and the range of images of the Virgin in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France, establishing the medieval visual culture of the manuscript illuminations.

The following chapters consider manuscripts of miracle compilations in chronological order, concentrating on miracles that involve an animate Marian image. Chapter 2 examines thirteenth-century manuscripts of Gautier’s Les Miracles de Nostre Dame. Russakoff focuses on three miracles—“The Conversion of the Saracen,” “The Marian Ymage Insulted,” and “The Siege of Orléans”—each of which is revisited in subsequent chapters. At the center of each miracle is an image (ymage) that exhibits a “sign of life,” through movement or through the exuding of liquid (oil, blood) (23). Particularly interesting are illuminations where the artist does not show a painted or sculpted representation of the Virgin but instead a vision of her, conflating artistic representation and prototype and speaking to the power of devotional images.

Chapter 3 examines four miracles within thirteenth- and fourteenth-century copies of the anonymous Vie des Pères, a collection of devotional tales. In these manuscripts, narrative is conveyed within limited spaces, including historiated initials, and different strategies are deployed to animate static images. In “The Stolen Christ Child” and “The Child Who Offered Bread to an Ymage,” the omissions of key narrative moments or of a clear indication of the physical image’s role create “blanks” in which the viewer must visualize the miracle moments mentally (58). These exclusions foreground the importance of the text in conveying the narrative and the role of the image in each story. Illuminations of “The Painter and the Devil,” in contrast, leave less to the imagination, as a sculpted image of the Virgin saves a falling painter—extending her arm to grasp him by the arm, hand, or body—in clear indications that the “painted relief” has become animated (58). Similarly, in “The Child Who Kissed the Virgin’s Hand,” illuminations do not indicate the speech conveyed in the text but do show the Virgin’s physical movement through her extended hand and her embrace of the boy.

Chapter 4 studies fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of Jean de Vignay’s translations of the Miroir historial. Russakoff considers the degrees to which signs of life are conveyed in text and image in the miracles of “The Painter and the Devil,” “The Statue That Bled and Another Statue the Saracens Could Not Break,” and “The Nativity of the Virgin and Miracles Performed by Her Ymage.” In these illuminations, images are foregrounded as representational objects—framed paintings elevated on altars, reliefs in tympana, or sculptures affixed to columns. The presence of blood or oil might indicate the image’s miraculous qualities, but illuminators “tend to avoid the spectacular moments of miracles with animated images leaving ‘blanks’” for the viewer to fill (81). Russakoff examines how the use of color or grisaille indicates different “degrees of reality”—vision, representation, living being. Especially interesting are the moments when image and the living being are rendered similarly and when our expectations of animacy are upturned (iconoclasts become stiff as images move, for example) (73). Overall, illuminations in the Miroir historiale eschew representation of miraculous moments that are revealed in the text, creating anticipatory images and indicating a reliance on text to “activate” the miraculous image (82).

Chapter 5 turns to the fourteenth century and two new productions of Marian miracle collections, the encyclopedic Ci nous dit and a collection of plays, Les Miracles des Nostre Dame par personnages. Along with the shifting status of living beings and works of art, distinctions between images and apparitions are blurred through nearly identical depictions (building on earlier discussions of the relationship between image and prototype) and less emphasis on materiality. Continuous narratives that expand and contract events bring images and humans into conversation and subtly reveal miraculous transformations, expressing an increasing fluidity between material images and visions (90). The illuminations in the Miracles, for example, foreground devotion before images that is not conveyed in the text. Russakoff discusses how these images participate in an intervisual culture and may draw on earlier miracle collections, including Gautier.

Chapter 6 discusses Jean Miélot’s prose version of the Miracles de Nostre Dame, which draws on earlier sources including Gautier, the Vie des Pères, and the Miroir historial. Illuminations of the three preserved manuscripts are discussed in relation to the increasing illusionism of the fifteenth century. The grisaille deployed throughout the illuminations, together with illusionistic details, complicates these narratives. Its use blurs the distinction between living being and image and between painting and sculpture. Complicating the text-image relationship are moments where an object’s materiality, specified in the text, is not conveyed in the image. These complexities are explored in six miracles, including several revisited from earlier chapters: “The Marian Ymage Insulted,” “The Painter and the Devil,” and “The Boy Who Gave Bread to an Ymage of the Christ Child.”

Russakoff’s book is beautifully illustrated with full-color images that reinforce the author’s close attention to the visual details. Due to the wide array of images, miracles, and manuscripts shown, the focus on recurring miracles creates a useful thread of continuity. An introduction to these miracles or miracle types (and what makes them particularly apt for study) would be welcome. Similarly, several of the themes that emerge across each chapter—the role of color or representations of non-Christians—might benefit from introductions grounding these overarching ideas. While the general context of each manuscript type is relayed, a consideration of how the images might have been tailored to their specific audiences—clerical, lay, royal, and so on—would be helpful. Are there any discernable differences between how miraculous moments are treated in manuscripts made for different audiences? Finally, as Russakoff mentions, many of the illuminations appear directly before the text. Does this placement affect the reading of the text that follows? Does it encourage a back-and-forth reading, as image and text reveal different aspects of the narrative?

Russakoff’s study compellingly shows the contribution of manuscript illuminations to our understanding of the role of miraculous images in Marian devotion. Text and image draw the reader into the narratives, blurring the distinctions between art and life and between image and prototype. The illuminators grapple with the visual representation of animate objects and miraculous moments and reveal contemporary views of non-Christians. Ultimately, Russakoff’s book is a welcome addition to studies of the cult of the Virgin and the role of images in Marian devotion.

[Editorial Note: The author of the book under review, Anna Russakoff, began her term as Field Editor for Medieval Art after the commissioning of this review. She was not involved in its editorial process.]

Ashley Laverock
Professor of Art History, Savannah College of Art and Design