Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 7, 2005
Marcia Kupfer The Art of Healing: Painting for the Sick and the Sinner in a Medieval Town University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. 304 pp.; 117 b/w ills. Cloth $55.95 (0271023031)

In her first book, published in 1993, Marcia Kupfer drew attention to the underdiscussed frescoes of Romanesque central France, reading the images as a field within which political tensions were played out and through which social divisions were reinforced. In her second book, The Art of Healing: Painting for the Sick and the Sinner in a Medieval Town, Kupfer returns to the same fertile ground but focuses still more acutely, concentrating on the wall paintings in the crypt of the collegiate parish church of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, in the diocese of Bourges. The result is a rewarding—but also difficult and speculative—work that places the images in relation to various bodies: the bodies of the dead, buried near the paintings; the petitioning bodies of the sick and faithful, who presumably circulated before the paintings; and the network of corporate bodies that stood behind the frescoes and their effective messages. Essentially a institutional history that also draws on that deep vein of medieval scholarship concerned with the corporeal, Kupfer’s patient study is thus an extension of earlier work that delights in its attention to detail, even if it occasionally also frustrates in its open reliance upon conjecture.

Kupfer’s analysis of the frescoes is involved and multivalent, and it deserves to be read attentively. The crypt of Saint-Aignan, which had been used as a burial ground for high-ranking clergy and nobles, was painted in roughly 1200 by unknown hands with a number of frescoes, which are now badly abraded. These paintings, dispersed across four chapels but now legible in only three, depict Christ enthroned between Saints Peter and James and three diminutive paupers (who are characterized as pilgrims and infirm), a series of miraculous cures effected by Saint Giles, and a set of bluntly physical episodes involving the raised Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. For Kupfer, the images are interesting largely because of their accent upon physical renewal; thus, she supposes, the frescoes might have carried potent meanings for ailing pilgrims visiting the crypt in search of cures. But she also argues (largely on the strength of the scroll held by Christ, which quotes James 5:16) that the images were not solely concerned with physical restoration. Instead, the frescoes can also be read as promoting spiritual well-being through confession, thus underlining the clergy’s role in the curative process. Lastly, Kupfer also ties the decoration of the crypt to an outlying ring of local chapels, oratories, and hospitals, suggesting that the frescoes’ subject matter evokes the dedications and sociomedical functions of these buildings, which were probably overseen by the chapter itself. Thus, the images of Lazarus echo a leper house, dating to about 1150 and dedicated in his name, and the paintings of Saint Giles correspond to the dedication of a local maison-dieu, which the chapter oversaw and which seems to have provided a room for the sick. The crypt, then, would have functioned not only as cult center and healing sanctuary, but also as the center for a nexus of scattered institutions, possibly reminding pilgrims and burghers of the territorial holdings and the intermediary role of the chapter of Saint-Aignan—in short, as an iteration of the extent of a complex corporate body.

Such a clean iconographic correspondence between mother church and outlying hospitals would be a rarity indeed, but Kupfer’s attempt to re-create a complex local landscape in detail does have some precedents in other directions. For instance, she casts her work as an entry in the field of microhistory and openly follows the examples of J. C. Schmitt and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. But—as John Aberth has observed in a review of Kupfer’s book in the June 2004 American Historical Review—these earlier scholars rooted their work in relatively extensive archival materials, where Kupfer is forced to rely upon a thin trail of textual evidence and scattered architectural fragments. Indeed, as she herself notes, the study of medieval parish art (in France, at least; her claim would have to modified in speaking of, say, England) is hampered by the thinness of accompanying documentation. Furthermore, in this case the problem is compounded by the ruined state of some of the paintings and the total loss of one of the hospital buildings. And while this degree of loss does not invalidate her project, it does lead her to lean heavily on single documents (such as a 1287 testament, invoked at ten separate points in her book although it postdates the frescoes by at least a half century) and deductions (such as her assumption that the crypt featured relics, a claim supported only indirectly by archaeological evidence).

This is not, in other words, a book that shies away from complexity and conjecture. Not at all, in fact, for the author goes on to suppose that a porticus (which is first mentioned in 1287 and whose original site and function remain unclear) might have treated, in the early 1200s, victims of ergotism, a disease caused by contaminated grain. Assuming this diagnosis is correct—it has been disputed in recent literature and is here founded largely upon a slight collection of miracle tales—Kupfer then wonders if the fourth chapel in the crypt of Saint-Aignan could have thus featured images of Saint Silvanus, who was often associated (although, confusingly, not in those same miracle tales), with ergotism. Ultimately, she decides, such a scenario “lies within the realm of possibility” (44); on this fragile basis, the missing frescoes are assigned a tentative subject matter that neatly coincides with her argument that the paintings referred to local institutions, overseen by the collegiate church, that were concerned with healing. All very tidy, but of course possibility is not the same as probability, and assuming evidence that supports one’s case does not really strengthen the case. As a result, some of her propositions are rather tortuous in their qualification, such as her claim that “conceivably the ‘mal de peur’ might encompass” symptoms associated with ergotism (58). Thus, while Kupfer is careful to voice appropriate hesitation, her argument sometimes rests as much upon controversial inference, blunt supposition, and intelligent deduction as upon documentation.

That said, deduction can be a very valuable tool, and Kupfer’s comments on the symbolic geography of the crypt, which was apparently accessible through a single northern portal, are worth considering. Working from evidence as diverse as local graffiti and Italian groundplans, she argues that the crypt characterized all of its visitors as penitents, thus reinforcing the redemptive role of the local clergy. A sustained consideration of the frescoes follows, and here Kupfer is again on relatively firm ground: she convincingly demonstrates that the paintings establish the intercessory powers of the invoked saints, while also, again, underlining the efficacy of divine medicine administered by the Church. Certain questions persist: Is the ship saved by Gilles really best understood as an allegory of salvation through baptism? Would viewers unfamiliar with the hagiographies truly have been able to discern the complex underlying themes of the narrative paintings, as she argues? But her basic contention—that the images served specific institutional purposes—seems beyond dispute, and valuable.

Somewhat less profitable, though, is her further claim that the pictures positioned the financial donors behind the hospitals as instruments of divine grace. Kupfer seems intent on viewing her subject through the lens of recent scholarship on medieval gift exchange, but the fit is not always an entirely natural or happy one—and where her arguments in this direction do convince, they occasionally feel rather obvious. If the paintings can be said to have “orchestrated a dense network of multiparty exchange” (121), then they simply resembled the visual and rhetorical culture of many pilgrimage sites, which often encouraged generosity on the part of pilgrims while also stressing the benevolence of the local saint. More interesting here are her comments on the apparently deep rivalry between the clergy and women, who were locally renowned for their healing skills but who were commonly characterized, in the frescoes, as personifying sexual impurity. Again, the absence of hard local data frustrates, but Kupfer draws on relevant studies to argue that the female therapeutic culture was perceived as a challenge to ecclesiastical agency, and that the paintings, with their emphasis upon penance, securely associated healing powers with the priesthood. Finally, she offers a last speculation: that the crypt may have marked a point of departure for processions that wound through the local cemetery. This would have allowed participants to reenact symbolically Lazarus’s death and resurrection, and—more importantly—would have furthered the creation of a symbolic geography. In this geography, the landscape acted as a sort of ground upon which bodily ailments could be inscribed and as a means by which physical bodies could be claimed, spiritually and financially, by the local clergy. The art of healing served various ends.

In the light of Kupfer’s ambitious argument, blunt comments on style may read as trivial, but, again, details, as well as grander trajectories, do matter. The Art of Healing is a handsome volume, but the illustrations—forming a dense grove at the back of the book—are not always sharp (and, sadly, are all in black and white; for a color image of the paintings one has to turn to Kupfer’s earlier book), and the few line drawings of badly abraded frescoes do not match the quality of the prose. Regarding that prose, Kupfer writes for the most part in a warmly intelligent manner, but at several points her idiom tends toward the opaque or the self-consciously modish, in ways that lessen the force of her claims. A sustained cinematic metaphor near the beginning of the book is not helpful, and a concurrent tendency toward somewhat romantic formulations (she characterizes herself as a detective who performs painstaking work) is occasionally obtrusive.

But these are, I admit, minor points; on the whole, this is a substantial contribution to a field of study that, while colored by a general loss of relevant evidence, can clearly support a sophisticated, provocative level of analysis. Kupfer, indeed, has offered just that.

Kerr Houston
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art

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