Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 4, 2006
Sally J. Cornelison and Scott B. Montgomery, eds. Images, Relics, and Devotional Practices in Medieval and Renaissance Italy Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 2004. 284 pp.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0866983406)
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Image, relic: our distinct terms may now imply discrete categories, but in pre-modern Italy such a division was often eroded, in practice. Think, for example, of the painted cross of San Damiano, which had addressed Francis as a young man and later became the property of the Clarisse. On the one hand, as Francis himself would later point out, it is nothing but paint and wood, inert; on the other hand, though, it was also seen as the discernible residue of a miraculous event. Both images and relics could thus embody the invisible—or they could be contained and even rendered unseen themselves, as nodes in a more abstract system of spiritual meaning. Much depended, in short, upon specific local practices, and that is the basic premise behind the eleven studies in this volume, which explore the complicated ways in which images and relics shaped, and were shaped by, particular behaviors and attitudes.

In a sense, the collection is a virtual Festschrift for Joanna Cannon. At least four of the authors earned PhDs from the Courtauld, where Cannon has long taught, and her name appears repeatedly in footnotes and acknowledgements—as well as in the table of contents, for Cannon authored a brief but enjoyable afterword. Unsurprisingly, then, most of the essays employ the methodological tools used by Cannon since her own acute dissertation on Dominican patronage: a focused attention on documentary evidence, an abiding interest in institutional pressures and expectations, and an unadorned prose style that prioritizes the concrete over the theoretical. As a result, these are readable essays that offer clearly stated arguments and neatly marshaled evidence.

They range considerably in their focus, but consistently center upon intriguing and provocative subjects. One of the brightest essays is Cornelison’s, which concentrates on a dugento panel painting said to have been made of the wood of an elm that had sprouted during the translation of Zenobius’ relics in the Florentine Piazza del Duomo. In other words, this is an image that was also a relic (or, as a follower of Peirce might say, an icon that was also an index): a meaningful conflation that helps to explain, in turn, its prestige. Turning to archival sources, Cornelison convincingly shows that the painting was displayed prominently in the Florentine duomo as late as 1588; she reasonably concludes that it was retained in part to fill an iconographic lacuna in Ghiberti’s subsequent shrine, which was modified to hold the relics of Zenobius. The result is useful, responsible art history: a contextualization that explains the enduring prominence of an intrinsically unique piece.

The entry by Andrea Kann also satisfies. Kann focuses on a series of images commissioned by the Benedictine monks of Santa Giustina, in Padua, that depicted the evangelist Luke, whose relics had been rediscovered in 1177. Her discussion of the broader significance of the relics is slightly facile, but her emphasis upon a diachronic reading of the decorative program at Santa Giustina is sensitive, as she notes an apparent change in intended audience. Where the trecento arca accents Luke’s thaumaturgic powers, and thus seems to anticipate a lay audience, later images painted for the same chapel emphasize the saint’s role as a scholar and historian, and may thus have appealed to the local monastic community.

An emphasis upon institutional motivations and associations is common to several essays in the volume. Francesca Geens, for example, contrasts canonization records with the later series of images of Galganus’ life on his dugento head reliquary to show that the reliquary recast the saint, and re-imagined local history, in picturing the saint as a Cistercian, rather than as a hermit. Such pointed alterations, of course, were hardly unique, but as two of the essays show, competing historical claims could sometimes lead into relatively tense rivalries. Giovanni Freni, for example, traces the ways in which the assertions of the cathedral of Arezzo (which claimed to own the body of Donatus) and the collegiate church (which claimed to own his head and, as of 1361, his body) were made visible in contemporary altarpieces. And Gary Radke’s brief entry focuses on the important collection of relics in San Zaccaria, in Venice, where a community of nuns resisted, for more than a century, civic pressure to make the relics more public by keeping the holy objects in their own choir.

Could such powerful images lead to cooperation, rather than rivalry? Timothy Smith argues that they could, as he reads the decorative program of the chapel of John the Baptist in the Siena Duomo as a surrogate destination for Hospitallers who could not visit the order’s main shrine on Rhodes. Ultimately, such an interpretation is slightly less than fully convincing, as it baldly ignores the possibility of internal competition: after all, by 1484 both Siena and Rhodes claimed to own the right arm of the Baptist, and the two sites thus began to contradict, as well as supplement, each other. But Smith certainly establishes the fundamental role of the Hospitallers in the maintenance and promotion of the Sienese cult, and his work also furthers our sense of the general relation between the organization and related public imagery.

Other essays foreground, as the volume’s title implies, specific devotional practices and patterns. Leanne Gilbertson, in proposing that the Vanni altarpiece (now in the Vatican collection) once stood in the Montefiascone cathedral, further argues that certain details in the image could have resonated with expectant mothers. Some of her proposed associations are flimsier than others, but her emphasis upon a close iconographic reading is refreshing, and her implicit claim, that responses could be gendered, only furthers a growing assumption in Renaissance studies. Her essay, furthermore, is obviously influenced by Jacqueline Musacchio’s 1999 survey of domestic birth objects, and it is thus fitting that Musacchio also contributes an essay, which develops a detail in one of the plates of her earlier book. In presenting evidence for the apparent popularity of prophylactic objects—such as animal teeth and pieces of coral—that were meant to protect infants, Musacchio offers a modest claim: that the division between canonical religious practice and popular magic was frequently blurred. Similarly, Robert Musacchio also focuses upon the theoretical complexity of practice in using two shrines in Prato to argue that such sites involved a thorough conflation of holy presence and absence. This is intended as a corrective to Richard Trexler’s claim that relics were inevitably identified with specific saints, and it is generally compelling, although the documentary evidence is never entirely simple (a late medieval document, for instance, consistently refers to the shrine of the girdle as “of our Lady,” complicating Musacchio’s argument for a categorical division between object and saint).

Not all of the essays succeed completely. For example, Scott Montgomery’s claim that the decoration of San Miniato represented an ongoing attempt to challenge, or even usurp, the primary role of John the Baptist as the patron saint of Florence reads as unnecessarily reductive. Certainly, the façade mosaic, a variation on traditional Dëesis compositions with Miniatus taking the place of the Baptist, does imply a sense of rivalry. But Montgomery’s suggestion that the decorative program attempts to forge a specific civic link is less convincing: after all, Miniatus is clearly labeled as Armenian, rather than Florentine, in the basilica’s apse mosaic. And Florence, in any event, had long associated itself—like most medieval communes—with varied protectors. Instead of concluding that Florence finally rejected the promotional logic of the basilica’s decorative program because of San Miniato’s imperial associations, we might as fairly conclude that Miniatus was typical of a large number of institutionally advanced saints in joining an ever-growing local pantheon of protectors.

Also unsatisfying, but for rather different reasons, is Margaret Flansburg’s essay, which argues that Simone Martini’s Beato Agostino Novello altarpiece was painted with “civic aims in mind,” and was meant to inspire a cult following, as well as attract pilgrims. No objection here—aside from the fact that this has been said before, in so many words. Flansburg fleshes her thesis out by offering an overview of the life of the saint, and by attempting to recreate the original placement of the altarpiece, which seems to have stood upon a wooden coffin. In doing so, however, she is generally revisiting territory covered by others—most notably Monika Butzek and Andrew Martindale—and is forced to rely on rather distant parallels, including a coffin of ca. 1420 that she curiously calls “a model for the appearance of the Siena coffin front” (90).

Flansburg’s article also leads, unfortunately, to one final complaint. For the most part, this is a handsomely produced volume: the quality of the editing is high, and a well-intentioned bibliography at the end is, if not exhaustive, at least useful and occasionally provocative. But several of the photographs are simply dismal—including, oddly, Flansburg’s opening image of Simone’s altarpiece. Photos taken by the author are an understandable necessity in some contexts, but surely it would not be too hard to acquire a well-lit and unblurred image of one of the prize holdings of the Siena Pinacoteca. Similarly, Freni’s photograph of the back of the altar-shrine of Donatus reveals almost nothing, due to its scale and poor lighting; and several of the essays include references to specific details that are not pictured or are barely discernible in the overviews that are included. Budgetary restrictions are a tough reality of book publishing, but in these cases a simple care might have helped to buttress the arguments being made.

Ultimately, though, this is a worthwhile and consistently engaging collection of essays. Perhaps Montgomery’s claim, in the introduction, that the book embodies “the fruitful new direction of the next generation of art history” is a bit naïve (5), as it ignores an older generation of scholars (William Tronzo, Cynthia Hahn, and Jeryldene Wood) who have been covering comparable ground for years. But if this is not a fully new brand of art history, it at least offers further proof of the unsurprising but overwhelming truth that images were often shaped by institutional goals. The connections between relics and images were clearly varied, complicated, and often fraught, and this volume represents a happy addition to the ongoing attempt to describe those borders.

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

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