Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 8, 2009
Rosalind B. Brooke The Image of St Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 540 pp.; 9 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $135.00 (9780521782913)

In this rich and complex book, a senior scholar in the field of Franciscan textual studies draws together the leading currents of scholarship on the history of Saint Francis and the earliest decades of the order he founded, fusing studies on visual images and relics with those on lives of the saint, stories of his miracles, and versions of his rhythmical feast, i.e., the text and music devised for his liturgical celebration. In the process Rosalind Brooke provides extensive analysis of large panel images of the saint with scenes of his life and miracles, as well as the frescoes and stained glass at the basilica at Assisi. This is an important contribution, for by and large scholars of texts and visual images tend to work on parallel paths, with neither group taking sufficient advantage of the other’s contributions. Art historians, for example, often more interested in the contributions of the Franciscans to the larger history of Renaissance art, tend to bypass the question of whether these thirteenth-century orders represent a dramatic change or are actually part of the general cultural climate. This volume is both a synthesis of international scholarship and an updating of Brooke’s work on the written lives of Saint Francis. In it she brings together a wide range of sources including art historians, among them Hans Belting, Joanna Cannon, Julian Gardner, Frank Martin, and Bruno Zanardi; although, as I will note below, there are limitations to her handling of the art-historical material. Given the range of fields she covers, it is difficult for a single reviewer to do justice to the volume, and so the emphasis here is on its value for the study of visual culture.

Brooke’s organization fits her larger project; however, like the density of her discussion of the early texts, it often masks her purpose. It is not until the end of the book, when she returns to the story of the Blessed Angela of Foligno, a wealthy Umbrian matron whose writings chronicle the intense spiritual engagement of her later years, that Brooke’s overarching theme is really clear, for she asks not only what the Beata might have seen at Assisi during her visits in 1291 and 1300, but what she might have brought to her experiences. Although Brooke observes that a “fundamental question” of her book is whether the order had “succeeded in passing on . . . an appreciation of Francis that was true to his spirit and his life’s work” (485–6), it seems to me that she has done something much more complex. For Brooke reminds us to ask what each writer, artist, patron, or worshipper would have brought to texts, panels, frescoes, and stained glass: for example, what personal memories; what multiple versions of lives or rhythmical feasts, even clandestinely preserved superseded texts (recalled and suppressed for controversial characterizations of the saint); what earlier visual images might have shaped each encounter with new visual and textual images? Above all, by lifting layers of meaning, Brooke recalls the ways in which the purpose of the saint’s image shifted, as questions of how to describe his early life or which miracles to recount arose, and the image of the saint was constructed and reconstructed over time. This ongoing process of image-shaping is captured succinctly in her observation that by 1323, “the intellectual structure underpinning a cherished fictitious idealization of Franciscan poverty, devised by Gregory IX and carefully reinforced by Nicholas III, lay in ruins” (101).

Brooke begins by identifying the characteristics first attributed to Saint Francis and his followers, for instance, their vow of poverty. Her second chapter analyzes the use of Saint Francis’s image during his life, and the elements that contributed to the production of his written lives, including the lives of earlier saints. The third chapter addresses his image following his death, and considers Brother Elias’s letter regarding the stigmata, as well as the work of Thomas of Celano, Julian of Speyer, Pope Gregory IX, and Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, among others. Later chapters analyze further refinements and writers such as Hugh of Digne, Haymo of Faversham, and the Three Companions.

With chapter 4, Brooke turns to the basilica, and finally with chapter 7 to the visual images of the saint. The difficulty here is that in dealing with the history of the images on panel and in fresco and glass, Brooke limits herself to Franciscan projects, assuming that they can be understood isolated from wider trends in painting. As a result, while this material is exceedingly useful for those who work on thirteenth-century art and religious culture, its use requires great care. Indeed, it is important to keep in mind that the author is a scholar whose expertise lies with the written history of the early centuries of the Franciscan order. The amount of detail she has dedicated to explicating the relationships among the various texts might suggest that the author has addressed visual imagery as thoroughly. But this is not always the case, despite her extensive discussion of the upper-church frescoes at Assisi. Although I like her visual knitting together of the frescoes of the nave—for example, the Stigmatization, the Crucifixion, and the Death of the Saint—and her dating of the Saint Francis cycle by 1296, I am uneasy with the identification of the Saint Francis Master with the Isaac Master. Furthermore, Brooke’s discussion of the earlier Saint Francis scenes in the lower church at Assisi lacks sufficient stylistic and iconographic analysis. In a sense her interest in the visual imagery occurs where it crosses paths with texts. Her unusually late date between 1263 and 1266 for the Bardi Saint Francis panel on the basis of a few similarities to Bonaventure’s Life does not fit with other Florentine painting.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the volume lies in its treatment of the relationship between Byzantine art and images of Saint Francis in panel painting and fresco, an area of intense scholarly activity in the last few decades. Curiously, in her lengthy discussion of the Franciscan frescoes at the Kalenderhane Camii in Istanbul, Brooke lays the groundwork for a general discussion of the use of Byzantine style and imagery by the Franciscans, and yet at no point in her book does she draw sufficiently on Anne Derbes’s book Picturing the Passion in Late Medieval Italy: Narrative Painting, Franciscan Ideologies, and the Levant (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), which would have provided a compatible basis for such a wider discussion. The fifteen pages she devotes to these frescoes tie the cycle to Franciscan history and to other early Franciscan images. The possibility that John of Brienne, the emperor of Constantinople, gave the church to the Franciscans is intriguing, but needs more support. Overall, her narrow art-historical focus fails to grapple with the aspects of Italian painting that the new religious orders shared with the traditional patrons of cathedrals and the possible Byzantine sources for all of these early images. As a result, at times her iconographic analysis overlooks important details. For example in discussing Cimabue’s frescoes in the upper church, she comments that the image of the death of the Virgin is unusual in that Christ holds the soul of the Virgin. But this is a Byzantine convention, recalling his infancy and passion, found in numerous monumental cycles, including mosaics at Palermo and frescoes at Lagoudera and Kurbinovo. Similarly, among her recent contributions to Assisi iconography, Amy Neff has provided a better analysis of the Deesis in the vault, once again in its Byzantine context (Amy L. Neff, “Byzantine Icons, Franciscan Prayer: Images of Intercession and Ascent in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi,” in Franciscans at Prayer, Timothy J. Johnson, ed., Leiden: Brill, 2007, 357–82); furthermore, the brilliant essay that Neff and Derbes wrote for the catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Byzantium: Faith and Power in 2004 makes a convincing case for a self-conscious use of Byzantine imagery by Franciscans in Italy and their decision to model Francis on ascetic Byzantine saints, especially Saint John Chrysostom. While devoting four pages to the Assisi treasury panel of Saint Francis with four scenes, Brooke fails to mention a now long-standing and, I think, compelling stylistic argument that it might be the work of a Byzantine painter.

Nevertheless, it is exciting to see such a wide and deep range of historical sources, and I have some favorite moments. Among them are Brooke’s observations that, having welcomed the Franciscans early on, the secular clergy and older orders came to resent the new orders’ popularity. Indeed, I would argue that the Franciscans, Dominicans, Servites, Carmelites, and reformed Augustinians were at times supported by those who benefited from the new orders’ undercutting of older, more entrenched powers, as James Banker’s discussion of thirteenth-century Sansepolcro implies (James R. Banker, Death in the Community: Memorialization and Confraternities in an Italian Commune in the Late Middle Ages, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988). Fascinating too is Brooke’s discussion of the role of the family of Saint Francis in the building of the basilica.

In sum, in its gathering of the historical, textual, and visual sources from the early decades of the Franciscan order, this volume is a major contribution, as is its reminder of the saint’s multi-layered and fluid characterization. But readers, especially those new to the field and more general readers, should keep in mind that this is by no means an encyclopedic discussion of what the author calls the “image” of Saint Francis, a term that is particularly ambiguous now that art historians have turned to it as an alternative to “painting,” “panel painting,” “icon,” “altarpiece,” or “art.” Although The Image of St Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century is now essential for those seeking the current state of the scholarship on the visual images, readers of this volume should have at their elbows the work of other scholars.

Rebecca W. Corrie
Phillips Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Visual Culture, Bates College