Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 1999
Joanna Cannon and Andre Vauchez Margherita of Cortona and the Lorenzetti: Sienese Art and the Cult of a Holy Woman in Medieval Tuscany University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. 275 pp.; 26 color ills.; 204 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0271017562)
The visual—whether extant or recorded, whether a work of art, a procession, or the body of a saint—is an essential primary source for the historian. In this study . . . we hope to have demonstrated the contribution such sources can make to an understanding of the Middle Ages. (8)

In this meticulous and carefully researched book, over twenty years in the making, the team of an art historian and specialist in trecento Cortona, Joanna Cannon, and a historian known for his wide-ranging and seminal work on the canonization of saints, Andre Vauchez, work together to fully document, reconstruct, and explain the evidence for the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century cult of Margaret of Cortona. Vauchez’s interest originated in the watercolor copies of frescoes recording the life of Margaret that he found included as “testimony” in canonization proceedings of the saint of the seventeenth century. The historian, currently director of the Ecole francaise in Rome, asked Cannon to provide the art-historical perspective on this material. Vauchez has supplied two short introductory chapters and a conclusion. Cannon has written the bulk of the book.

In Cannon’s text, attention is more or less evenly divided between two major issues as signaled in the very long title of the book. One issue is stylistic and purely art historical. That is, Cannon attempts to attribute the frescoes from Sta. Margherita based on surviving fragments and watercolor copies (in chapters 5-10). Insofar as such an endeavor is possible, Cannon seems to have succeeded. Her proposal, founded on comments in Vasari, is carefully presented with long descriptions that range from compositions to figural style, from gesture to facial types. She cautiously concludes that the frescoes were painted by a workshop including both Lorenzetti brothers. It remains for other scholars of the period to assess what this new attribution of a major fresco cycle means for their discipline.

The second issue is a more compelling one in terms of the concerns of modern art history, In chapters 3 through 4 and 11 through 14, Cannon considers Margaret’s cult contextually and in terms of its presentation in three different visual versions of Margaret’s life—on a painted panel, in a series of reliefs from her tomb, and in the frescoes. From this evidence it becomes clear that the use of art, so essential to the cult of Francis of Assisi, is not unique among Italian cults of saints. Indeed the picture that Cannon paints, along the margins of her argument, is one of tremendous originality and vigor in the promotion of saints’ cults by means of art in Italy in the fourteenth century. Both in the case of Margherita of Cortona, as well as in the other cults that Cannon draws in as comparisons, images are used extensively as evidence, portraits and cult substitutions for a visible body. Furthermore, despite its clear positioning in this development, the claim is made that Margaret’s shrine is also exceptional—second only to that of Francis is the range and ambition of its artistic embellishment.

The obvious question arises. What instigated the unprecedented visual celebration of a saint who, in fact, was not officially canonized until 1728? The answer, the authors reply, lies in the efforts made by the city of Cortona to secure recognition for the sanctity of its favorite daughter. Numerous claims were made in texts about Cortona as a “new Jerusalem” and Margaret as the “light of the Third Order,” that is, the Tertiaries. Parallel claims in the imagery concerned Margaret’s miraculous powers and her varied and impressive abilities to heal and succor pilgrims. Her foundation of a hospital is depicted. One remarkable fresco (cover art) concludes the tendentious cycle: the art-loving cardinal Orsini is depicted during his visit to Cortona in which he authenticated the life of Margaret and various miracles. This fresco doubly “witnesses,” both for the veracity of the miracles, and simultaneously for the validity of art as “witness.”

But Cortona’s interests are impossible to speak of in monolithic terms. As is any city, it is made up of many parts. As Cannon shows, the text of Margaret’s life is written in favor of and from the point of view of the Franciscans of Cortona. In contrast, the church, eventually dedicated to her and in which she was buried, was administered by Tertiaries, but belonged to the city. Thus, the frescoes and other art work that decorated Margaret’s shrine promote a secular and lay interest in the saint. From this perspective of diversity, Cannon develops a convincing argument concerning the tomb. Comparisons with many similar tombs demonstrate that:

. . . the qualities of a shrine were mixed with those of an important lay or ecclesiastical burial to present to onlookers a person who was both dedicated to the life of religion and remembered as a civic figure, both capable of miraculous acts and approachable as a familiar local presence. (p. 74)

Similarly, Cannon notes that the frescoes closer to the altar have Latin labels while those closest to the tomb in the nave have labels in the vernacular. Through these and other means, Margaret is shown to be constructed as a patron to all the people of Cortona, lay, religious, noble, and poor. In sum, this material presented by Cannon and Vauchez represents a major contribution to the study of saints, to the study of fourteenth-century painting, and to the understanding of medieval Cortona.

Nevertheless, despite the thoroughness of the study, it must be noted that certain stones remain stubbornly unturned. Most prominent of these is Cannon’s lack of interest in recent art-historical studies on medieval hagiographic narrative. It might be argued that Cannon’s subject is exclusively Italian and these studies, in the main, do not feature Italy. Nonetheless, saints’ cults are pan-European in many of their aspects, a fact that Cannon takes advantage of when discussing historical material but oddly avoids in her art-historical explorations. Perhaps as a result, although Cannon is much concerned to reconstruct the frescoes and does so, it seems, successfully, she never does a thorough reading of the narrative. She discusses parts frequently—in the context of stylistic innovations, in the context of the historical life of Margaret, and in the context of differences between the cycles (to pull these separate discussions together consult the index under “murals”)—but never really lets the pictures “tell” the story. Thus, although she is effectively able to characterize the differences between the three cycles, there is much that is missed, especially in the longest cycle, the frescoes. The most obvious lack involves little or no quotation from the text of Margaret’s life. Many scholars have discovered in studying the relationship of text to image that images are inspired by or at times take issue with the words of the texts themselves. Brief summaries in twentieth-century English (as in Appendix III) and the author’s general descriptions are not adequate to giving a flavor of the Legenda.

An example might point to the possibilities of the suggestiveness of texts. In contemporary miracle texts that Cannon cites, a sense of intervention, “just in time,” is often evoked. Instead of noting this element, Cannon chooses to praise artists’ observational powers, describing the tearing and catching of the sail in the wind in the image of the rescue at sea and comparing it to the still swinging severed rope of the cradle in the image of the rescue and resuscitation of a fallen infant. These could be pure artistic invention, but they could also be visual signifiers of the immediacy of the saint’s care and succor. Along with contemporary buildings and costume, this immediacy seems to place Margaret in the real world of “this very moment”—a vision of the saint as superhero, swooping in to save endangered lives from the “jaws of death” (171).

Thus, in many cases, a consideration of the textual narrative, its devices, and concerns could have further illuminated a discussion of the visual narrative. Cannon herself cites a document that demonstrates the extraordinary care that was taken to acquaint artists with the texts of saints’ lives, that is, a contract that specifies the commissioning of a translation of the life of St. Sabinus in order that Pietro Lorenzetti might paint it. (153)

In the introduction to this study, Vauchez and Cannon emphatically argue for the importance of the visual in the forceful quote that heads this review. This is surely an exciting and important idea that is fully supported (although not fully argued) by the book at hand. The authors must be congratulated for having done the hard work of meticulous reconstruction and much of the gathering of materials and assessment. Nevertheless, as Cannon herself notes in her preface, she and her co-author are cognizant of how much is left to be done. They offer this book as merely an introduction to the material—a rich vein now open to be mined by other scholars.

Cynthia Hahn
Florida State University