Beyond the Text: Franciscan Art and the Construction of Religion.
This text represents, perhaps, the most creative of a series sponsored by the Franciscan Institute's May Bonfils Stanton Memorial Fund. The projects benefiting from this endowment gather scholars around a Franciscan theme, meet in Denver to discuss and design the proposed volume, and then work together as a scholarly team. The resulting volumes have been uneven, as these types of projects tend to be, but it is clear that this volume benefitted from a unique and effective collaborative effort.
William Cook's introductory essay, unfortunately not accompanied by any reproductions, examines early images of Saint Francis. His discussion of the importance of art both in the early Franciscan community and in Francis's own life is a scholarly and contemplative treatment, uniting both careful scholarship and lived experience. Marilyn Aronberb Lavin studies Bellini's painting of Francis's stigmata in the Frick Collection. Set on the island of San Francesco del Deserto, five kilometers northeast across the lagoon from Venice, the painting ponders Francis's little-noted excursion to this island, even though the stigmata was historically set on Mount La Verna. Theresa Flanigan's essay on the Church of San Marco in Florence offers an interesting and again little-pondered reflection on ocular prohibitions and the construction of sacred space. Rather than tempt the Dominican friars with human attractions, the architecture of San Marco's was designed to focus the friars' gaze on spiritual mysteries. Although a worthy essay, it is a little odd to find this Dominican study in an otherwise Franciscan volume.
Local studies in Franciscan history are often valuable in that they pinpoint particular trends in regional piety. William Barcham's article on the Man of Sorrows paintings in 15th-century Padua is a case in point. The use of iconography not only as distinguishing treasures in local churches but also as emotion-lade ned presences appearing in annual street processions is an interesting study in renaissance ecclesial culture. Art historians who wish to introduce students to the Giotto cycle in the upper church of San Francesco in Assisi may wish to consult Beth Mulvaney's essay on the subject. Her quite readable chapter focuses on the theological dynamism between the frescos, offering plenty of material for further development.
One of the most delightful essays in the volume is David Flood's on miniatures illustrating Angelo Clareno's A History of the Seven Tribulations (1323-1326). Having never seen these miniatures before, I found them absolutely fascinating and, following Flood's lead, appreciated the distinction between the "high" art coming out of Santa Croce in Florence and the primitive honesty of these "spiritual" miniatures. There was something about this art that made the story of Clareno's early struggling friars even more poignant. David Haack's essay studies the history of the habit in the early paintings of St. Francis. Unfortunately some of the illustrations in this essay are poorly reproduced. Proceeding to the New World, Cristina Cruz Gonzalez studies Franciscan visual culture in Colonial Mexico. While the essay entices the reader, unfortunately the illustrations are again poorly reproduced.
Three artistic studies of individual paintings or illustrated manuscripts follow. Trinita Kennedy studies the 1472 Translatio of the relics of Saint Bernardine of Siena by Pinturicchio displayed in the Bufalini Chapel in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome. Following this is a deeply interesting essay by Holly Flora focusing on the illustrated manuscripts of the famous Franciscan devotional text known as Meditationes Vitae Christi (Meditations on the Life of Christ). Lynn Ransom's essay focuses on another manuscript, Verger de Soulas (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, MS fr. 9220). The illustrations in both the Flora and Ransom essays are superbly reproduced.
With these local studies, the focus of the volume again returns to theologies that undergird Franciscan artistic expressions. Oleg Bychkov examines aesthetics in Franciscan theology, and Xavier Seubert offers a provocative essay on the transubstantiation of St. Francis. This dynamism between essays by art historians and essays by Franciscan theologians/historians gives the book a somewhat disjointed tone, but it also reminds the reader that proper interpretation of Franciscan artistic expressions demands much more than technical analysis. Given this tension, it is perhaps apropos that the volume ends with Robert Lentz's iconography, beautifully reproduced, and illustrated with a self-reflective text that marries the theological and artistic in a contemporary style.
The number of superb individual essays in this text, the valuable reproductions, and the struggle to interweave the artistic and theological make this text a "must have" for university libraries and Franciscan institutions. While many of the essays are intellectually refreshing, many are also provocative, inviting the reader to ponder even the simplest of Franciscan art with a renewed appreciation of the human-divine union.
Creighton University, Omaha