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Margherita of Cortona and the Lorenzetti: Sienese Art and the Cult of a Holy Woman in Medieval Tuscany; Worldly Saints: Social Interaction of Dominican Penitent Women in Italy, 1200-1500. (Reviews).

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, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. xv + 275 pp. + illus. $80. ISBN: 0-271-01756-2.

Maiju Lemijoki-Gardner. Worldly Saints: Social Interaction of Dominican Penitent Women in Italy, 1200-1500

Bibliotheca Historica, 35. Suome Historallinen Seura, Helsinki (Finland), 1999. 189 pp. n.p. ISBN: 951-710-097-3.

Although they differ in scope and methods, the two books sharing this review also share a central theme: Italian lay women as saints or prospective saints and the processes of saint-making in the later middle ages. Both books are alike, too, in their innovative concentration on a particular kind of evidence, in one case visual, in the other hagiographical. Supported by such evidence, each of these studies casts new light on the "secularizing" and "democratizing" tendencies which, together with other forces, shaped the lives and afterlives of holy women during this period.

The first of these works is an impressive collaborative enterprise of two distinguished scholars, Joanna Cannon, an art historian in London's Courtauld Institute and Andre Vauchez, director of the Ecole Francaise in Rome and author of seminal studies of late medieval sainthood and lay piety. In a beautifully illustrated book, they reconstruct the earthly life and later cult of St. Margherita of Cortona, a lay woman and Franciscan penitent, especially as these are illuminated by early fourteenth-century works of art. In Worldly Saints, Maiju Lemijoki-Gardner, a Finnish historian, draws largely on the evidence of their hagiographies in a study of Dominican penitent women in Italy between the thirteenth and the early sixteenth century. Throughout she concentrates on their care-giving activities and social contexts rather than the more celebrated mystical experiences supporting their claims to sainthood and often dominating recent studies of these women and their spirituality.

"Worldly saints" may seem a somewhat contradictory description of a company embracing Margherita of Cortona and Catherine of Siena, together with many less famous "holy women" of this period. Commonly called "penitents" and often attached eventually to the two great mendicant orders as "tertiaries," these lay women were "worldly" in a quite literal sense. Active in their local worlds, yet set apart by their dress and devout practices, they considerably outnumbered male members of a lay religious movement that became increasingly important in Italian towns during the thirteenth century and thereafter.

Among these women an early candidate for sainthood, unquestionably the most famous personality of the Franciscan order's penitential movement in Italy, Margherita the penitent sinner, a "new Magdalen," was also bound by inseverable ties to the small Tuscan town of Cortona, a relationship closely examined in Andre Vauchez' two chapters. Often turbulent politically, the town he describes also enjoyed an exceptionally active religious life, strongly influenced by Franciscans, particularly their lay penitents by whom Margherita was converted. A young peasant woman, the former concubine of a local nobleman, appeared after his death in Cortona sometime during the early 1270s. Soon dedicated to charitable activity among the poor and sick, for whom she later founded a hospital, she won the ardent devotion of the Cortonese as their "social worker," peacemaker, protector and, ultimately, their possession.

A recluse in her later years, honored for the visionary experiences emphasized in the Legenda produced by her Franciscan hagiographers, she was nonetheless perceived as a "public mystic," whose dramatic reliving of Christ's Passion was shared by the people of Cortona. But only after her death did they compete with the Franciscans for control of her cult, celebrating her as the "civic saint" whose miraculous interventions in their behalf were portrayed in early fourteenth-century murals adorning the church of Sts. Basil and Margherita. In all likelihood attributable to the Lorenzetti brothers, these murals were destroyed in the mid-seventeenth century. Since then, the recovery of Margherita the "civic saint" has long awaited close study of the visual evidence surviving to support this interpretation of her cult: water-color copies recording nineteen scenes of the fresco cycle made shortly before its destruction. It is the serendipitous presence of such copies among Vatican records favoring Margherita's canoniz ation that inspired and illustrates this study of their significance.

As its centerpiece, Joanna Cannon's chapters are compelling in their demonstration of the uses of visual arts both in the making of a "civic saint" and as a primary source in historical studies. Mindful of the intrinsic limits of her evidence, she argues convincingly nonetheless for the roles of the Lorenzetti in planning and executing the mural cycle, which adds a substantial body of works to the history of late medieval Sienese painting. Together with the earlier evidence of Margherita's tomb and the panel paintings of her life and activities, these recovered images, having offered the Cortonese vivid portrayals of rescues and healings performed by their miracle-working saint, now support a study intended for much wider appeal.

To those interested not only in art history, but in such subjects as civic cults, female sainthood, and the spirituality of late medieval Italian women, this book displays the powers of the visual, "whether extant or recorded, whether a work of art, or a procession or the body of a saint" (Cannon, 8). Significantly, despite the Franciscan victory in the long struggle for control of Margherita's cult, the Cortonese held, and still hold, the trump card, her most precious relic, her body. In this reconstruction of her late medieval cult its authors offer "a remarkable lookout-post from which to contemplate the civic and lay religion" (Vauchez, 224) that was "among the most original features" of the Italian communes at their height.

If the "secularizing" and "democratizing" of the female civic saint is most visible in the cult of Margherita of Cortona, the processes of saint-making pose different questions in the study of her Dominican counterpart, Catherine of Siena, and other "worldly saints." Although fourteen of these women were beatified much later, Catherine of Siena was the only canonized saint among them during this period. She became for her penitent sisters an inescapably powerful model, in which every possibility of penitent life was carried to an extreme. This model was supported by the rich hagiographical evidence, including her own works, that makes her also the most important witness in this study.

Here she is joined by eighteen other women, differing widely in marital and social status, and in useful evidence of their lives, whose hagiographies are perceived as the outcome of a collaboration between their male authors and their female subjects. Examined in this perspective as reflecting the "real" lives of these women, their goals and activities, their "beliefs, mentalities, social strategies," these works are also seen as displaying their subjects' sense of themselves as "hermits" dwelling, as Catherine says, in "mental cells," in lay households in the midst of society.

But many of these women were also drawn to the more active "lay apostolate," again represented most fully by Catherine and the most controversial aspect of penitent life. Evident also in their deepest aspirations, the ambivalence characterizing their lives and their pursuit of an identity troubled some of these "worldly saints," and eventually enhanced the appeal of the semi-monastic life favored by their similarly ambivalent hagiographers. Though well aware that these "skilled imagemakers" (171) were eager to gain support for canonization, Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner is insufficiently attentive to the larger setting of the mendicant orders' "politics of sainthood" and their efforts to control their lay communities.

Drawing largely on their works, she is particularly successful in her portrayal of a piety experienced as a sanctifying force, as a source of strength in confronting the world's challenges and, most significantly, as dedication to a religious life pursued not only in sacred space, but everywhere, in bedrooms, kitchens and public places. Apparently regarding their families as their worst enemies, these women, she notes, also aroused in others the anxiety and hostility strikingly exemplified in responses to the sometimes alarming behavior of Catherine of Siena.

Within its limits, this thoughtful, often persuasive study, like its companion in this review, offers a "look-out post" from which to view the civic contexts and enduring conflicts of the processes of female saint-making. Opening new perspectives on the lives of their subjects, these books join a growing body of distinguished scholarship focused more directly on the religious women themselves, on "social operators" and "lay apostles," as well as "living saints," and on the larger significance of this women's movement in the social and religious life of Italian cities in the late medieval centuries.
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Author:McLaughlin, Mary Martin
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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