Don’t be scared of what will be: the Medieval way of art and death

The union of devotional imagery and religious observance was a comfort


I was recently called to administer the Last Rites of the Catholic Church to a young man. It proved to be an unusually disconcerting experience. The family, while requiring the cultic ministrations of a priest, were concerned that the dying man should not know that I was there: they huddled around the deathbed shielding me from his view. It was doubly disconcerting in that all those concerned were Italian, a mark, perhaps, of just how secularised modern Western society has become with its consequent inability to face up to death. Preaching, Building and Burying: Friars in the Medieval City is a beautiful exploration of the late Medieval mind which had its own clear mechanisms to cope with death—so alien to that I encountered—and was much the healthier for it.

Caroline Bruzelius, as her subtitle suggests, is concerned with the artistic patronage that flowed through the particular preaching of the Mendicant Orders. She acknowledges from the start the ambiguity that those who preached poverty—and were supposed to exist entirely on the charity of others—should have been the catalyst for such extensive creativity. Because of the peripatetic nature of their orders’ charisms, the new orders of friars—mainly, but not exclusively, disciples of St Dominic and St Francis—were more accessible than the monks in their monasteries and the parochial clergy in their institutions, and Mendicant prayer came to be seen as a highly effective aid for the souls of the departed. Bruzelius demonstrates how the new orders of friars were particularly effective as preachers outside the usual ecclesial structures—witness the cover picture used here of Fra Angelico’s San Bernardino of Siena preaching in front of the Church of San Francesco—but goes on to examine the paradox that they soon became adept at institutionalising themselves in a whole series of wonderful complexes.

To give two examples from the array Bruzelius so generously sets out—San Lorenzo in the centre of Naples was transferred to the care of the Friars Minor in 1234 and in the course of a century a Gothic choir transformed the early Christian basilica where chapels were added to the exterior walls and a cloister constructed on the south side of the church. Sant’Eustorgio in Milan was another ancient basilica taken over by the friars—this time Saint Dominic’s Order of Preachers—who set about its complete transformation for which the existence of a 14th-century description provides detailed evidence. Chaucer’s friar in “The Summoner’s Tale” attests vividly to the common belief in the value of Mendicant intercession: “So the prayer of charitable, chaste and busy friars takes flight and enters God’s two ears”, and there is no need to look further than the Chiostro de’ Morti at Florence’s Santa Maria Novella to see that effective preaching, and its growing association with sacred spaces, meant that the churches and cloisters in Mendicant hands were increasingly paved with tomb slabs. Quite simply, if this is where the action was seen to be, then those who had the means wanted their slice of it—in death as in life. Bruzelius makes the point: “What was particular to the friars was their direct agency in accepting and promoting middle-class burials within churches”, and the tomb of one Antonio Fissiraga in Lodi’s church of San Francesco has a depiction of the death of Francis surrounded by his followers as its lower section—could there be a more hopeful and consoling identification for someone influenced by Mendicant preaching? 

Sienese Painting after the Black Death: Artistic Pluralism, Politics and the New Art Market by Judith Steinhoff shows that the author has been deeply influenced by her own studies of the Sienese artist, Bartolommeo Bulgarini. The book is a cogently argued refutation of the thesis put forward by Millard Meiss in Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (1951) which advanced the view that the plague of 1348 was the major (and stultifying) factor in the art of those cities in succeeding decades. Judith Steinhoff believes that a more nuanced approach is justified and argues that Sienese artists, in particular, were pluralistic rather than conservative in their inspiration. Steinhoff makes some useful distinctions between the types of iconography favoured by the Franciscans (embracing the natural world and finding the medium of fresco especially effective) and the Dominicans (with a more theological and non-narrative approach), and she is surely right to place such emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between Siena and the Virgin. Duccio’s magnificent Maesta for Siena Cathedral of 1311 and the Marian themes taken up by so many of the city’s painters—including her own favoured Bulgarini notably in his Assumption of the Virgin painted around 1360 for the hospital chapel at Santa Maria della Scala—are indicative of a populace able to look beyond death with a confidence unimaginable today. The disappointment of Steinhoff’s book is its paucity of colour plates, whereas the generosity in Bruzelius’ work makes it a delight both to open and to read.

Preaching, Building and Burying: Friars in the Medieval City

Caroline Bruzelius

Yale University Press, 255pp, £35 (hb)

Sienese Painting after the Black Death: Artistic Pluralism, Politics and the New Art Market

Judith Steinhoff

Cambridge University Press, 278pp, £29.99 (pb)

Christopher Colven is the rector of St James’s Roman Catholic Church, Spanish Place, London.