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Monks’ marriage of poverty and riches

How Italian Renaissance mendicant orders struggled to reconcile their ideals and their wealth. By Christopher Colven

A number of commentators at this year’s Hay Festival posited the inevitability of e-books and other forms of technology soon overtaking the printed volumes that have until now filled our shelves. I have to say that no one in their right mind would want to do other than buck the trend to own and handle Sanctity Pictured: the Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy. This beautifully produced catalogue was designed as a companion to an exhibition of the same name at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee. The Frist’s director is surely correct in her view that this book “will have a life beyond the exhibition and become a key reference for anyone with an interest in the culture of the Italian Renaissance and the meaningful ways that art and religion intersect in the period”.

The heart of this study circles around an insoluble contradiction: how is it that a reform movement dedicated to the renewal of Christ’s Gospel call to present renunciation in the hope of future reward, with its sharp emphasis on poverty of spirit and lifestyle, should have resulted in a flowering of patronage of the visual arts the like of which has rarely, if ever, been witnessed? Surely St Francis and St Dominic must have watched with a certain irony as their immediate successors constructed such wonders as the basilica at Assisi (and commissioned Giotto to cover its walls) or Florence’s Santa Maria Novella (with Duccio’s great Rucellai Madonna)?

Janet Robson goes some way to explaining (but not resolving) the essential dilemma in her essay, The Changing Imagery of Saint Francis in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Beginning with the frescoes of the lower church, the Poor Man of Assisi is transmogrified (in the upper basilica) into a miracle-working “alter Christus”. Clearly the growing popularity and influence of the mendicant orders brought with it a retreat from earlier ideals and from the original small groups of brothers holding all possessions in common; both Franciscans and Dominicans allowed themselves to evolve into property owners and developers on a grand scale – a huge plus for the history of art, but perhaps less beneficial to their corporate salvation.    

Much of the art shown and discussed here is inspired by the followers of St Francis, but the Dominican strand (always more intellectually centred, tending towards the city rather than the countryside, the schoolroom rather than the marketplace) is not neglected: Trinita Kennedy’s own end piece, In Search of Authenticity, balances the differing traditions very well, and Donal Cooper makes the point that the patronage of varying art forms, not least architecture, although partly to serve the needs and expanding influence of the pipers who were calling the tune, were intended first and foremost as “sermons and shrines for the laity”. Holly Flora reminds us that, although the concentration here is mostly on the art commissioned by male religious orders, both orders had female branches and the names of Clare of Assisi and Catherine of Siena are not to be taken lightly. Flora’s final throwaway line deserves a volume of its own: “Even as they remained hidden from the world, Dominican and Franciscan women shaped devotional and artistic trends that made the movements of their founders so successful.”  

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

Sanctity Pictured: the Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy

Trinita Kennedy, ed

I.B. Tauris, 275pp, £35 (hb)