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Images, piety and women in late medieval devotion: The Hunt Crucifixion with Saint Clare.

The emotional intensity of the panel is clearly a product of this type of piety. With the exception of the swooning Virgin and St John the Evangelist, all figures gaze at the crucified Christ. As Henk Van Os has pointed out, referring to a similar scene of the Crucifixion by Bernardo Daddi now in Edinburgh, the gazes of the crowd invite the viewer to participate with them in looking at the Crucified Christ. The gesture of the Roman soldier, Longinus, who points to Christ and says ‘this truly was the son of God’ reminds the viewer that the broken body of Christ on the cross is not only man, but God, and that even he, a cruel Roman soldier, has recognized it.12 This was the moment of conversion for Longinus who was later venerated as a saint. The lack of landscape apart from the mount of Golgotha itself and the restricted space presented by the gold background contribute to a claustrophobic atmosphere, with some of the figures overlapping with the punched borders of the painting itself. The emotional demands made on the viewer is typical of the Giottesque style, the ‘new style’ of painting which was seen by the artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) as the ‘revival of painting from Greek [Byzantine] to Roman’, by which he meant from a stylized, schematic type of painting to a realistic and natural one.13 This style has traditionally been viewed as having been influenced by Franciscan ideals.14

The presence of Saint Clare

The dominance of Saint Clare instead of Saint Francis is puzzling. The kneeling Franciscan is similar in scale to Clare, and only the absence of a halo suggests that that he is an ordinary friar rather than a Franciscan saint such as Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) or Bonaventure (1221-1274). If the painting were commissioned by the friar, then why was Clare chosen instead of Francis? Although it still may have been commissioned by a Franciscan friar, the iconography of the kneeling Saint Clare in the privileged position at the foot of the cross indicates a probable female audience for the panel.15 The position of Clare beside the cross, and also on the privileged side beside the Holy Women and St John the Evangelist rather than the less privileged side, beside the soldiers, strongly suggests that the panel came from a Clarissan context, rather than a male Franciscan house. Further, the cult of Saint Clare was not widespread outside the Franciscan order and even within it, it was largely celebrated within the female branch of the order. It was not until 1340 that the feast of St Clare was inserted into the Franciscan liturgy.16 The saint was therefore, until that date, of interest only to Clare’s followers, the Clarissan nuns and devout women attached in some way to the Franciscan order, such as the Umbrian mystic and Franciscan tertiary Angela of Foligno (c.1248-1309). We know the feast was of some significance to Angela, due to a vision that she received on that day (12th August):

[…] one day while I was sitting at home, feeling sluggish and dejected, I heard the following: “I who speak to you am St Bartholomew,17 who was skinned alive.” He showered himself with praise, and myself as well, and then went on to claim that this was his feast day. This last statement filled my soul with sadness and perplexity. As a result I could no longer pray nor recollect myself. It was only later that I discovered that he had lied to me, when I realized that the feast that was celebrated on that day was not St Bartholomew’s but St Clare’s. This state of sadness and perplexity lasted ten days, through the octave of the feast of Our Lady in August, the day I went to Assisi.’18

St Clare had been born into an aristocratic family of Assisi c.1194. Inspired by the preaching of Saint Francis, she ran away from home with a friend and set up a cloistered community at San Damiano, the church which had been rebuilt by Francis himself. She was soon joined by companions and the women who wanted to live lives of apostolic poverty in imitation of Christ. Although they worked for their own needs and were provided for by the nearby Franciscan friars, the struggles of the Clarissans reveal much about the problems facing female communities in the middle ages. A community of undefended women living together without any clear male authority or rule was highly subversive and soon attempts were made to force the women to submit to older forms of Benedictine monasticism. Such attempts were highly distressing to Clare, as the Benedictine rule allowed for the holding of property, an idea which denied the Franciscan ideal of apostolic poverty. In 1216 Clare was granted the Privilege of Poverty by Pope Innocent IV (d.1254), although the women were forced to follow the Benedictine rule in other respects. Clare redacted her own rule, based on the rule of St Francis and on his last testament, which was accepted only two days before her death in 1253, and which soon became binding not on the Clarissan order itself, but only on the convent of San Damiano and one or two others.19

As already shown, in the panel Clare here in a place usually reserved for the Magdalen, or, in some images, Francis himself. The position thus relies on a chain of signifiers for the beholder, reminding her, or less likely him, not only of Clare’s devotion to the Passion of Christ but also of Francis, the friar in whose body Christ’s passion was re-enacted, and St Mary Magdalen. The Magdalen’s cult grew during this period as she could be seen as the archetype of the penitent saint. As her sin was widely assumed to have been sexual, she was seen as a more appropriate role model for the laity than the more usual virgin saint, but some, such as the Dominican tertiary St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) saw her as a role model for spreading the word of God and avoiding the strictures against female preaching laid down by St. Paul. Catherine, one of the most fiery characters of fourteenth-century Europe, involved herself deeply in politics believing that she was spreading the word of God as communicated to her in visions. In a familiar tale of male authorities tried to tame the female voice, Catherine was summoned to the Dominican General Chapter which met in Florence in 1374 to answer charges of heresy. Although acquitted, she was then assigned a confessor, Fra Raymond of Capua, to advise her on orthodoxy.20 In one of her many justifications of her outspokenness, Catherine wrote of how:after the resurrection of Jesus, she preached the word of God in the city of Marseilles.’21 According to popular medieval legends, Mary Magdalen left Palestine with her brother Lazarus and sister Martha, and went to Provence in southern France. There she lived a life of penitence in the wilderness and before dying:

[…] shedding tears of joy, [she] received the Lord’s Body and Blood from the bishop. Then she lay down full length before the steps of the altar, and her most holy soul migrated to the Lord. After she expired, so powerful and odor of sweetness pervaded the church that for seven days all those who entered there noticed it.22

By being represented in the place usually reserved for the Magdalen, Saint Clare is seen as a symbol of penitence, and the asceticism of the life of Mary Magdalen could be recalled by the viewer, an asceticism which was matched by Clare’s own fasting and bodily deprivations, and which could be emulated by the nuns of the Clarissan order. By being associated with the Magdalen through her position, St Clare’s own devotion to the Eucharist and the Crucified body of Christ could be shown. Mary Magdalen was closely tied to redemptive and Eucharistic imagery. Not only did she witness the Crucifixion, but her anointing of Christ’s feet with precious oils was seen as a prelude to anointing his dead body after he was taken down from the Cross. Further, she was the first to see the resurrected Christ, when he appeared to her as a gardener and, on being recognized, told her not to touch him, in the scene known as the Noli me tangere.

Female Piety and its relationship to Crucifixion and Eucharistic imagery

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the aforementioned lay piety offered women more routes to salvation than before. Previously, women’s admittance to monasteries was closely tied to their social standing and many of poor or even modest circumstances were unable to enter convents. These new devotional currents involved an increasing number of women who lived an ascetic life, often in a cell attached to a local church.23 The growth of the Mendicant Orders changed the perception of monasticism as a closed system remote from the world to a more open one in which the friars engaged with the world through preaching. Penitential movements offered a way in which the laity, barred from traditional monastic life, could live a life of piety, charity and devotion. Some of these were affiliated to the Mendicant Orders, but nearly all were operating within the same framework of piety.24 Female piety could partake of these more flexible penitential arrangements, and indeed, the penitential movement of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries has been identified as almost synonymous with the women’s religious movement during the same period.25 Women sometimes lived in small communities without the sanction of a male-authored monastic rule. In Northern Europe these women were called Beguins, in Italy they were known as pinzochere, or bizzoche and the church made many attempts to bring them within the confines of clerical control, usually by making them members of the more flexible third Order rather than the supposedly cloistered second order of nuns.

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2 Responses to “Images, piety and women in late medieval devotion: The Hunt Crucifixion with Saint Clare.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article Catherine and, in keeping with the subject, a meditational piece in itself .

    Keep up the good work, and as Clare’s brother Francis said: 
    Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.

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