Sacred Art

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Sacred Art



Monastic Communities. During the late Middle Ages, monastic communities brought the devout closer to images of salvation by revealing paths to the discovery of God. These monasteries, friaries, and nunneries were indispensable centers of urban education. Through sermons and the liturgy, and the commissioning of religious art, they helped preserve religious norms and values. Monks and nuns were living examples of the personal struggle for perfection through prayer and meditation. The powerful stimulus of sacred images generated tension and ambiguity in their interpretation by the unlettered. For example, the second of the ten commandments prohibited the worship of images. Rather than serving as a permeable screen through which the divine was accessed, the image might be worshiped directly. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas these images instructed the igno-rant and illiterate, stimulated devotion, and reminded one of the precepts of the church. As creators of religious art, painters knew what their objectives were. The viewer was encouraged to examine their life and reform it. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the transformation of devotional culture stimulated the desire for intimacy with the divine by the laity. Prayers were directed to Christ, Mary, and the saints rather than to God the Father. Representations of the Virgin nursing, the Madonna lactans, emphasized her human qualities and accessibility to the laity's prayers.

Visualizing Devotion. In urban communities the mendicant orders played a critical role in making the divine tangible through their missions of preaching and conversion. The Franciscans and Dominicans exercised a more-prominent role locally by assisting at burials and hearing confessions. Local congregations responded with charitable donations enabling the construction of larger churches and monastic centers. Ties between the secular world and sacred time were constantly brought to mind by the bells calling people to prayer four times a day. Public preaching in the city square on important feast days renewed these ties. Lay confraternities—dedicated to penitence, prayers, and good works—dissolved the separation of religious and secular life as well. Paintings and prints of saints, such as Francis and Catherine of Siena, exemplified the devotional life for the devout. Both of these saints, through prayer and visions, had received the stigmata (visible signs of Christ's wounds in his hands, feet, and side) as marks of their piety and sanctity. Giovanni di Paolo's painting The Stigmatization of St. Catherine of Siena (1461) rep-resents the saint in her Dominican habit with a golden halo. Her direct mystic access to Christ is shown through her gaze directed toward the vision of the crucified Christ suspended over the altar. The stigmata she received affirmed her sanctity. The Catholic Church frowned upon representations of this event from her life, however, even after she was officially declared a saint. This policy suggests its concern about how her vision would be interpreted and modeled by female devotees. The potential for unmediated access to the divine was problematic for the institutional church.


One Good Friday, as the said creature beheld priests kneeling and other worthy men with torches burning in their hands before the Easter Sepulchre, representing the lamentable death and doleful burying of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the good custom of Holy Church, the memory of our Lady's sorrows, which she suffered when she beheld his precious body hanging on the cross and then buried before her eyes, suddenly filled the heart of this creature. Her mind was drawn wholly into the Passion of our Lord Christ Jesus, whom she beheld with her spiritual eye in the sights of her soul as truly as if she had seen his precious body beaten, scourged and crucified with her bodily eye, which sight and spiritual beholding worked by grace so fervently in her mind, wounding her with pity and compassion, so that she sobbed, roared and cried and, spreading her arms out wide, said with a loud voice, “I die, I die,” so that many people were astonished at her, and wondered what was the matter with her. And the more she tried to keep herself from crying, the louder she cried, for it was not in her power to take it or leave it, but as God would send it. Then a priest took her in his arms and carried her into the Prior's Cloister to let her get the air, supposing she would not otherwise have lasted, her affliction was so great. Then she turned all blue like lead, and sweated dreadfully.

Margery Kempe sees a pieta at a church in Norwich.

There was also a lady who wanted to have the said creature to a meal. And therefore, as decency required, she went to the church where this lady heard her service, and where this creature saw a beautiful image of our Lady called a pieta. And through looking at the pieta her mind was wholly occupied with the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the compassion of our Lady, St Mary, by which she was compelled to cry out very loudly and weep very bitterly, as though she would have died.

Then the lady's priest came to her, saying, “Woman, Jesus is long since dead.”

When her crying had ceased, she said to the priest, “Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died this same day, and so, I think, it ought to be to you and to all Christian people. We ought always to remember his kindness, and always think of the doleful death that he died for us.”

Then the good lady, hearing what she had said, declared, “Sir, it is a good example to me, and to other people also, the grace that God works in her soul.”

Source: Margety Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by B. A. Windeatt (Harmondworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1985; New York: viking/Penguin, 1985), pp. 178-179, 186-187.

Convents and Patronage. During the fifteenth century a growing population of nuns also petitioned for salvation of the lay community through their prayers. Like the monastic orders, they commissioned painting cycles and initiated building campaigns with gifts from the urban elite. Often daughters of these families were members of wealthier nunneries. Monasteries also cultivated patronage, allowing patrons such as Cosimo de’ Medici to stay in guest housing available for spiritual retreats. Religious images—placed in chapter houses, eating halls, and cells for instruction and contemplation—supported

the devotional life. These images were especially important in cultivating the culture of prayer, by helping the viewer to visualize withdrawal from the physical world. Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro), a Dominican monk and Italian painter at the convent of San Marco, encouraged his fellow monks to mentally place themselves with recent saints, who were depicted beneath the crucified image of Christ in his frescoes.

Church Spaces. Cathedrals and parish churches were a focal point of urban life for the laity. The cathedral, as the bishop's administrative seat, included memorials and tombs dedicated to prominent members of the community such as poets, artists, and military leaders. The local parish church played a role as a place for guild and family chapels and confraternity meetings. Endowments for the construction and maintenance of these chapels led to a privatization of church space and deco-ration. A family had the power to have their own chap-lain offer memorial services and place their coat of arms on the altarpiece—a public display of its wealth, piety, and reputation. Family tombs were often constructed before a person's death, but public rites of mourning and memorial services renewed a family's obligations. As a record of the deceased's achievements and a reminder to pray for their soul, the appearance of the tomb reflected family honor. A good death was memorialized through the monument. Ceremonial burial requirements for women were not as elaborate, with emphasis placed on the woman's role as a good mother. Giovanni Tornabuoni, a Florentine banker, had his daughter-in-law—who died in childbirth—buried beside his own wife in their choir chapel at Santa Maria Novella. He commissioned portraits of both women for the embroidered altar cloth of the chapel, thus demonstrating their devout characters prominently.

Mass and Ritual Devotion. The church structure was divided into public spaces accessible to the laity, private spaces for families, and those reserved for the clergy's use. The central axis or nave was the main public space for the congregation. The priest celebrated the mass commemorating Christ's sacrifice for mankind at the high altar located at the east end of the nave. Painted or sculpted altarpieces placed on the altar formed the focal point of ritual devotion. Liturgical objects used by the priest clarified the events of the mass. The congregation viewed the ceremony while standing, kneeling, and reciting special prayers. Wealthy congregants could follow along in their prayer books, known as Books of Hours. Some pages depicted their owners attending mass while housed in temporary curtained structures near the altar, indicating their ability to access the divine. These structures sometimes included other works of art, such as a painted image of the patron kneeling before the image of Christ and Mary. Public fascination with witnessing the miracle of transubstantiation (when the host is transformed into the body of Christ) led religious leaders to write about proper decorum in partaking of the Eucharist. For instance, Church officials frowned on the behavior of following the service from church to church to witness the transubstantiation.

The Church Calendar. During the liturgical year ritual ceremonies taught the congregation the key religious events of Christ's and the Virgin Mary's life. The emotional impact of these rituals was recorded by Margery of Kempe after her visit to the Easter Sepulchre at St. Margaret's Church. The ritual enactment of Christ's burial and resurrection in some instances included a figure of Christ that could be taken down from his cross and placed in the tomb. Margery spoke of her emotional response to Christ's passion through her “spiritual eye,” but on other occasions she mentioned the vivid effects that the visual images had on her emotions and memory. Although churchgoers were directed to give their primary attention to God and Christ, the wealth of images, liturgical objects, and monuments created an environment of overwhelming effect, allowing the devout to model their own patterns of religious devotion.


Henk van Os, and others, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500, translated by Michael Hoyle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Evelyn Welch, Art and Society in Italy, 1350-1500 (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

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Sacred Art