Gérard Monthel, Ordre de la Visitation Sainte-Marie : l’Écrit et l’Image 1610. Une histoire du livre & de l’iconographie (St Just: Éditions Bonavitacola, 2014).

Gérard Monthel, Ordre de la Visitation Sainte-Marie : l’Écrit et l’Image 1610. Une histoire du livre & de l’iconographie (St Just: Éditions Bonavitacola, 2014) 99€, ISBN/2-908208-10Y, pp. XXI + 587

Reviewed by : Marion de Lencquesaing, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris, October 2016


The French archaeologist Gérard Monthel fulfilled an exceptional work with this lavish book devoted to the Visitation of Holy Mary (‘la Visitation Sainte-Marie’), a French Catholic order for women founded in 1610 in Annecy (Savoy) by the Bishop François de Sales (1567–1622, canonized in 1665) and Jeanne-Françoise Frémyot, Baroness of Chantal, in religion Mother de Chantal (1572–1641, canonized in 1767). This stunning book is a very complete analysis of the foundation of the Order at the beginning of the seventeenth century (which still exists around the world) through two major media: images and writings.

The elegant and pleasant style of the author avoids the pitfalls of some current academic publications. He refuses lengthy footnote references, and instead gives primacy to images to elucidate his arguments: each page of this six hundred page book allows itself the luxury of an etching, a color plate from an original edition or an engraved portrait. However, the absence of an index is regrettable, and the modest size of the bibliography at the end of the book, which is divided into contemporary editions and reviews, early modern editions, and a choice of books about the Order could certainly have been longer. Ten sections or chapters provide a fulsome yet very accessible overview of the Order founded when the decrees of the Council of Trent were finally admitted in France. The intentional lack of numbered chapters prevents any chronological interpretation (except the first section, dedicated to the Council, which gives us a necessary contextualisation; and the last section, about the Order in the middle of the French Revolution) and any straight dialectical reading. This is a work that could be consulted at random or linearly. For example, Bishop Denys de Marquemont’s role in the mutation of 1618 (when the former congregation became an enclosed order) is evoked each time it is necessary to the intelligibility (p. 112, yet also on p. 302). Many times, the images and the explanations below seem to duplicate the body of the text, but actually this enables two ways of reading: an exhaustive one presented through text and a more concise one presented through images and their brief explanatory text.

A major selling point of the book is Monthel’s ability to emphasise the texts and sources from the Ancien Régime. Large place is given to quotations, but these support Monthel’s critical analysis. A typographical decision to quote texts in italics is evocative of the seventeenth century material he studies, and is a pleasing gesture to the period under discussion. Monthel’s use of images and text allow him to evoke the material vestiges and marks of the Order and the period. For example on page 64, we find the ‘pelote noire’ (a pin cushion), full of pins and fixed under the nun’s dress, to readjust their clothing, which is not sewed but simply held by those same pins. He applies the archaeologist’s analysis of objects to texts and images, which he sees as having material significance that goes beyond what they merely say or represent visually.

Of particular interest to HWRBI readers is Monthel’s discussion of the way François de Sales dealt with clausura or the enforced enclosure for women drawn up at the Council of Trent. In fact, the author begins studying plans—and what is called ‘descriptive estimates’ of the different houses—showing how the spirituality wanted by the founders of the Order models the architecture in which they lived (pp. 110–95). Enclosure was not especially architecturally  prominent before this time, as we discover through the several essays devoted to the question, but it became the most characteristic feature of women’s monasteries in the seventeenth century (p. 118). The analysis of an applied spiritual architecture, as it were, allows us to understand how the monastery was organised to allow the weakest sisters to attend Mass (p. 146). Indeed, one of the defining features of the Visitation Order, according to Monthel, is the relatively weak or delicate constitution of its nuns, as opposed to the Carmelite Order who sought out women of strong physical constitution. The Order’s architecture reflects the constitution of its members.

These marks of the past reveal the substantial modernity of the Salesian project at the beginning of the early modern period. Monthel perfectly illustrates this modernity using a blend of literary and archaeological critical tools. He fittingly insists on the fact that, after the death of the founder in 1622, the Mothers of the Visitation, and more than everyone else, Jeanne de Chantal, continued to grow the Order in France and abroad, using the latest techniques of printing and editing (pp. 134–35, p. 305–15).

Monthel’s thesis is based on the central place of writing in both the originality of the Visitation Order and its later development (which occupy the most substantial sections of this volume). He argues that unlike other female Orders of the Counter Reformation, such as the reformed Carmel Order, the Visitation has no senior nun (p. 302) and no senior house. The monastery of Annecy only had symbolic prestige over the other Visitandine houses due to its status of first monastery. Since there was no hierarchy—except when the founders were alive, and even if they refused it—the Visitandines needed to cultivate their relationships and negotiate amongst themselves by other means, for example by exchanging letters containing news or asking for money, and through printed editions of the Rules of the Order. Monthel also considers the foundress’ correspondence, which is, unfortunately, incomplete but consisting of some 2600 letters, the greatest part of which is directed to the Visitandines. These circular letters were often accompanied by short hagiographical lives that described exemplary Visitandines’ behaviors, and thus drawing up patterns of sanctity for readers.

This insistence on the central place of writing leads naturally to the numerous lives of Visitandines that were composed during the early modern period. It is one of the many enjoyable points of Gérard Monthel’s book that he offers to the reader some biographical (sometimes, really hagiographical) excursi dedicated to the famous figures of the Visitation history, including Marguerite-Marie Alacoque (1647–1690) in the ninth section about the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but also to less famous nuns (in the second section) who, for example, renounced Protestantism, and followed routes off of the beaten track. One such example is Marie-Françoise Chonc, whose exact status within the convent is unclear (she lived in the convent but we do not have any written indication of her status, be it choir sister, lay sister or perhaps merely a pensioner, see pp. 94–6). Monthel includes many anecdotes, such as the romantic episode of the Visitandines kidnapped by English pirates (p. 308)! Based on a single item, Gérard Monthel resuscitates an entire (and presumed) scene of the life of an unknown nun, developing figuration of the past, almost literary hypotyposis: ‘À cette page de certains opuscules de La manière de donner l’habit aux sœurs de la Visitation Saincte Marie, des gouttes de cire poissent très souvent le papier, témoignant s’il est besoin de l’émotion de celle qui reçoit le cierge’ (p. 45; in the same material way, see the fate that awaited the infirmary’s books on p. 365). Moreover, the author is also interested in the material ‘life’ of books linked to or printed by the Visitation: the section called ‘Le livre dans le monastère, le livre relique, le livre mémoire’ highlights several books with unusual provenance and history.

In a more socio-historical way, Monthel quite rightly—yet maybe not enough in my opinion—highlights the tension between the originality and relative independence of the Visitation Sisters at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in comparison to other female religious Orders, and its seemingly unavoidable taming by tradition and clerical power over time. One of the crucial strands of this story is illuminated in the Visitation’s relationship to what their opponents called Jansenism. Monthel examines the strong friendship between the Visitandine founders and Angélique Arnauld, and the problematic events at Port-Royal-des-Champs convent in 1664–1665 (p. 97). These controversies and the gradual losses of independence that ensued had an impact on the transfer of textual and editorial authority from Annecy to Paris (p. 99). Once again, Monthel argues for the centrality of writing and textual networks to the Order.

A large section of the book, mostly descriptive, is devoted to the place of images in the social and spiritual economy of the Visitation Sisters. Monthel first notices the gap between François de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal’s representations (she is a woman, moreover cloistered, when Bishop François de Sales is a public figure), and then quickly outlines the history of these representations. The heart of this section is without any doubt François de Sales’ portraits and engravings (pp. 366–438, especially the entertaining pages dedicated to François de Sales’ forehead), but Jeanne de Chantal also holds her rightful place in this pictorial section. It is interesting to see the modifications holy representations go through, equally dependent on Church authority and on popular enthusiasm: both writings and illustrations are hagiographical in the way they must show caution in depicting the hopefully future—but not yet—saint. Monthel’s attention to the engravers and painters helps us to understand that they were as important as the authors/hagiographers and the many ‘friends’ of the Visitation, to the Order’s success. The founders wisely employed them to strengthen the Order’s spiritual and visual identity. The mutation of writings into relics gives Gérard Monthel a perfect apotheosis for this section, which confirms his hypothesis about the vital importance of writing within the Visitation Order from its very beginning, in 1610, until the French Revolution.