Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby, The Cult of St Clare of Assisi in Early Modern Italy, Ashgate, Farnham, 2014. £60, ISBN 978 1 47242057 2 (hardback), pp.192. Includes 10 colour & 51 b&w illustrations.
Reviewed by: Anna Campbell, Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Reading, November 2014
Pierre Delooz argues that ‘All saints are more or less constructed in that, being necessarily saints for other people, they are remodelled in the collective representation which is made of them’.1 For a cult to endure a saint’s identity has to change to fit the predominant ideas and attitudes within any particular society or period of time. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby demonstrates that this is no less true of Clare of Assisi (1194–1253) than any other saint, and perhaps more so. After her death in 1253, the papacy was keen to regularise the disparate groups of religiosae mulieres in northern Italy, which had grown out of eleventh and twelfth-century reform movements, under a single Rule, but not the one that Clare herself had written and that been had approved two days before she died. It was this Rule that showed Clare’s own distinct spirituality and love of poverty with which St Francis (1181/2–1226) had inspired her many years before. As the Order became regularised, and forced to have communal property, their titular leader’s identity merged with that of the ‘standard female saint’. Lezlie Knox, in her study of St Clare and Clarissan identity, Creating Clare of Assisi: Female Franciscan Identities in Later Medieval Italy (Brill: 2008), argues that as Clare’s Rule fell into disuse after 1253, so too her image became obscured. Her image was only rehabilitated in the early Fifteenth Century when there was renewed interest in the Rule. While Knox’s research was based upon Italian textual traditions, Debby’s work opens a new avenue of research by focussing on material culture in order to unpick issues of image and identity.
The book is widely researched and situates the Italian visual tradition in the context of the Franciscan homiletic tradition, which was dedicated to St Clare. Debby’s thesis assumes that the particular version of Clare that came across in sermons had a direct impact upon how she was represented in art, and that there was a ‘reciprocal influence and interchange between the verbal sermons and the visual images’ (p. 6). As well as an emphasis on images of Clare and a comparison between the images and verbal representations in sermons, the book takes us from the late medieval through to the early modern period in order to assess continuity and change. This sets it apart from most previous research focussed on St Clare of Assisi, which rarely reaches beyond the Fourteenth Century.
The book is structured into an introduction and three main chapters followed by a short epilogue. The introduction sets out the author’s primary thesis and methodology as outlined above. This precedes a brief history of St Clare and the Order associated with her, and a survey of some of the most influential recent works both on Clare and the notion of a 1 Pierre Delooz, ‘Towards a Sociological Study of Canonized Sainthood in the Catholic Church’ in Stephen Wilson (ed.), Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History, (Cambridge, 1983), p.194. specifically female form of sanctity. The author highlights the research of Chiara Frugoni and Roberto Rusconi who have examined how the visual depiction of saints has been used in the process of creating sanctity: their research has clearly influenced Debby’s. The three chapters are arranged in chronological order, essentially medieval, Fifteenth/Sixteenth Centuries, and Sixteenth/Seventeenth Centuries, with the epilogue briefly touching on more modern times.
The first chapter, ‘Civic Saint and Humble Virgin: The Medieval St Clare’ focusses on representations of St Clare from the time of her death in 1253 until the Fourteenth Century. Initially, Debby shows us that Clare was heralded as a civic saint and one of the four patron saints of Assisi (including St Francis, St Rufino and St Vittorio). Among early images of Clare are a Sienese panel painting (c.1260) showing her miraculous repulsion of Saracen marauders with a monstrance, and images in the newly built Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi where Clare is pictured with Assisi’s patron saints. Nevertheless, Clare is quickly sidelined in the Franciscan tradition and is isolated from Francis, with her memory downgraded in visual images, sermons and in hagiographical literature to something more akin to a ‘standard female saint’, pictured with a lily signifying purity and virginity, rather than a cross as per earlier representations. Debby also points out that it is increasingly noticeable that in the friars’ churches, as well as in their sermons, Clare becomes more of a “theological abstraction” than an historical figure (p.43). There are some notable exceptions, but the exclusion of Clare from the Francis cycle in the famous Bardi chapel of Santa Croce (c.1325), for example, epitomises Clare’s status by that time. Whilst the few examples that the author gives us illustrate her argument nicely, the chapter is sparse in material, and she is on much firmer footing in Chapter Two where the quantity of material allows for a greater depth of analysis.
Chapter Two, entitled ‘Pious Abbess and Miracle Worker: The Observant St Clare’, broadly covers the late Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, a period which is marked by an ‘Observant’ reform movement that swept across Europe in all the major religious orders. Called ‘Observant’ because reformers wanted a return to the strict observance of their Rules, Debby argues that this period witnessed a resurrection of Clare’s image through rediscovery of her 1253 Rule. There was a need in Italy for her to be seen as a founder, leader, legislator and abbess – an image personified in France by St Colette of Corbie (1381–1447) who founded and reformed seventeen houses of Poor Clares according to a strict observance of Clare’s Rule, for which she had sent to Assisi for a validated copy. During the Observant period, Clare is increasingly represented holding a crosier – which was usually carried by a high-ranking prelate – and book, rather than a lily, to signify her Rule. The sermons of some, but not all, Observant preachers began to praise Clare, and both nuns and preachers edited and translated Clare’s writings.
In addition, the author suggests that the portrayal of Clare in this period was shaped by the iconography of other, more recent saints, namely Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) and Birgitta of Sweden (1303–1373). Like them, Clare is portrayed as a visionary, a protector against the plague and a miracle worker, suggesting that the rehabilitation of Clare’s status was bound up with the Franciscan response to these newly canonized female saints. Certainly, their iconography as visionaries or miracle workers was comparable, as is attested by narrative cycles of both Clare and Catherine of Siena by the master Giovanni di Paolo, which had many similarities. Clare’s image also appears to be merged in places with popular Marian iconography of the Virgin of Mercy sheltering people under her mantle. For example, a piece by Sano di Pietro for the San Niccolo convent of Poor Clares in Siena shows Clare sheltering the nuns and novices under her mantle; in Milan, an anonymous fresco shows Clare sheltering the nuns, and later, lay groups. Thus over the course of two centuries, Debby argues, that the ‘remote, allegorical saint devoid of history’ (p.63) becomes a central figure in both the institutional reform of the Franciscan Order in Italy as well as taking an equal place alongside the popular saints of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. The author’s analysis of the visual representations of Clare and her cult compliments perfectly what is already known about the spread of Clare’s cult at this time through her spiritual writings and the resurrection of Clare’s Rule in the period of Franciscan reform.
The focus of Chapter Three – ‘Crusade Heroine And Eucharist Saint: The Reformed St Clare’ – is how Clare is represented in the post-Tridentine Catholic Church, and it is here that Debby most successfully elucidates the interplay between image and sermon. She showcases sermons preached by members of the new Capuchin and Jesuit orders, in which Clare is a central figure. Debby also attends to the hagiographical literature of the Observant, Conventual and Capuchin friars. The reason for this came through Clare’s aforementioned Eucharist miracle in which she expels the invading army of the Saracens from Assisi. Clare was seen as a heroine against the Ottomans – and the Ottoman threat to Europe was still a pertinent issue; more importantly she was associated with a Eucharist miracle. Whilst this is nothing new and Clare is only one of many saints associated with such miracles, Debby argues that there is no other Eucharist miracle where a female saint repels an invading army (p.107), and thus in late Renaissance and Baroque art, Clare is most commonly depicted with the monstrance as her “own special symbol” (p.107). This was particularly significant in the early modern period because of the theological and liturgical centrality of the Host in the post-Tridentine Church. Preachers used the Saracen episode as a means of encouraging devotion to the Host, as well as praising Clare for her faith and fearlessness, one preacher even going so far as to describe her as a “venerable priest” (p.119) and a vessel of purity. The fact that there was a proliferation of this image of Clare beyond the reach of just Franciscan influence, even in places where she might previously have been marginalised, suggests that Debby is not overstating Clare’s importance in this period. Her study opens the way for more research in this area.
Throughout the book, the author has attempted to illustrate her primary thesis that verbal images from sermons begat visual images of Clare that defined her cult in different time periods, and vice versa. Whilst this has been argued cogently, and we see that there is a clear correlation between the visual and homiletic, we are actually shown throughout the book that there was a multiplicity of influences on the visual depictions of Clare. The author’s second purpose – to understand how and why Clare’s image changed over time – is well supported. Debby raises significant issues surrounding the construction of sanctity in the late medieval and early modern periods, and tracing Clare’s cult over a longer period of time brings deeper understanding of Clare herself and her history. Comparing Clare with ‘rival’ saints such as Catherine of Siena or Birgitta of Sweden provides useful points of contrast, and it is clear that saints’ cults are manipulated and forced to adapt to changing times and needs. Indeed, the brief epilogue with which the book concludes leaves us with the knowledge that Clare’s stance against the Saracens was adapted in 1941 as a call to arms in Italy to march against the ‘enemy.’
This volume constitutes a significant addition to Clarissan scholarship, and will be very useful for historians of hagiography and saints’ cults, especially in the early modern period. For art historians, too, the book will be interesting when tracing changes in iconographical representations of saints over time. I hope that more studies of the visual traditions in other countries will follow where Debby has pioneered. Both specialist and general readers will appreciate this book, though having knowledge of Franciscan history will help. The ten pages of colour plates and the 51 black and white images are not only beautiful, they genuinely support the arguments made within the volume, and will doubtless further readers’ understanding and enjoyment of this work overall.