CYNTHIA HAHN Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century.

Author:Nees, Lawrence
Position:Book Review


Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 442 pp.; 8 color ills., 149 b/w. $60.00


St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 323 pp.; 26 color ills., 156 b/w. $60.00

On Sunday, May 24, 1998, Pope John Paul II presented a homily devoted to the famous Shroud in the cathedral of Turin, publicly exposed at that time to crowds of pilgrims who had come to see what he referred to as "one of the most unsettling signs of the Redeemer's suffering love." Setting aside the issue of the object's historical relationship to Jesus as not a matter of faith, he claimed that the "Shroud is truly a unique sign that points to Jesus, the true Word of the Father, and invites us to pattern our lives on the life of the One who gave himself for us." (1) In an intriguing way, he addressed the fundamental issue in the two important recent books here under review: the role of images in helping or leading the beholder to imitate Christ and achieve salvation or even absorption in the divinity. Both Cynthia Hahn's Portrayed on the Heart and Jeffrey Hamburger's St. John the Divine locate the essential thrust of the imagery they study in the core Christian trope of the imitation of Christ, and they also show how and to a remarkable degree why images of saints could mediate between the beholder and Christ. Hamburger is primarily interested in the fundamental scriptural notion expressed in Genesis and especially developed in the writings of John and Paul that man was made in the image of God, and the various expressions of this and related ideas through images of John the Evangelist that could potentially provide a model for theosis, or deification, of the beholder. Hahn explores the imagery of saints, especially of the Lives of saints, as the model for achieving a holy life patterned on Christ, relying heavily on her understanding of a formulation by Gregory of Tours in his fundamental 6th-century tract Life of the Fathers--namely, that it is appropriate to use the singular "Life" for all the saints because "the saints all share one Life, that of Christ, [and] their Lives must bring that identity before the reader" (p. 34). Hahn argues, here following Gregory the Great, that visual stimuli could have enormous power, as the images of external things can be drawn into consciousness and "portrayed on the heart," the phrase she chose for her title, because this interior illumination and consciousness can lead the beholder to compunction and bring about a change of spirit and life (p. 49).

In his homily, Pope John Paul II recognized the sharp diversity of opinion about the Shroud of Turin, contested on many levels in a manner that reflects the controversial status of images in the Christian world. The making and use of religious images of any kind, either rare or nonexistent for almost the first two centuries of Christianity, (2) seem to be relatively late developments and have always remained controversial, leading to periodic crises. Those in the 8th and 9th centuries, especially Byzantine iconoclasm and the reaction to it in the Latin West, (3) and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century (4) have attracted particularly intense historical and art historical study. Images could be lightning rods, attracting hostility as strongly as devotion. Hamburger's work includes images of one subject, the marriage of John with Christ, "sufficiently infamous to earn the condemnation of Counter-Reformation critics such as [Johannes] Molanus" (p. 160); many of the idiosyncratic images tread on or over a line that some might see as heretical or blasphemous. Both authors effectively convey a sense of the powerful underlying pressure that found outlet in new and compelling images, designed to serve and stimulate compelling spiritual hunger.

The images of saints begin to emerge, along with the literature telling their lives, in the 4th century, shortly after the last great age of Christian martyrdom, and initially concentrated largely on the martyrs, those who had borne witness to their faith through their death. The cult of saints, especially the martyrs, whose cult and images grew around their graves and focused on their dead bodies, represented a sharp break with previous traditions in the Roman world. Peter Brown has written eloquently about the shock to cultivated Romans faced with the inversion of death from that most to be abhorred and avoided to that most sought out and embraced. (5) Yet his many studies on the religious world of late antiquity underscore not only the paradox that by the end of the 6th century the graves of the saints had become the religious centers of their world, but also the apparent paradox that the leaders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, themselves nearly always the aristocratic and educated heirs of antique Greco-Roman culture, insistently promoted saints and their cults. Brown's challenge to the earlier view that the cult of saints was a "popular" phenomenon has been widely accepted and has helped to stimulate much important new work in all disciplines studying medieval culture, including art history. Art historical study of saints is a venerable tradition, but until the last few decades saints and their images were unfashionable, their attributes catalogued by scholars who, like Emile Male, stemmed from a "throne and altar" politics. Saints were boring, almost embarrassing, from the standpoint of an art history favoring a master narrative of the classical tradition and its survival. Saints were by definition postclassical, hagiography postclassical and barbarous, often characterized by "poor" (by classical standards) Latinity and crude miracles. Yet recent decades have seen an explosion of studies of hagiographic imagery by many scholars, to which these two books are an important addition.

Cynthia Hahn's Portrayed on the Heart is largely devoted to a group of twenty manuscripts produced between the 9th and 13th centuries. While she includes other kinds of material, notably the Carolingian altar from S. Ambrogio in Milan, with its cycle of scenes from the life of Saint Ambrose, two late-12th-century Limoges reliquaries with scenes of the Lives of Saint Valerie and Saint Martial, and the 13th-century shrine of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, and in her concluding chapter she considers the extensive cycles of saints' lives in stained glass, the focus is on illustrated manuscripts. She begins with an important pair of introductory chapters, dedicated respectively to the production of the texts and images of saints' Lives in their historical setting, which for the material she treats primarily means in monasteries, and to an overview of her approach to narrative problems. She is clear, of course, that she is concerned with the Lives of saints, that is, the texts constructed about them, not the lives of saints in the sense of actual events, and she explains the deliberate sense of construction, of edification, of both texts and images. Her subject is cult practice, not theology; in her view, the former changed significantly during her period, the latter very little, at least in reference to saints. Her second chapter is titled "Word and Image," where she deals with the two hagiographic forms and their complex and shifting relationship. She shows that even when texts and images emerge at roughly the same time (usually the images come later, sometimes much later), they are generally independent of one another to a considerable degree, the illustrations certainly not altogether dependent on the texts with which they are associated. Throughout the book she demonstrates that artists depicted details not included in their textual source, in order to clarify or enhance the impact of the narrative. In terms of production and audiences, she argues that the earliest examples from the 10th century seem likely to have been produced at monasteries, and were likely meant as gifts for other monasteries, but they were not intended for monastic use. Instead, they were made in connection with royal and imperial patronage, advertising favored royal saints who were not strongly connected with either the monastery where the book was made or the monastery where it was kept, designed for display to important visitors. Hahn suggests that the appearance of satirical versions of hagiographic works may be taken as evidence for the creative play with formulas and generic expectations, whose fundamental rhetorical structures included repetition and reversal of expectations. She builds on Jas Elsner's discussion of the Stoic concept of the superiority of phantasia to mimesis because it permitted a closer approach to eternal truths than the mere imitation of external details. The succeeding six chapters discuss different classes of saints, respectively, martyrs, virgins, bishops, monks and abbots, kings and nobles, and nuns and queens, followed by a chapter on Matthew Paris, who is presented as the culmination and end of the tradition that she analyzes. In a section therein on "Narrator as Lawyer: Evidence and Authentication," Hahn points out how the new legal proceedings surrounding canonization are related to Matthew's presentation of the Life of Saint Edward--for example, the careful indication of the places where miracles are alleged to have occurred and the emphasis on witnesses.

Hahn gives a large role to metaphor, on several levels. Her opening example, from the Life of Saint Liudger of Munster (p. 1, fig. 1), shows the saint as a child seated with a pile of books, one of which he gives to his mother, identified here as his spiritual mother Ecclesia, the Church. More than the use of the personification blocks a literal reading of the imagery, for because Liudger was not in fact a writer, Hahn suggests that the...

To continue reading