Mendicant Orders and the Artwork of the 13th and 14th Centuries

The advent of the mendicant Dominican and Franciscan orders in the medieval world came at a time when European Christendom was expanding its custodial religious shield, so to speak, about the continent. The architecture of the cathedrals, the stained glass windows, the ornate altar pieces, and the stylized woodwork all indicated in elaborate and grand ways the glory of God. Yet, as art, religion, society, politics and travel began to increase and grow at this time, the mendicant orders appeared like a salve — a reminder of the need for Christian society to be humble, to be charitable, to be Christ-like and simple. The new style and format for art that emerged during the 1200s and 1300s were infused with the teachings and ideas of the mendicant orders, which swept the continent as a result of their bold simplicity and greatness of spirit. This paper will examine three works of art from this period and show how the function of art for the viewer incorporated the idea of teaching people religious stories in the 13th and 14th centuries.

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The medieval crusades spanned roughly two centuries, from the end of the 11th century to the end of the 13th century. In the midst of that tumultuous period, when religion and Christian society were so entwined with fighting, wars, death, hostility, honor, and sacredness, St. Francis and St. Dominic emerged to preach a kind of gospel that had nearly vanished — the kind that the early apostles had preached — one full of fervor for God, for saintliness, for absolute negation of self so that Christ could come and fill the human vessel. Francis and Dominic embodied the idea of the emptying out of self — the idea of turning out the “old man” and putting on the “new man” in Christ, preached by St. Paul in Colossians 3:9-11 or in Ephesians 4:22-24. These two preachers and founders of their respective religious orders approached the Christian religion with a simplicity that both the Christians and artists of the era would respond to with awe.

The function of art for the viewer in 13th century Christendom was primarily narrative: it told a story, either through sequence of events depicted over an arrangement of panels, windows or walls, or through suggestive symbolism that told a tale of the subject’s life, mission, teaching, or ideas (Johnson). “Form ever follows function” (Sullivan 405) then as now. Art was used to teach people religious stories about the Virgin Mary, the life of Christ, the lives of the saints, the dictates of their religion, the virtues that they should cultivate, and the vices they should avoid. The form of the art works was meant to uplift and inspire and, thanks in no small part to the Crusades, the artistic world in Europe was receiving more and more patronage — from dukes, kings, courts, families of stature, pontiffs, churches, princes, and more. Cathedrals began to rise up and touch the sky: the enormity of the Faith was revealing itself — it was showcasing its awesome stature — which had really only recently come into its own, thanks in no small part to the acts of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries (Laux).

Byzantine art had been more formal, more staid, more two-dimensional. Its iconography is unmistakable, evincing a fierceness that with the idea and concept of sanctity. With the rise of the mendicant orders, the idea of saintliness transformed from the militant resolve of the early fathers, such as the Desert Fathers, to something more human — more Franciscan to be exact. Francis was renowned for talking to the birds, preaching to the animals when no one else was around, for loving all of life and creation with such a pure heart that it shown through in all his actions. Dominic embraced the same kind of life, though his learning and erudition was on another level entirely. Together they set the Church on a new course — a course away from blind ambition, power, wealth and intrigue and onto the one best described as the straight and narrow — the life of penance, of commitment to the service of God. As Europe began to be consumed by wealth and riches by the end of the Middle Ages, it needed reformers — men like Francis and Dominic to remind it of its Christian duty.

Thus, the painting by Bonaventura Berlinghieri entitled Saint Francis of Assisi (1235) serves as a celebration of the saint’s life and works. It is a wooden altarpiece that is painted in the Byzantine style but that focuses not on the ancient Church Fathers but rather on a contemporary of the painter — one who had in not even a decade earlier. This was the artist paying homage to a man that the Christian world already recognized as a saint while he was yet still living. The icon tells the story of the saint by illustrating various points from his life or aspects of his character, while the man himself stands tall and erect in his humble habit, the Word of God cradled in the crook of his arm like a shield, and his hand exposed palm outward to reveal the stigmata that he possessed (the wounds of Jesus Christ from His crucifixion — in this case, the wound of the nail in his palm). Francis’s face is almost skull-like in its Byzantine fierceness — it pronounces an otherworldly devotion that is made up of stark spiritual commitment. This is, the artist tells the viewer, not a soft man — but a man who is hard as nails. Yet, at the same time, there is something friendly in the eyes, something humorous in the slightly upturned lips that suggest some of the mirth that Francis no doubt felt and exhibited in his lifelong devotion to God. Six scenes from the life of St. Francis are painted on either side of Francis, three on the left and three on the right. Each one depicts a certain moment in the saint’s life that had a profound implication or that could teach the viewer a deeper lesson on the universal aspect of the faith or how the saint’s own actions might apply an equally impressive education on the viewer. In this way, one can see the merger of the old and the new — the Byzantine style merging with the later Middle Ages tendency to focus on the present, the here-and-now, the human aspects of the religion that later artists like Michelangelo and Raphael would highlight with such care and attention. Berlinghieri’s Saint Francis is a bridge between the old world art style and the new.

St. Franci of Assisi (1235) by Berlinghieri

Another work is the Madonna and Child by the Master of St. Cecilia’s, produced between 1290 and 1295. It tells the age-old story of the Mother of God serving as the mediatrix of all graces and is styled in the familiar Byzantine mold, yet with an incomparable richness and attention to detail that firmly places it at the end the 13th century. It is tempera with gold leaf on a panel; the gold flashes and brilliantly announces the majesty of the Queen of Heaven whose Son is the Savior of the World. At a time when kings and princes viewed for power across the world, this work of art reminds the Christians of that period that this one king and one queen who rule over all: the Mother and the Son. In the picture, the mother tenderly holds the hand of the infant Jesus, who just as tenderly looks up at his mother, face full of care and joy and love. This is the type of serenity and happiness that the cult of St. Francis had spread across Europe — a tender mercy that was coming out in the art works of the time — an element that had not been present in the earlier Byzantine works. Now, majesty, beauty, richness, love, and mercy were all emphasized in this work of art — speaking a new language to the viewer, taking the teachings of the mendicant orders and giving them a visual object upon which the eyes could gaze. This was the reason Francis and Dominic did what they did: they had this image burned into their minds, hearts and souls. The gaze and love of the Mother for the Son and the gaze and love of the Son for the Mother — they burned within the souls of Francis and Dominic and cultivated the great orders of poverty, humility, charity, and education that they each in turn inspired. This work of art is a lesson in how the world could honor that same image, that same ideal of perfection, that same glorious relationship. By gazing upon this work of art, the way in which the Mother of God and the Son of God looked at one another, in peace, knowing full well the hardships that they would both endure later on — yet comforted by the fact that it would all pass away and that all that mattered was their eternity together — by seeing this, the viewer could more deeply feel and appreciate the greatness of his holy religion in the 1300s. Francis and Dominic had enlivened the formalistic approach of the Byzantine school through their actions and teachings; the artists were no enlivening their artworks and infusing them with more compassion, more depth of feeling, more humanity — even as they still followed the Byzantine style and soared upwards towards the divine.

Madonna and Child (1295) by the Master of St. Cecilia’s.

The third work that expressed the way in which the function of art for the viewer conveyed the religious stories that the times needed to hear is the “Tree of Jesse Window” from 1280-1300 in Swabia, Germany. Its medium is of pot-metal glass, vitreous paint and lead and it consists of 6 panels featuring Jesse, David, the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Ascension. Each panel is a significant moment in the history of the mystical body of the Church (from the Old Testament to the New). The panel of Jesse tells the story of the root of the Tree of Life (which is Christ): Jesse is the ancestor of Jesus, as told by the Book of Isaiah, and here he is depicted as the root of the that is the Church through Jesus. The Tree indeed tells the story of the Life of Christ, from his presentation in the Jewish table as a baby for circumcision, to the unfolding of his life, his passion, and his death and resurrection. It is a story of the faith, told in colorful pictures of stained-glass — a beautiful and glorious presentation of the holy religion that the mendicant orders had re-infused with vigor and earnestness thanks to their example, faith and teaching.

Panel of the Swabia window.

Window in Full.

In conclusion, the art works of the 13th and 14th centuries were a transformative moment: they acted as a bridge between the Byzantine style and the coming glories of the latter Middle Ages when artists soared to new heights, thanks to new money pouring into Europe and new devotions inspired by new saints. The teachings of the mendicant orders — of St. Francis and St. Dominic inspired new religious feelings and these feelings were expressed through painting, sculpture and architecture, through stained-glass windows and music. They all told a story, however — a story of the faith, of the lives of the saints, of the glorious eternity that could be shared with God in Heaven so long as one followed the straight and narrow path to Christ. The Byzantine works of art depicted these straight and narrow path in distinctly strict and stern tones, with unmistakable iconography — of saints with stern brows and , reminding the viewer of the need to focus on heavenly things rather than earthly ones. Following the wake of the rise of the mendicant orders, a new focus emerged — one that looked around at creation, that marveled at the works of God; that kept the need for sanctity firmly embedded in the works of art themselves but that also recognized something beautiful and touching about the creation — the eyes, the gesture, the colors, the joy that permeated all things made by God. A new trend in medieval art had appeared: a trend that would move towards joy and grandeur and approach as near to ecstasy as it could before the great collapse of the Protestant era would rend Christendom apart.

Works Cited

Johnson, Paul. Art: A New History. NY: Gallery Books, 2003. Print.

Laux, John. Church History. IL: TAN, 1976. Print.

Sullivan, John. “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Lippincott’s

Magazine (1896): 403-409. Print.