Mendicant Orders and their Influence on Art: 1200s-1300s.
Art history largely treats the rise of the mendicant orders as the start of a new age in art. "The term 'mendicant' refers to five orders, the Franciscans, dominicans, Carmelites, Servites, and Augustinians. These orders were a social and religious revolution, and their appearance in the thirteenth century coincided with profound and lasting changes in the visual arts. The mendicants emerged with a radically new idea of religious vocation, though it was cast as a renewing or renovatio of the true Christian apostolate" (Dunlop, 1). One of the facets of these orders was the belief that poverty was essential to the religious state; thus "mendicants" chose to live by begging for alms and donations originating first in urban centers. Ultimately, the mendicant friars were consumed by a vow of complete poverty and a dedication to the ascetic way of life: they lived as Christ did, ridding themselves of property and in traveling the world to preach, surviving on the good will of those who listened to them, and living to serve other people.
Commissions for the arts continued to multiply as churches and chapels multiplied as well, and there became a reinvention of the images and iconographies for saints and other religious representations. As a result of the fact that the mendicants were so strongly concerned with an evangelization of as many people as possible, the church gave them the freedom from the control of the bishops and they were thus transported around the globe to push people to convert or to become stronger in the faith that they already had. "It was on journeys to the East that the friars inevitably encountered Byzantine art and learned of the value of visual images in their apostolic mission. They discovered that a union between the material and spiritual could be realized in an icon. As a material gate to a spiritual world, such art was able to strengthen existing faith or prompt conversion" (metmuseum.org). Soon after this period, monks who had earlier not allowed any material items to enter their lives began to allow their churches, monasteries with intricate images which were no doubt influenced by Byzantine art and other eastern motifs post-mendicant orders can be viewed as a time where there was a strong impact of the east on western art.
This time can also be viewed as a form of the social history of art, with an emphasis on politics of art production and interpretation, known as a mendicant thesis: the rise of such orders caused indeed a one of the most initial shifts of the renaissance. The mendicant orders did indeed cause a certain amount of artistic innovation as there was a clear connection between art and institutions at the time. Namely, this paper will discuss how the mendicant orders created a blending of Byzantine style with Dominican and Franciscan teachings to create a new style and format for art.
Consider the following piece, Man of Sorrows, a gilt copper, champleve enamel.
In this depiction, "the gilded image of Jesus appears, as in a vision, above his tomb. To either side are the sponge soaked with vinegar that was offered to him during his Crucifixion and the lance that caused the wound in his side. Both the function and the significance of this type of image, known as the Man of Sorrows and adapted from Byzantine examples from the thirteenth century and later, are clarified in this small enameled plaque" (metmuseum.org). One of the most revelatory aspects of this work is that it is not adorned by the mourning contemporaries of Jesus, but instead a Dominican friar and a hooded person who are the ones affected by the suffering of Christ. One of the most striking aspects of this presentation is that one of the figures is flagellating himself, an action which is strongly evocative of the mendicant influence of the time. There is a noticeable scourge which hangs from his arm which he would clearly have used to whip himself as an aspect of his utter devotion. By showing his backs as a sign of his willingness to engage in self-flagellation, this was a sign of both a contemplation of Jesus' image and the hooded figure's willingness to share in the Savior's suffering as well. The particular text...
This is no accident: it is a reflection of the mendicant orders of the time. The fact that the Christ-figure looms so large is representative of how prominent the sense of the divine was during this time. It reflected the power and superiority of divinity over humanity. The size of the Christ-figure was also used as a means of demonstrating just how tremendous his suffering was and to give that level of suffering a strong degree of primacy. Suffering and living a lifestyle of pure suffering was such a major theme of the mendicant orders it's not a surprise that it is given such a primal role here. Here the suffering is practically multiplied, as one doesn't just see the suffering of Christ in the front and center of the engraving, but at the edge of the frame, the suffering of each kneeling figure only helps to underscore the suffering of the crucified figure.
The primacy of suffering and notably the suffering of Christ is indeed a theme which is treated with the utmost importance given the Mendicant orders. Consider the following piece, Morse with Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata
It's important to bear in mind some of the more specific details of this piece of art. First of all, a morse is worn at the chest, used by priests to gather together their garments. Thus, one could also interpret this piece of art as an accessory for adornment and as something to be worn for the entire congregation to notice and to take in. Thus, it's for both private and public display.
The image depicted on the morse is almost violent: it depicts a rendering of when Saint Francis of Assisi first received the stigmata on the various parts of his body, including the hands and feet. "Dressed in the brown robe with knotted cord that distinguishes his order, Francis crouches, with his weight on one knee, in a rocky landscape, across the footbridge from a small chapel. Emanating from the wounds of the Christ like seraph who appears to Francis in a vision, the stigmata became the distinctive, defining miracle of Francis' life and the emblem of his sanctity in hagiographic literature as well as in works of art" (metmuseum.org). Thus, the final image is memorable yet demonstrates the pain and fear inherent in the moment.
As one expert described, the sheer intensity of the spiritual branding is depictured via the golden rays which fall from the sky and onto the limbs and skin of Saint Francis. However, there is a sense of divine intervention as well, as the Saint is surrounded by an aura of light. Thus, there's a suggestion from the painter that the Saint is both being subjected to violence, and yet protected from it by God. However, the sense of being spiritually branded is strongly conveyed: there's a highly gilded quality to the work, along with the suggestion that what is occurring is a miracle, and yet a dramatic one. The gilded images on the morse are juxtaposed against a dark sky of the night, a sky which is a deep shade of blue and where scattered stars are also apparent.
A final piece which represents the mendicant orders is The Saint Francis Altarpiece by Bonaventura Berlinghieri which offers a traditional rendering of the Italo-Byzantine style of painting. The composition of the piece also shows some of the most standard stylistic trends of the period, such as the centering of St. Francis in the frame. There's also a visual motif used as well including the linear flatness and the lack of depth.
As always, the sense of suffering is given a certain level of primacy to the pieces as a whole, and Saint Francis is of course offering up his wounds for all to see. An angel hovers above either shoulder, echoing the sense of symmetry from earlier pieces, while reminding the viewer about the importance of divinity over humanity. This theme is supported with the small pictoral images from the church in the background and of everyday life, but their presence is minimized by the thunderous, centered presence of Saint Francis. He is almost like a dreary angel, dressed all in black, somberly showing his wounds and acting as a silent representative of suffering.
Thus, this paper has demonstrated how the mendicant orders truly had a strong, indelible impact on Renaissance art. The mendicant orders established not only the primacy of divinity…
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