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Unlikely Heroes in Jean Germain’s Vision of Orthodoxy

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 29, 2014
pp. 103-112 | 10.1353/ems.2013.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Correction:
Due to a production error, volume 29 of Essays in Medieval Studies was released with the incorrect publication date of 2013 on the article title pages. The correct publication date is 2014.

A didactic work known as Le Chemin de Paradis, written in 1457 by Jean Germain, who was then the bishop of Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy, is preserved in seven copies, two of them illustrated. The author is probably best known as the first chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece, Philip the Good of Burgundy’s chivalric order. He was also a writer particularly concerned with combating heresy both within his community (in the form of sorcerers) and in the larger struggle of Christianity with Islam. The “way to Paradise” that Germain lays out addresses the needs of his people, through the priests and curés who are to guide and educate them, and it was originally to have a second complementary part laying out the evils that threatened to deter Christians from that right path. The text is structured as the description of a triumphal procession, with Germain interpreting the biblical and allegorical figures he had devised to pull the wagon bearing the Church Militant, for a tapestry—one that may or may not have progressed past the design stage. It deserves to be better known among medievalists interested in the ways text and image were used by fifteenth-century religious writers (certainly going beyond what I can suggest here), because we have the patron’s intentions and the symbols he chose so conveniently spelled out, complete with scriptural and patristic citations. His vision is a bishop’s-eye view of sacred history and the progress of the Church, as we will see from the miniatures in one of the two illustrated manuscript copies of the text.

How did he imagine the tapestry functioning? Germain explains in his Prologue to the Chemin: when poor health (“la feblesse de n(ot)re corps”) and other commitments prevented him from his episcopal duty to preach (“ne nous est possible doresenavant de en propre personne si continuellement que voudrions excercer le dit office de predicacion”), he hit on the idea of a tapestry as a substitute. Since people are better taught by acts and works than by speeches, and by example than prescriptive authority, he continues, he has ordered a pattern (patron) depicting several characters on two panels of tapestry, each containing several sections, which he refers to as chapters. The tapestry pattern shows the manner in which loyal Christians, militants, pilgrims, and knights, will triumph.

The sequence of events in the commission as we can reconstruct it from Germain’s Prologue is remarkable. The author seems to have begun with the idea of the Church Militant, imagining it as a procession of historical and allegorical figures, and then to have conveyed that idea to the artist, who created a design for the proposed tapestry, which the bishop then presented to his clergy. We know that the project got this far (i.e., that it was drawn up) because the bishop’s subordinates requested that he explain the images. The result is a text that not only discusses the allegorical figures he used and how they should be interpreted, but goes on to offer advice—opinions on subjects as far removed from the tapestry design as how to choose a wet nurse for your child, for example. This probably explains why we have seven copies: because it was a useful handbook for pastoral care as well as an outline of doctrine. But to return to the origins of the project, we seem to have two audiences here. In the text, Jean Germain is speaking to his subordinates—his fellow professionals—but his overall aim in the project is to reach his congregation through preaching. The tapestry panels were to be a substitute for the sermons that, he explains, ill health and other obligations prevented him from giving, and they reflect concerns that had occupied him throughout his career.

The author of the Chemin de Paradis seems to have been born in Cluny ca. 1400 and educated by the monks there. He must have shown great promise...



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