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The Works of Mercy in Italian Medieval Art (c. 1050–c. 1400) by Federico Botana (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 1, 2013
pp. 228-229 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0043

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

This book, like Tom Nichols’s The Art of Poverty: Irony and Ideal in Sixteenth-Century Beggar Imagery (Manchester, 2007), makes useful contributions to art history and to the history of poverty and poor relief. In particular, The Works of Mercy in Italian Medieval Art fills a neglected gap in Italian art history and Western European art history more generally, adds considerable detail to our understanding of the medieval performance of the works of mercy, and broadens our appreciation of the impact and lay reception of medieval theological discourses concerning charity and salvation. Interesting conclusions abound in this volume. For instance, in looking at early cycles of works of mercy, Federico Botana proposes ‘that a canon was taking shape before the surviving textual sources suggest’ (p. 16). Yet it is the methodology that is this book’s most engaging element, and readers will find themselves constantly referring to the many illustrations that grace the pages of this book, following the clues. It is, in fact, quite a detective story. Or rather, it is a series of detective stories, as individual depictions of the works of mercy rendered in stone, through fresco, or on parchment are examined in considerable detail. Where possible, this analysis is backed up with archival and architectural context.

In a well-argued section of Chapter 3, for example, the focus is on miniatures of the works of mercy. Here Botana highlights that these images are highly theological and draws out the meanings (p. 49). To cite one example, a tiny figure of ‘Visiting the Sick’ conveys the theology of this work of mercy (pp. 75–77). A representation of a cockerel, it is implied, is soon to become soup, and therefore shows concern for the physical health of the sick person. Yet a hand raised to heaven indicates the need to also minister to a sick person’s spiritual health. Situated in a text for the clergy, this emphasizes and reinforces the meaning of the document that it decorates. Other chapters are similarly themed.

Another thread running through this work, and the one of most interest to this reader, concerns how strong links could be drawn between depictions of works of mercy and lay confraternities. Botana finds a number of confraternal symbols in several depictions, which are further confirmed and/or contextualized by archival documentation. This same methodology then enables Botana to propose that confraternities were extant in settings where a surviving cycle of the works of mercy may be the only evidence of their existence. It also facilitates Botana in reading further information from a series of images. In another depiction of ‘Visiting the Sick’, the same figure appearing in the next scene in the sequence ‘Burying the Dead’, promotes the idea that these two works were particularly focused on members of the confraternity.

These various depictions of works of mercy being performed also provide useful details about the performance of works of mercy and the delivery of what later ages call ‘poor relief’. Within a hospital setting, for instance, Botana argues that ‘illustrations … verify that this hospital devised an institutional framework for tackling poverty and illness as efficiently as possible’ (p. 143). We are shown the locations of interactions, the foods provided (my favourite being mince pies), and the variety of persons both performing and receiving works of mercy. Botana’s discussion of a crossed-armed and rather defensive figure in a miniature of ‘The Reception of Sinful Women’ (p. 138) highlights how these images, while conveying theology and ideals, were also reflecting contemporary practices and people.

And this, the intersection of ideal and reality, is where the multi-layered unpacking of these images is particularly fascinating. Botana proposes that the works of mercy were integral to contemporary understanding, and living, of the corpus mysticum. It was more than a simple equation of giving alms to attain salvation, although the attainment of individual and collective salvation was clearly a preoccupation. The works of mercy, depicted in art, enabled people to view an ideal community, to be encouraged to live in charity, and to reflect on and commemorate charity lived.

Copyright © 2013 by the Nicholas Brodie
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