- The Art of Healing: Painting for the Sick and the Sinner in a Medieval Town
Marcia Kupfer's lively book is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Drawing on extensive archival research and deftly moving from archaeology to hagiography to nosography, among other myriad fields, the study focuses on the little-studied crypt frescos of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in central France. Kupfer frankly admits that these paintings, produced around 1200, are of middling quality, but she insists that their emphasis on scenes of healing offers important insights into the social uses of the monument, particularly the care of the sick body and soul.
As with her earlier book, Romanesque Wall Painting in Central France: The Politics of Narrative (New Haven, 1993), political motivations of the clergy feature prominently. The college of canons, the presumed patrons of the paintings, emerges as a group determined to assert their role as mediators of divine healing. The first two chapters consider how the canons interacted with local lords and the many institutions dedicated to healing the sick in and around Saint-Aignan, especially in relation to ongoing changes in the cityscape. The third chapter asks what motivated the house of canons to sponsor an artistic program focused on healing. Repeated outbreaks of ergotism in this region are posited as one likely factor, but Kupfer believes more fundamentally that the crypt's representation of saints, associated with nearby and administratively subordinate institutions of healing, ultimately asserted the hegemonic position of the canons. Some recent scholarship, most notably Cynthia Hahn's, has questioned whether political motivations significantly informed pictorial hagiography in the High Middle Ages. But because Kupfer weaves a host of other threads into her narrative, her readings contain nuances that a short review cannot convey.
After establishing a social context, Kupfer turns to a sustained analysis of the monument. Chapter four presents the unusual disposition of the crypt— [End Page 150] rendered inaccessible from the nave during the course of a twelfth-century campaign—primarily in relation to a posited penitential function. The fifth chapter analyzes the paintings individually. Throughout Kupfer painstakingly and convincingly identifies a number of heavily damaged scenes, such as a meal of Bethany in the crypt's axial chapel. But in a few cases her reconstructions overstep what the evidence warrants. For example, she asserts that paintings in the crypt's north apsidiole, of which only faint silhouettes remain, originally presented a hagiographic cycle (pp. 13, 44). This is a reasonable hypothesis, but without any support (e.g., documenting traces of halos) it is only that; Kupfer directly acknowledges this only later in the book (p. 85). The identification of Roland among the figures present in an image of the Miraculous Mass of St. Giles is speculative (p. 97). Nevertheless, the hero's purported presence provides the basis for an excursus on spiritual healing.
The quibbles I noted while reading this book do nothing to detract from the sophisticated interpretive framework it develops and which bears fruit in the final chapter. Themes teased out earlier in the study are linked with wider concerns, including the body, gender, and ecclesiastical power. Kupfer boldly examines the fragmentary remains of a "minor" monument to expand our understanding of the complex ways in which art could function for medieval viewers. She opens up an important chapter on the relationship between art and institutions of healing in the West, of which the Isenheim altarpiece is a celebrated case.
Although richly illustrated, it is unfortunate that a volume on paintings lacks color reproductions (presumably the publisher's decision). Kupfer's descriptions are consistently vivid, but they are no substitute.