2024 International Congress of Medieval Studies Annual Conference HYBRID, Kalamazoo, MI (Hybrid Format)
IAS-Sponsored Session

Italian Art for a Persecuting Society

Organizer: Theresa Flanigan, Texas Tech University

Chair: Shane Harless, Rice University

R.I. Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society (2007) argued that medieval Europe experienced the systematic, targeted persecution of diverse minority groups (i.e., heretics, Jews, lepers, and sexual deviants), which society proclaimed “dangerous,” thereby legitimizing violence against them. Notable about this period was the creation of a “rhetoric and apparatus of persecution capable of being turned at will from one category of victim to another, including, if necessary, those invented for this purpose,” establishing “patterns of persecution that endure in our own times” (pp. 145-51). This session explores Italian art’s role in the construction and reinforcement of persecuting systems.


Rebecca A. H. Ruppar, Loyola University, Chicago
Alter Christus vs. Cathar Perfecti: Early Franciscan Visual Fortifications against Heresy

From an art historical perspective, R.I. Moore’s argument suggests that the diverse victims of medieval persecution would have been visually represented in a particular manner, in such a way that supported discrimination and violence toward targeted groups. I would propose that there was also a strong shift in the way the persecutors themselves would have been depicted in order to meet institutional goals.

Though Moore’s chapter looks more closely at the Dominican Order as an inquisitorial arm of the Roman church, the Franciscans were also tasked with the duty of identifying heresy in Italy at the same time, specifically to root out the Cathars. The two groups, Franciscan and Cathar, were intertwined by their contrasting theologies and comparable ascetic practices. As an aniconic faith, the artistic impact of the Cathars understandably has been neglected. Yet their dualist beliefs motivated the early Franciscan friars to creatively pour forth visual and material resources, producing painted theology for the promotion of orthodox doctrine.

In this presentation, I analyze the simple icons of Francis to explore how the saint was presented to the thirteenth-century audience, arguing that a major reason for the proliferation of Francis’ image so closely following his death was the friars’ intention to cast him as an orthodox counter-example to the Cathars’ imposing leaders, called the perfecti. I focus on the iconographic elements possessed by Francis: the habit, book, cross, and stigmata. Through these symbols, Francis, and by extension the brothers of his order, served as a foil to the Cathar elite in their public preaching.

Further, it is possible to analyze how religious icons such as these laid a foundation for modern social and political artwork both stylistically and thematically, in that they have the power of expressing perspectives many modern Americans hold with religious, albeit often polarizing, vigor.

Ariela Algaze, The Johns Hopkins University
Persecution and Popular History: Crucifixes Wrapped in Parchment on the Italian Stage

In late medieval Central Italy, lay laudesi and disciplinati confraternities began to commission articulated crucifixes — fashioned with moving shoulders, bending legs, flapping tongues, and/or bleeding wounds — to be used as props in vernacular dramatic laude and sacre rappresentazioni staged in public squares on Good Friday. As surviving playscripts and chronicles of these performances demonstrate, these religious spectacles cultivated affective piety and multisensory identification with the Passion, at the same time that they stoked the fires of anti-Jewish sentiment through the lyric identification of Jews as the torturers of Christ.

This paper examines the popular legends that surround two mixed-media crucifixes with fully movable joints. These crucifixes — from Mercatello sul Metauro in le Marche (fourteenth century) and from Fara Sabina in Lazio (sixteenth century), respectively — are both wrapped in a layer of parchment “skin,” which was popularly believed to be the skin of a Muslim “Saracen.” Rather than exploring the truth value of these urban legends, this paper takes these claims at face value, and asks: What did it mean to correlate the body of Christ with the body of the non-Christian other? If, as the scholar of medieval theater Jody Enders states, “[popular] culture is what theater makes it, and theater is what culture makes it,” what do these popular legends reveal about premodern cultures of Orientalism and religious persecution? I conclude, ultimately, that urban legends of the Middle Eastern provenance of these parchment-covered Italian crucifixes reinforced narratives of the savage “Saracen” other existing beyond the borders of Latin Christendom, whereas the performative uses of the crucifixes in confraternal laude reinforced the narratives that rationalized the persecution of Jews within the borders of the Christian world itself.

Theresa Flanigan, Texas Tech University
The Torturer's Complexion: Medical Science and the Art of Othering in Late Medieval Italy

In this paper I examine the influence of medical science on the construction of Christian identity and the representation of non-Christian bodies as “others” in late medieval Italian art. In particular, I look at Giotto’s portrayal of Christ and Christ’s torturers in the passion cycle in the Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua, which was painted in circa 1303-5. I analyze these images in relation to contemporary medical discourse about complexion and physiognomy found in texts produced at the medieval University of Padua. I argue that Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes make visible contemporary medical ideas about complexion and, by doing so, entrain the chapel’s visitors to interpret the visual aspect of bodies as expressions of otherwise invisible ethical and character states.

My research demonstrates how art and medicine came together in late medieval Italy to construct a Christian complexional identity in stark contrast with the complexional identities of non-Christians, who were visually portrayed as “other,” thereby providing further insight into pre-modern Christian thinking about non-Christians.

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