Translating Truth: Ambitious Images and Religious Knowledge in Late Medieval France and England

This review originally appeared in the Vol. 19 No. 2 / Fall-Winter 2012 issue of West 86th.


Translating Truth: Ambitious Images and Religious Knowledge in Late Medieval France and England
Aden Kumler
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
304 pp.; 63 color and 21 b/w ills.
Cloth $65.00
ISBN: 9780300164930

In Translating Truth, Aden Kumler writes a deeply serious and compelling analysis of the impact of the Fourth Lateran Council on the devotional arts, specifically manuscripts, of the later Middle Ages. Although at times her prose is dense, the reader is rewarded with a richly nuanced and carefully considered understanding of the complexities of the relationship between art and theology.

As she shows, the council promulgated a series of goals, particularly having to do with the education of the clergy, but the results of its programs were not mere “trickle-down” religiosity (p. 4). The “syllabus of belief,” including those things that must be learned and those that must be believed (credenda and perficienda), was intended to be conveyed to the laity via a more rigorously trained clergy. In pursuit of the “cura animarum,” or care of the soul, a veritable fountain of pastoralia, its attendant literature, erupted. Given that Kumler herself has already introduced modern political terminology, might we ask if this program—“no soul left behind”—found success? Or did it fail like its modern-day counterpart?

The answer is yes, no, and also a modified yes. Although the program probably did not immediately educate the common Christian as the council had hoped, Kumler examines a series of devotional manuscripts and finds a “spiritual ambition” of the aristocracy that supersedes even the aspirations the clergy had held forth. Constituting a genuine theological expression that she argues was realized in “ideological, behavioral and . . . aesthetic” terms (p. 5), and of essential interest to art historians, this program was presented and achievable via art. In a later culmination of the ideals of the council, perhaps we can posit the educational effort as the origin of the lists and dogmas that dominate modern Catholicism—codifications such as the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments, the ten commandments, and the ten counsels of perfection, all quantified and numerated in order to provide accountability and effective teaching strategies (a monumental effort to teach to the test—that is, confession?).

Kumler’s efforts differ from those of many other art historians produced in the wake of her teacher Jeffrey Hamburger’s work, in that she, one might say, wrestles the material to the floor. Questions are posed and answered with a rigorous thoroughness and obvious and admirable erudition. What others have merely suggested, Kumler relentlessly pursues. Rather than a fleeting acquaintance with these medieval objects that others have cited using a single picture or a short quotation, here one finds a thorough introduction. One gets a sense of the texture and composition—and thereby the use—of these extraordinary and beautiful luxury manuscripts.

The manuscripts are specifically those of France and England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, allied through language and culture, written primarily in old French or Anglo-Norman vernaculars. They are not Books of Hours or Psalters but strange hybrid beasts, spiritual compendia that defy easy classification but are created, each as unicum, to serve a patron’s specific spiritual needs. Without a standard text, these manuscripts also do not have a standard program of illumination. As a result, they are a playground of original imagery, ready for the enjoyment and exploitation of a creative and learned art historian. Kumler is up to the task.

The chapter organization of the book is not chronological. Rather, it follows the hoped-for spiritual progress of the reader-viewer of the manuscripts and investigates “how the eye could be engaged in the work of salvation” (p. 13). The soul might proceed from catechesis (chap. 1) to confession (chap. 2) to communion (chap. 3) to the possibility of spiritual perfection (chap. 4).

Chapter 1 begins with Blanche of Castile’s vernacular Moralized Bible (Vienna ON Cod. Vind. 2554). Kumler sees it as pastoralia, but not yet thoroughly worked out in terms of its ambitions or means to improve the lay reader; it is instead an examination of the “moral-theological examination of contemporary Christian society” (p. 17). It coincided with an intensive development of canon law, moral theology, and sacramental theology and the emergence of new religious orders that took preaching as their mission—the Franciscans and Dominicans. This chapter continues with an excellent analysis of the bureaucratic and rational organization of Innocent III’s program of reform. Aware of previous reforms and hoping to improve upon them, Lateran IV set up “pedagogical” synods and resulted in many tracts and statutes (p. 24–25) that ultimately focused primarily on certain key issues—the performance of the sacraments, the articles of faith, and the proper use of confession. The prescription that every Christian should receive communion once a year is considered and its implications are discussed—Christians had to confess to partake in communion, and the council prescribed to whom and how Christians should make that confession. Finally, in this chapter, Kumler uses the Moralized Bible as a frame, showing that it scrutinizes the principles and goals of the pastoral reform, at times finding it wanting.

In chapter 2, Kumler explicates the modus confitendi, the proper mode of confession, and compares it with the way in which a viewer should approach a devotional manuscript—“with intent eyes, ready to ask questions of belief and to receive salvific answers” (p. 46). Building on the model of confession, she focuses on the “dialogic” model of faith learning. In executing the annual confession, the confessor listens and prompts, assigns the proper penitence, and makes the event a teaching moment. Investigating the issues surrounding confession that were considered by, among others, Abelard, Aquinas, and Bishop Peter Quinel of Exeter, she notes that the ‘’interior space of the conscience” (p. 48) and the essential hiddenness of sin were key issues that allowed the generation of the metaphor of the medicus animae, the confessor as doctor of the soul who prescribes and heals with the sacrament.

The invisible and “interior space of the soul” is to be coaxed outward, revealed and purified. Within this model of dialogue between confessor and layman, pictures and especially diagrams take key place. Building on Lynn Ransom’s insight about Franciscan involvement in the Vrigiet de solas, Kumler posits a three-point conversation—confessor, aristocrat, image. The image thus can first be decoded (these images need decoding), then do double duty as memory framework. The images use the visible to provide tools for spiritual action, ideally for spiritual “self-fashioning.”

The manuscript imagery that most closely parallels these structures of confession is found in the genre of “Mirror” texts, specifically the Speculum Virginum and also the Vrigiet, but additionally compendia and even a manuscript like the Lambeth Apocalypse. The Speculum is used quite literally, as a mirror that helps one analyze one’s soul and correct faults. A striking example comes from Jean de Joinville’s Romans as ymages. After delivering an exemplum concerning Saint Louis (perhaps the first perfected soul in the wake of Blanche’s Moralized Bible), Joinville discusses an instance when images show their worth. Even if belief is “unseeing belief in insensible things,” images in a book can, by means of eyes and ears, so fill the heart of a dying man that the devil cannot intervene with evil (p. 75). Similar structures of reflection and defense obtain in the Scutum Animae in the Lambeth manuscript, a diagram that aids in spiritual combat. Such diagrams assist in the “cultivation and maintenance of the devotee’s moral-spiritual vigilance . . . [by means of] hearing and understanding, on seeing and discerning” (p. 85). In discussing a Veronica image in the Lambeth manuscript, Kumler even suggests that mirroring of the soul and the dialogic interaction goes further—the beautiful and intense full-page image looks back. After the owner Eleanor de Quincy undergoes this “divine inspection,” the privileged woman can delve into the extensively illustrated copy of the Apocalypse well fortified with spiritual armor.

In a similar instance of aristocratic “spiritual ambition,” the Butler family “appropriates” the elevation of the Eucharist. Following conventions from the representation of sacerdotal dignity and the celebration of the Mass in Decretals, the Butler Hours makes the devotion of the lay family the center of attention in the miniature. A similar imagery occurs in the Taymouth Hours. Again Kumler proposes these images as evidence of the self-fashioning of lay elites. Chapter 3 thus traces “ecclesiastic efforts to establish a normative vision” of the Eucharist (p. 104) but concludes by paralleling these with an investigation of an illustrated Mass tract from England in the 1320s that goes significantly further. In a very gratifying examination of a devotional manuscript as a whole, Kumler situates this text among the other texts in the manuscript now divided into two separate parts in Paris and Oxford, helping to explicate its manufacture and the goals and intent of its lay patron. Before beginning her analysis of the manuscript, Kumler asks questions that she asserts are central to the Mass tract: “What kind of truth was visible on the altar? How should one see a sacrament, and what might sacramental truth look like? . . . [These are] questions best answered by images” (p. 119).

Indeed, she claims the text provides an “ordo for the lay devotee’s corporeal, intellectual, and spiritual participation in the Mass” (p. 122). It provides a series of appropriate gestures to emulate and points on which to meditate through means of text, image, and rubrications. As she has already explained, such a process begins with confession and proceeds through the elements of the liturgy to the elevation of the host and finally to communion. Each of the steps is supplied with a miniature depicting the liturgy, although these scenes are by no means “realistic”; instead, they attend most carefully to the devotee’s spiritual experience. Secondary images supply visions of the divine that might or should occur to the focused mind of the devotee. In the next to last of the Mass tract’s images, while at the right the celebrant concludes the rite with the cleansing of the vessels, the deity appears as a Throne of Mercy Trinitarian vision fully occupying the “fictive space” and fixing the gaze of the congregation. The “spiritually intent” work of the congregation has produced a vision of the Trinity which is, in turn, presented in this image to the reader-viewer in a form of “ocular communion” (p. 142–44). Thus the “truth” of seeing is located in a series of images that defines the process of looking as having the potential to realize the meaning of the Eucharist and makes this claim because it admits its own representational status.

Finally, in chapter 4, Kumler explicates the manuscript La Sainte Abbaye,which first came to our attention in Hamburger’s work. This treatise never existed as a standalone manuscript but was bound with the Somme le roi and followed by treatises on the perfection of the soul and on the twelve benefits of tribulation and the rewards for the perfect soul. Kumler shows how the various parts of the manuscript build on one another in a sustained architectural metaphor in which the devotee constructs an abbey of the mind, a space of spirit in the conscience. The manuscript is allegorical and devotional, and as Kumler argues, we cannot be sure of the identity of the patron—although we know the patron was neither a king nor a nun, but was surely a wealthy layperson with vaunted spiritual ambitions.

The miniatures of the Somme le roi present a program of virtues personified and vices exemplified but innovates by showing virtues in action and scriptural vignettes. These miniatures employ architectural frames and space to organize and imply a directional “flow of mercy” and “define the pictorial field as an integrated space of moral display” in “intervisual associations” that cross media and assert the “enclosure of the sacred” (pp. 183–85). Kumler follows these observations with a series of texts that contain and expand the metaphor of the architecture of the soul, texts that use imagery of the castle, the bedchamber, and the cloister. The metaphor of the cloister as a place that the soul might inhabit is, of course, developed at length in La Sainte Abbaye, within a larger landscape of sights and sounds and even a narrative with the specter of a threatening Devil. The allegory is based on the real experience and vision of architectural enclosure but supplies a model of “active and contemplative practices accessible to readers living in the world . . . a [spiritual] destination rather than a point of departure” (pp. 203–5). The imagery brings to fruition a long-standing medieval trope of architecture as “edification.” It also realizes most completely Kumler’s theme of the interior made exterior, of the grooming of the soul made visible. It finally serves as another example of the aristocracy appropriating clerical spirituality as evidence of their rightful possession of social superiority; as Kumler shows, even virtue and vice align along societal lines of hierarchy.

Kumler meticulously explores the three miniatures of La Sainte Abbaye, which she describes in turn as a “Theophanic” miniature, a “Eucharistic Celebration in an inward Convent,” and an image of “Contemplative Ascent.” Each is dramatically and magisterially explicated using extensive translations of the vernacular texts and sometimes unexpected but insightful visual comparisons. Kumler concludes that although the manuscript follows much of the agenda that was the catechetical curriculum espoused by the Lateran Council, it has surpassed the ambitions of that council: “Offering its reader-viewer a thoroughly theological initiation into the arcana of moral discernment, contemplative ascent, and even mystical union, the manuscript makes it most radical arguments in images.” In the “appropriation of spiritual and theological ideals,” it soars beyond the dry and limited pastoral syllabus, producing “a profession of faith in things seen” (pp. 236–37).

Just as Kumler argued that the manuscript owner had a privileged view of these processes, we as readers of Kumler’s fine text have a privileged insight into the images and spirituality of the later Middle Ages. As she argues so effectively that the manuscripts surpass their intent to implement the pastoral syllabus, Kumler herself ambitiously surpasses art history as we usually know it. She dives deeply into the texts with the surety of a textual critic or alternately a theologian, and she has prodigiously followed up on every visual and textual reference (although she confines these in many cases to her voluminous endnotes). At times she omits extensive description, letting the glorious color reproductions stand for themselves; at other times she seems to comb every brushstroke for significance. Her analyses are embedded in social history, follow the analytic lead of literary criticism, and even make parallels to the contemporary world and its politics.

Finally, there is little to fault in this book. Perhaps the author could have been more skeptical concerning the goals of the wealthy patrons, and perhaps she could have discussed the books more as material objects, but in the end that would have been a different project. The design of the book itself is beautiful, with many full-page color illustrations and even “decorated initials” with details, delightful to the eye. Not quite as delightful are the highly reflective pages, the many quarter-page illustrations that are too small to show the detail that is discussed, and the choice of font, which is very light in weight. These design missteps produce a strain on the eyes exacerbated with protracted reading. Too bad, because this is not a book just to be glanced at or paged through, but a book to be well and thoroughly read and reread.


Cynthia Hahn is a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center CUNY. She is the author of many articles and books on saints, reliquaries, and pilgrimages, including Portrayed on the HeartNarrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century and the forthcoming Strange Beauty: Issues on the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries from the Fourth Century to c. 1204.



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