All Things in Common

Religious Poverty, Visual Riches: Art in the Dominican Churches of Central Italy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

by Joanna Cannon
2013 Yale University Press, 456 pages, $60.00
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How is it that the Dominicans amassed a priceless collection of artwork in their first two centuries of existence when they were men vowed to poverty? Joanna Cannon’s Religious Poverty, Visual Riches explores this question and the artwork, arguing that these works grew out of and reinforced the friendships between friars and laypersons. Limiting her study to the churches and priories of the Order of Preachers in central Italy, the reader in the history of art at the Courtauld Institute offers generous representations of the medieval artwork and insight into the life of the early Dominicans’ liturgy and shared life with the laity.

The division of the book stems from the architectural structure of the Dominican churches. Prior to the Council of Trent, a dividing wall passed through the middle of the nave forming an ecclesia fratrum (church of the friars) and an ecclesia laicorum (church of the laity). This wall, called a tramezzo or intermedium, created distinct places of worship with their own distinct works of sacred art.

Laicorum and Fratrum

The book first focuses on the artwork in the ecclesia laicorum and the ecclesia fratrum, and then on the artwork in the semi-public and private areas of the priories: the cloisters, chapter houses, refectories, and the friars’ cells. The book ends with a study of the well-documented church of Santa Caterina in Pisa.

The ecclesia laicorum, though closed off to the main altar in the ecclesia fratrum with the exception of a central opening, became a place of devotion. The laity commissioned large painted crucifixes by masters like Giotto that were mounted on top of the tramezzo.

Images of the Blessed Virgin would also adorn these Gothic walls. These popular images were often the bequest of Marian confraternities called laudesi. These groups would congregate to sing hymns and chants to the Blessed Mother at the end of the work day. At the end of night prayer, the friars would process out of the ecclesia fratrum into the ecclesia laicorum singing the salve regina. The friars and the laity would together beseech the aid of the Mother of God. These scenes of common prayer in the ecclesia laicorum would also take place at the tombs of Saint Dominic, Saint Peter Martyr, and other blesseds. The friars ensured the laity had access to their saints.

The ecclesia fratrum contained magnificent works of art that aided the prayer of the friars during the Divine Office and Mass. At the start of the fourteenth century, polyptychs adorned the main altars painted by Sienese masters like Duccio di Buoninsegna and Simone Martini. Cannon points out that the artwork in the choir books likely coordinated with the liturgical practice of veiling images of the Passion during Lent; no corpus is found in the illuminations of Lenten antiphons.

The reader also discovers that thirteenth-century choirbooks depicted Saint Dominic as an alter apostolus, receiving a staff from Saints Peter and Paul. The staff emphasized the itinerancy of the saintly founder providing an example to the friars called to go and preach.

The Order’s Architecture

One highlight of the section on the priory’s semi-public and private spaces is Cannon’s treatment of the stunning frescoes of Andrea Bonaiuti covering the chapter house walls and vaulted ceiling in Santa Maria Novella. Bonaiuti constructs a narrative of the entire order and expresses “the identity of the order … through focus on a smaller number of exemplars: the three canonized Dominican saints,” Dominic, Peter of Verona, and Thomas Aquinas.

Cannon provides a detailed look at Santa Caterina priory in Pisa. She provides architectural plans from other priories (Pistoia, Lucca, Rieti, Spoleto, etc.) that help the reader understand the form of a Dominican church. The major elements of the choir chapel, the devotional chapels, and the placement of tombs and shrines connote a hierarchy of space that is discernible but not rigid.

The architecture of the order matches that of its constitutions; structure need not stifle creativity. The friars ensured the dispensation of certain obligations so that the order’s true goal could be achieved, i.e., the salvation of souls.

The title of the book suggests a certain tension between religious observance and the possession of splendid artwork. One familiar with Saint Dominic’s order knows that the mendicant friars live out poverty by owning all things in common. Cannon shows well how the suggested tension finds resolution in the goal of the Order of Preachers. The visual riches found in central Italy resulted from friendship between benefactors and the friars, and the artwork itself augmented the friars’ evangelization.

Cannon’s work is rich in its bibliography, generous in its reproductions, and masterly in its synthesis of the latest research on the Order of Preachers. Her ability to document and analyze multiple disciplines of research generates a resource for architects, artists, historians, and all interested in the Order of Preachers. As has been said by many scholars, her book is the achievement of a life’s work.