Monday 11 February 2013

Material and Meaning: Umbrian Verres Églomisés

Figure 1
I find the study of materials and their greater cultural context to be a worthwhile method of understanding medieval art. Indeed, materials themselves offer indications of cultural practices from their inception and should not simply be looked over. In this blog post, I will focus on the cultural forces at work that centre on the use of verres églomisés in two Umbrian Franciscan reliquaries of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The business of relics, both metaphorically and literally, was shaped by the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1213 to 1215, formalising the adornment of relics through papal decree. So decreed, ‘ancient relics shall not be displayed outside a reliquary or be put up for sale’ due in particular to unscrupulous individuals who ‘display them indiscriminately. [1] Yet the choice of materials in these reliquaries may further be seen as grounded in theories of optics, which grant an essential understanding of Umbrian verres églomisés reliquaries in the context of the medieval mind. By considering the greater context of papal decrees, Franciscan theological interests, and medieval understandings of optics, Umbrian verres églomisés reveal the deeper significance of gilded glass, beyond such explanations of cost and speed of production.

A Reliquary Diptych (Figure 1) from the fourteenth century features the Nativity and the Crucifixion, with boxes of texts and smaller images of saints surrounding the central images. The smaller pictorial chambers contain relics, some visible through the glass. Text and images, in this instance those of St. Francis, St. Claire of Assisi, Mary, and St. Louise of Toulouse, inform the viewer of what this reliquary contains. Additionally, two pieces of the True Cross are prominently displayed. (Figure 2) Each chamber in the border contains either a verres églomisés or text indicating the relic contained within. This reliquary emphasises a variety of relics through text, offering them to the viewer for clear identification and visual consumption. The verres églomisés in turn protects and seals the relic safely behind the glass, much like rock crystal though less sumptuous. While the production of verres églomisés follows the papal decree, showing a concern for display of their new saint’s relics through increased viability at the cost of decreased accessibility, the materiality itself speaks to Franciscan concerns over sumptuous culture.

Figure 2
A brief explanation Franciscan politics in the thirteenth century bears examining to illustrate Franciscan devotional concerns in Umbrian verres églomisés. St. Bonaventure entered the Franciscan order in 1243, only twenty-one years after St. Francis of Assisi received papal support for the new Order. In his Major Life written on St. Francis, St. Bonaventure addresses the concerns of his Order, which lacked cohesion due to the absence of adequate writings of St. Francis in light of the changing needs of the Brothers under papal endorsement. By creating a new life of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure sought to unite the two factions of his Order, the Spirituals and the Conventuals. However, it was St. Bonaventure’s generalate and his letter to the custodians in 1257 that is of particular interest to the art historian. Due to Franciscan strict vows of poverty, issues regarding donations continued to be addressed by Order officials. In this instance, St. Bonaventure writes on everything from building material, liturgical tools, to the iconographic themes approved as ‘even here the choice of images was restricted to Christ on the cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, John, Francis, and Antony; if others were found, they were to be removed’. [2] Thus, the gilded glass with its visual references to enamel and rock crystal could be seen as poverty minded Franciscan expressions of more expensive reliquary practices.

The Umbrian Cross Reliquary (Figure 2) contains gilded glass, utilising only black and red, gold, parchment, and coral. The red is only used to highlight the spilling blood of Christ, calling the viewer's attention to the wounds of the suffering body of Jesus. The centrepiece of the cross is a verres églomisé panel of the crucifixion, above which is a relic of the True Cross. The sombre palette of the Umbrian Cross illustrates a leaning towards a limited application of adornment. While still sumptuous, the Umbrian Cross uses the verres églomisés rather than heavy enamel, as 'gilded glass itself was a cheap and quick way of achieving he effects of enamel'. [3] The Franciscan struggles over vows of poverty can be seen playing across the Umbrian Cross. By choosing a more illusionistic material, the reliquary is able to venerate the saintly remains contained within it while also remaining mindful of concerns over wealth and adornment. [4] Yet, the utilisation of verres églomisés also addressed medieval conceptions of optics.

The medieval theory of optics centres around two main understandings of light and the eyes, extramission and intromission. [5] Extramission was the earlier theory of optics stemming from Ptolemy's Optics. Extramission as a theory of vision posits that vision is formed by 'a visual fire emanating from the observer’s eye [as it] coupl[es] with light or fire coming from the perceived object'. [6] These rays are then brought into the areas of vision within the eye and head, creating an image of the perceived object. However, as the 'sensitive' rays emanating from the eyes would gather information, the process of seeing was conceptualised as innately dangerous and open to misinformation due to the viewer’s own lacking either spiritually or physically, while also created dangerous bodily concerns. 'For a proponent of extramission like Augustine, the senses are the dangerous open doorways reaching out to embrace cupidity, bridges between the world and body that have to be strictly guarded'. [7] However, extramission did give way to intromission through the writing of Alhacen's
Kitāb al-Manāzir in the 1030s. Alhacen Kitāb al-Manāzir turns Ptolemy's theory around and proposes that 'objects are seen by means solely of what they radiate to the eye'. [8] Working off of this model, Robert Bacon wrote on Alhacen Kitāb al-Manāzir's theories in his De multiplicatione specierum  in 1260, followed by Witelo's Perspectiva completed in the mid 1270s and finally John Pecham, just five years after Witelo, with his Perspectivac ommunis, all which brought Alhacen Kitāb al-Manāzir's theories to a wider audience. [9] These works brought intromission to the forefront of optics and the understanding of a visual spiritual communion. Vision was 'not only the noblest of senses, but the corporeal origin and requirement of intellectual vision. The necessity of vision for knowing God is granted by all commentators'. [10]  This receptiveness could allow divine grace to enter the penitent through the eyes, especially when viewing sacred objects. By adding this layer of understanding to the visual examination of verres églomisés Umbrian reliquaries, deeper religious concerns are highlighted.

Figure 3

In the article 'The Mass Production of Franciscan Piety' by Dillian Gordon, the production of verres églomisés in Umbria in the late fourteenth century is attributed to Pietro Teutonico and possibly a workshop either operated or influenced by his work. [11] The similarity in iconography, relic placement, and materials attributed to verres églomisés and reliquaries by 'Pietro Teutonico smacks of mass production'. [12] While repeated idiosyncrasies within the verres églomisés do unite the pieces, the concept of mass production of the reliquaries is problematic. [13] While Gordon proposes that the 'gilded glass itself was a cheap and quick way of achieving enamel', the choice of verres églomisés could suggest an interest in protecting valued relics, but restrainedly. [14] The Franciscans battled with egresses in vows of poverty since their inception, and the restrained materials could indicate this concern, as well as intra-Order politics. Furthermore, the repetition of idiosyncrasies with the iconography are more in line with medieval desires for repetition as ‘creativity was much more a matter of the use of sources, including existing works, within established forms’. [15]

The verres églomisés technique granted visual primacy to the relics contained within them by incorporating relics explicitly both in compositional arrangements and in textual markers denoting the type of relic shown. The decrees of Fourth Lateran gave some structure to the maintenance of relics, before which there were no express mandates on their adornment. The glass of the verres églomisés can be seen as a more modest form of rock crystal. The iconographic element, especially in the incorporation of Franciscan relics, ties the reliquaries to the Brothers Minor. This modesty
of materials could indicate an interest in maintaining a balance between sumptuous devotional objects and Franciscan ideals of poverty. Umbrian verres églomisés were more than mass produced devotional objects from a rapidly growing Order. Rather, their material and subject matter, when examined in light of medieval optics, papal decrees, and Franciscan concerns, reveals the verres églomisés reliquaries as intrinsically tied to efforts to understand divinity while honouring the Franciscan ideal of poverty.

Work Cited:

[1] Nuechterlein, J. 2005. ‘Hans Memling’s St. Ursula Shrine: The Subject as Object of Pilgrimage’. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions (Leiden, Brill Academic Publishers): 51
 [2] Bourdua, Louise. 2004. The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy (New
           York, Cambridge University Press): 24.
 [3] Gordon, Dillian. 1994. ‘The Mass Production of Franciscan Piety: Another Look at Some Umbrian verre églomisés’,  Apollo: The International Magazine of Art & Antiques, 394: 34
 [4] Even with the relative peace St. Bonaventure brought to the Order, Franciscan conflicts with vows of poverty continued. Bourdua, 2004, 25.
[5] Devons, Samuel. 1985. ‘Optics through the Eyes of the Medieval Churchmen’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 441: 210.
[6] Camille, Michael. 2000. ‘Before the Gaze: The Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing’, Visuality before and beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 204.
[7] Ibid., 206.
[8] Smith, A. M. 2004. ‘What Is the History of Medieval Optics Really About?’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 148.2: 182.
[9] Smith, 2004, 182-3.
[10] Hahn, Cynthia. 2000. ‘Visio Dei’, Visuality before and beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as  
           Others Saw (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 188.
[11] Gordon, 1994, 37.
[12] Ibid., 41.
[13] Ibid., 36-8.
[14] Ibid, 34.
[15] Hubert, Susan J. 1998. ‘Theological and Polemical Uses of Hagiography: A Consideration of Bonaventure's Legenda Major of St. Francis’, Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 29: 53.

Figure 1-2: Reliquary Diptych, ca 14th Century, Verre églomisé, painted and gilded wood, parchment, (open): 6 13/16 x17.3 x 22.3 x 4.6 cm,  (closed): 17.3 x 11.2 x 3.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17.190.982
Figure 3: Umbrian Cross Reliquary, ca 14th Century, Gilded glass, parchment, coral. S. Maria degli Angeli

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