Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

By James France, 435 pages, Cistercian Publications.

Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux introduces the reader to art history, so closely tied to Christianity. Saint Bernard, sometimes called the last of the Western Church Fathers even though he lived centuries after the patristic age (he died in 1153), was probably the most influential churchman of his century, preaching crusades and conversion, finding young recruits for his monasteries, as well as traveling widely and advising ecclesiastical and political leaders.

Medieval images is an interesting topic because until the late Middle Ages, the medieval imagination was not conducive to genuine portraiture. The images of Saint Bernard would have reflected the piety of the artist and the intended religious message at that time rather than the real physicality of the saint. In other words, they would have been icons.

Images of the Saint would have reflected the roles he had fulfilled: “How do we recognize Bernard in medieval iconography? The chief 'attributes' are his portrayal as the monk he became when he entered Citeaux, probably in the spring of 1113; as the abbot who founded Clairvaux in 1115; and as the saint he was officially declared when he was canonized in 1174.”

The Church's teaching and preaching depended on art for centuries because most people couldn't read. A piece of medieval or renaissance art would have contained different layers of messages, such as biblical, moral, and doctrinal.

Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux also introduces the reader to medieval monastic culture, as in the words of one monk: “'I wear the habit of a monk, I am tonsured, I am cowled'. The tonsure and the cowl were the hallmark of the monk.” This culture, along with Christian art, played a vital role in the life and teaching of the medieval and modern Church, and so these tidbits offer us a wider view of medieval life.

The book opens with an informative portrait of Saint Bernard, focusing on what his contemporaries said about his appearance (he was emaciated because of his almost-constant fasting) and popularity with the opposite sex (women were not always shy about expressing their physical desire, even climbing into his bed while he was on one of his frequent travels throughout Europe). The biography of the saint continues throughout, as Medieval Images of Saint Bernard discusses the images of the saint reflecting his various roles and career.

This academic book includes the original Latin at page bottoms for citations from medieval writers. Typical passages descriptive of given images read like this:

“He is seated with his head bowed writing at a desk, holding a pen in his right hand and a knife in his left. He has a short beard and a circular area at the top of his head is shaven while his hair is long at the sides and back. Unusually, he is shown wearing his blue tunic with white dots. His tunic has ample sleeves and a shawl is draped over his left shoulder and lap.”

The accompanying cd rom contains all known medieval images of Saint Bernard.

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