The Art of Healing: Painting for the Sick and the Sinner in a Medieval Town

By Ambrose, Kirk | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2007 | Go to article overview

The Art of Healing: Painting for the Sick and the Sinner in a Medieval Town


Ambrose, Kirk, The Catholic Historical Review


The Art of Healing: Painting for the Sick and the Sinner in a Medieval Town. By Marcia Kupfer. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2003. Pp. xviii, 202 plus 117 figures. $45.00.)

Marcia Kupfer's lively book is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Drawing on extensive archival research and deftly moving from archaeology to hagiography to nosography among other myriad fields, the study focuses on the little-studied crypt frescos of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in central France. Kupfer frankly admits that these paintings, produced around 1200, are of middling quality, but she insists that their emphasis on scenes of healing offers important insights into the social uses of the monument, particularly the care of the sick body and soul.

As with her earlier book, Romanesque Wall Painting in Central France: The Politics of Narrative (New Haven, 1993), political motivations of the clergy feature prominently.The college of canons, the presumed patrons of the paintings, emerges as a group determined to assert their role as mediators of divine healing.The first two chapters consider how the canons interacted with local lords and the many institutions dedicated to healing the sick in and around Saint-Aignan, especially in relation to ongoing changes in the cityscape. The third chapter asks what motivated the house of canons to sponsor an artistic program focused on healing. Repeated outbreaks of ergotism in this region are posited as one likely factor, but Kupfer believes more fundamentally that the crypt's representation of saints, associated with nearby and administratively subordinate institutions of healing, ultimately asserted the hegemonic position of the canons. Some recent scholarship, most notably Cynthia Halm's, has questioned whether political motivations significantly informed pictorial hagiography in the High Middle Ages. But because Kupfer weaves a host of other threads into her narrative, her readings contain nuances that a short review cannot convey.

After establishing a social context, Kupfer turns to a sustained analysis of the monument. …

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