LOOK at this book’s title: think of Tuscany, think of a treasure, and what comes to mind? Art in all its myriad forms and then landscape: medieval towns perched on hilltops, vineyards, and fields of sunflowers.
Interesting, then, that Raymond of Capua, the 14th-century Dominican, author of the life of St Agnes of Montepulciano, thought otherwise. He wrote: “Let all of Tuscany exalt because it has been decorated with such a noble treasure.” The Tuscan treasure, for him, is not inanimate, but incarnated in the person of Agnes, and none the less beautiful, indeed noble, for that.
So, who was Agnes? And who were the other women — Umilità of Faenza, Margaret of Cortona, Angela of Foligno, Clare of Montefalco, Catherine of Siena — who sprang from the Tuscan hills to adorn the local litany of saints in the medieval period? Why so many — and why just there?
Paula Clifford, one time lecturer in medieval studies, now priest in the diocese of Oxford, has assembled a selection of answers to these questions. What makes her book especially interesting is the way in which she examines how the holy women were portrayed. Whether in art or biography, their lives were interpreted through a lens, and this is what Clifford calls “conceptualization”.
She asks why these women mystics emerged when they did, and how their reputations were “made and enhanced by their biographers and artists”. The early tradition of hagiography which first emerged in Syria was transferred via pilgrimage and crusade along the religious equivalent of the silk roads into Europe. Taken up by male religious who wanted to enhance the reputation of their various congregations, Vitae, or lives, of the women saints entered the frame. These, in turn, inspired artists and local painters who were quick to get in on the act.
The Church, too, had a part to play, either by endorsing or by withholding recognition. Clifford argues that enhanced clerical superiority and power created a lay space that the women in her book could inhabit by creating niche interests for themselves. So Margaret of Cortona became a civic saint, Agnes of Montepulciano chased relics, Angela of Foligno embraced scholarship, Clare of Montefalco championed orthodoxy, and, of course, Catherine of Siena became an international figure.
In a sense, the other women constellate around Catherine; but, as this book so ably illustrates, there is much to be gained by submitting all of their stories to a scholarly gaze. What Clifford demonstrates is that how the Tuscan mystics were depicted is the key to understanding their place in the calendar. Conceptualisation is all.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.
Tuscany’s Noble Treasures: Conceptualizing female religious life in medieval Italy
Sacristy Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99