Representing Nobility, Charity and sainthood : Aspects of the European Movement of the Mendicant Orders in the 13th and 14th Centuries
By Raphaela Averkorn
Histoire, Images, Imaginaire, edited by Pascal Dupuy (University of Pisa, 2002)
Introduction: In this chapter we will analyse the relation between nobility, charity and sainthood in the Middle Ages using various images and some written sources. Nobility and sainthood is very broad topic; therefore we will concentrate on one special aspect and choose examples from a limited period of time.
The use of images was very important in a society where only a minority was able to read and even less fewer could write. Images had a key function in medieval society and can be analysed on different levels. They include different realities and codified symbols which are often not easy for us to read and to understand.
Here we will concentrate on some aspects related to the way certain saints were represented. The emerging mendicant orders which started their reform work in the 13th century produced a new type of saints of whom quite a few were noble. A fundamental aspect of the work of the new orders was charity. Of course, doing works of charity had helped to gain sainthood since the beginning of the Christian faith. The new noble saints of the 13th and 14th century who were closely connected to the Franciscan and Dominican orders (or to one of the two) were “contemporary” saints, well known to their families and subjects. We have materials concerning their lives which were collected by contemporaries and in many cases we can also find significant iconographical material. Illuminated manuscripts, works of fine art, were created often soon after the saints’ death and this production continued in later centuries when the cult of those saints spread in many European countries. Another important aspect which here we can only mention is that of propaganda initiated and supported by the noble families themselves in order to assist in the process of canonisation of their family member and, in later times, to stress the fact that the saint belonged to their family and their territory. The image of the new noble saint was closely linked to political propaganda as can be demonstrated using not only written sources but pictorial material as well. A new role model was being developed.