Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Mendicant Orders in the Medieval World

The mendicant friars were bound by a vow of absolute poverty and dedication to an ascetic way of life. They lived as Christ did, renouncing property and traveling the world to preach. Their survival was dependent upon the good will of their listeners. It was this way of life that gave them their name, “mendicant,” derived from the Latin mendicare, meaning “to beg.” Unlike monks of the Cistercian or Benedictine orders, mendicants spread God’s word in the cities. They were active in community life, teaching, healing, and helping the sick, poor, and destitute. Their personal maxim was: sibi soli vivere sed et aliis proficere (“not to live for themselves only but to serve others”).

The major mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, aspired to emulate the life and suffering of Christ. The Man of Sorrows by Michele Giambono (06.180) shows the small figure of Saint Francis expressing his grief over Christ’s Crucifixion. According to medieval thought, Christ’s position of outstretched arms and his displayed wounds suggest a mystical union with the viewer. Saint Francis attained the most perfect emulation of Christ’s pain by receiving the stigmatization associated with the Crucifixion (1979.498.2). The devotional plaque with the Man of Sorrows (1982.480) shows a Dominican friar and a hooded flagellant contemplating the suffering of Christ. Christ appears as if in a vision, but the friar and flagellant worship him in a direct and immediate way. Christ is represented in a manner that emphasizes his bodily suffering: above his tomb is the vinegar-soaked sponge that was offered to him during the Crucifixion and the lance that wounded his side. The flagellants, in particular, interpreted Christ’s pain in a literal way, whipping themselves in order to personally experience a degree of his suffering.

Because the orders’ primary aim was the evangelization of the masses, the church granted them freedom from the jurisdiction of the bishops and they were sent around the world to convert or reinforce faith. It was on journeys to the East that the friars inevitably encountered Byzantine art and learned of the value of visual images in their apostolic mission. They discovered that a union between the material and spiritual could be realized in an icon. As a material gate to a spiritual world, such art was able to strengthen existing faith or prompt conversion. It was not long after their travels in the East that the monks, who had previously shunned material possession, began to fill their churches and monasteries with ornate images inspired by Byzantine art. The orders established their own scriptoria for the production of illuminated manuscripts (2005.273) and adopted Eastern themes. Giambono’s Man of Sorrows (06.180) reveals an interest in Eastern iconography; for instance, the decision to show Christ both humiliated and glorified derives from an icon type popular in Byzantine depictions of Christ.