Marcia Kupfer

The Art of Healing

©The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003 
isbn 0-271-02303-1        

N.b. Les premières pages de l’ouvrage sont reproduites ci-dessous (à l’exception des renvois et des notes) avec la permission de l’auteur.

La maladie et les préoccupations religieuses sont les éléments principaux qui permettent de reconstruire l'univers mental et matériel des saint-aignanais des XIIe-XIIIe s. et d'en comprendre la signification.  The Art of Healing, première étude historique moderne sur les fresques de la crypte de la collégiale, est l'oeuvre d'une historienne américaine, Marcia Kupfer, de l'Université Johns Hopkins. Il s'agit d'une étude approfondie fondée sur une lecture minutieuse des fresques et qui reconstitue, à partir des archives et de l'examen des traces matérielles subsistantes, toute la culture de l'époque. Ce travail remarquable est publié (en anglais) par The Pennsylvania State University Press .



To see works of medieval art solely with the naked eye is to remain blind. It is the central premise of this book that, for medieval audiences, looking at pictorial images engaged the entire person. The sense of sight to which art appealed was but one aspect of a fuller, bodily experience that stimulated the emotional and mental receptivity needed for understanding. A choreographed physical encounter with images, whether in handling objects or moving through architectural space, facilitated comprehen­sion, a taking possession of the seen for the purpose of creating meaning. Images gathered in with the eyes, visually ingested, so to speak, demanded to be spiritually consumed and digested. Vision meant incorporation and eventual self-transformation, a dynamic of special rele­vance to the practices of ritual healing with which the following study is concerned. Because seeing in such a manner implicated the psychosomatic unity of the person, images could serve as potent adjuncts to therapeutic regimes.

My position on what viewing entailed for medieval users of images builds on recent discussion of the unabashed physicality accorded thought processes and, conversely, the body's instrumentality in achieving higher consciousness. Complementary lines of inquiry by Mary Carruthers into the bodily nature of mental activity and by Caroline Walker Bynum into the body as the locus of spiritual struggle have tapped a wealth of sources per­tinent to the monastic and religious life. Meditation, for example, required the mastication of sacred texts: the oral/aural repetition of syllables through which one learned to read Latin laid the foundation for the intellectual stages of silent rumination and cogitation. Prayer similarly began with a piercing or wounding of the heart, the literal meaning of compunction: intense grief over one's own sins, recollected so as to be excreted, prepared the soul for communion with Gods The exercise of memory involved a consciously directed journey, a displacement of the self, along associative routes through networks of emotions, sensory perceptions, and ideas. But that self could not be imag(in)ed apart from the body in which psychic activity transpired as a function of human physiology.

Commonplace corporeal metaphors for cognitive practices and affective states were thus ultimately grounded in an ontology of the embodied self. To be sure, the self was more than the mortal body-since possessed of, informed by, a soul, which survived death. Yet the self was also not an amorphous spiri­tual entity-since utterly identified with the particular sentient body that the soul inhabited on earth. Although irreducible to the body, the self was never­theless inextricable from it. Flesh, subject both to desire and will, had to collaborate in the soul's spiritual advancement. When the body rose at the Resurrection on the Last Day, it would be rescued from corruption to partake eternally of the soul's blessedness in heaven or torment in hell. Salvation rewarded, damnation punished, soul and body jointly. Both were equally constitutive of the person.      

I explore the role of medieval wall painting in articulating the body/soul relationship for a lay public, a relationship that the decorated church not only placed at the territorial nucleus of the parish but also made the defining ele­ment of Christian community. Already during earthly existence, infirmity and healing brought into play the interdependence of matter and spirit, body and soul. The root causes of disease, disability, deformity, and psychic distress belonged to an invisible, supernatural order, affliction and cure, the province of higher powers. Saints, of course, intervened in nature. By miraculously provoking or eliminating malady, they not only reflectively manifested God's glory in the present but also offered a foretaste of future justice. Priests, too, dispensed divine medicine. Their sacramental treatment of the soul benefited the ailing person whether or not it restored the sick body to wholeness. In fact, physical suffering, when patiently endured, would aid the soul in its search for deliverance, just as pursuing worldly satisfaction and carnal pleasure without care for the soul would inevitably bring everlasting pain.

Spiritual health achieved in this world determined the well-being of the self in the hereafter. To heal and be healed was to enter into an economy of redemption in which the exchange of gifts and services, suffrage and sacrifice, crossed the boundary between material and spiritual planes. The problem I investigate is how the built environment, architectural space, and pictorial representation combined to structure viewers' approaches to the sacred so that the very act of looking at images opened a way into the circulation of grace. How, I also ask, did the decorated church organize a complex, multiparty cycle of gift exchange so as to guarantee the health of the social body?

The second premise of this book, corollary to the first, is that if we are to understand the cultural work performed by medieval art, we cannot rely merely on what we now see. Buildings and artifacts, sundered from their proper settings in the vanished communities that interacted with them, are deposited across our world like so much inert geological sediment. Visible surfaces and current surroundings are altogether misleading. Excavating and reconstructing the historical conditions of meaning production are necessary prerequisites to our vision. The monument on which I focus below reveals its therapeutic functions only when restored to the twelfth- and thirteenth­century landscape that it dominated and to the populace living within its ken.

Go today to Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher (Loir-et-Cher), a small town in central France some forty kilometers south of Blois. Visit the Romanesque church there. But it would be impossible to guess that the building was once the principal sanctuary around which clustered several hospitals and small chapels devoted to healing cults. The only clue that healing was ever a major preoccupation at the site is to be found in the vast crypt, painted c. 1200. The most telling image appears in the center of the apse vault above the main altar. Across a visionary scene of God's Majesty unfurls the key phrase "Confess your sins" (James 5:16). The enthroned Christ hands down to Saint James, at his left, a scroll on which was written an abbreviated excerpt of the scriptural verse, "Confitemini [ergo] alterutrum peccata [vestra]," now so rubbed as to be unintelligible.  To Saint Peter, at his right, Christ issues the keys to heaven .

This theophany of divine traditio is at the same time a scene of ritual propi­tiation in which healing comes through God's forgiveness of sin. Three small paupers, crutches at hand, humbly petition for grace. Offering votive gifts and prayers at the feet of Christ and the apostles, the supplicants receive blessings in turn. They bear the attributes of the infirm and the pilgrim but represent, in the fullest sense of the term, the faithful to whom (Christ through) James addresses the passage that culminates with the inscribed words. "Is there any one among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess therefore your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be saved" (James 5:14-16). The image holds out the prospect of a return to physical health in this world-the supplicant kneeling before James has given up his crutch -even as it envisions, in the paupers' apotheosis into the realm of God and the saints, the passage of a fallen humanity through sickness and death to eternal life.

The New Testament exhortation to confession reverberates in radial chapels, where paintings extant from the same date dilate upon the relation­ship between penance and healing. Saint Giles, whose life is recounted in the south chapel, not only performs miraculous cures  but also miraculously obtains divine proof that repentance wins God's pardon. The east chapel combines the Raising of Lazarus, prototype of spiritual rebirth and triumph over death, with gospel episodes featuring his saintly sisters. Mary of Bethany, widely believed in the Middle Ages to be none other than the Magdalen, is represented, as one might expect, in the role of penitent par excellence as she anoints Christ's feet; she is also shown conversing with Christ in the garden after his resurrection. Quite surprisingly, by contrast, Martha is identified here as the woman healed of her issue of blood at the moment she touched Christ's garment.

Resurrection and redemption, subtexts of the Romanesque program, were much later explicitly depicted in a second ensemble of medieval fres­coes introduced into the quasi-subterranean space. Fifteenth-century murals encompass the Majesty in the semidome of the apse, making it the center­piece of a new program, and extend westward into the choir  Emerging from open tombs, the dead go forth to greet Christ returned as Judge. Noble donors in the company of patron saints take their place on the base of the apsidal concha to either side of the old image of pauperes christi received by God.

At first glance, the Saint-Aignan paintings may seem an odd choice for close examination. The Romanesque ensemble is only partially preserved and, from a strictly technical viewpoint, is of uneven quality. Nor does any as-yet-unacclaimed masterpiece of the fifteenth century here await discovery. Although not unknown to specialists, the murals in question hardly rank among the "great works" of medieval art." Indeed, their modesty poses a challenge to art historians. Scholarship in the medieval field has traditionally concentrated on powerful abbeys and cathedrals, renowned patrons and theologians, sumptuously illuminated manuscripts and precious ornaments. Our disciplinary narratives, revolving around a canon created by learned elites, take little notice of la culture moyenne. What story can be extracted from the Saint-Aignan paintings, and what larger implications might it have for our understanding of the Middle Ages?

The artistic record of parishes, passed over in silence by contemporaries and down to us in degraded condition, is caught in a double bind. Previous generations of art historians routinely judged the sanctuaries of smaller cor­porate bodies, village churches, and rural chapels to be second-rate, and thus unworthy of serious study. When considered at all, the extant material was typically granted limited reflective value, acquiring visibility insofar as it fleshed out developments at major centers or bore on prestigious monuments. Con­sequently, little in the way of basic documentation, let alone more probing discussion, is available to historians who today seek to understand how ordi­nary people of the past dealt with everyday issues. Yet we cannot tease out what artistic activity at the parish level may reveal about medieval society without first inventorying dispersed archaeological remains-not an especially rewarding project in our postpositivist era. Once regarded as the province of antiquarians and now left to conservators in charge of national patrimonies, the medieval parish eludes the historian's gaze. I hope to show, however, that this arena of cultural production merits another look.

A serendipitous finding precipitated my interest in Saint-Aignan. The Romanesque paintings in the crypt of the church can be correlated with the contemporary operation of several hospitals surrounding the town. Highly unusual to say the least, this remarkable connection is puzzling indeed. Why would the decorative scheme inside the church be linked to outlying charit­able institutions? Just what might be at stake in the spatial organization of the medieval parish that the concomitant organization of pictorial images in architectural space addressed? Pondering these questions led me to investigate the painted crypt in relation to the urban development of the site, the prolif­eration of institutions for assistance to the sick poor, and the local topography of healing and burial.

My attempt to retrieve a dimension of medieval culture from a singular evidentiary trace draws inspiration from the goals and techniques of "micro­history." Perhaps the genre's best-known examples are the now classic studies by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie on the Occitan village of Montaillou, Carlo Ginzburg on the cosmogony of a Friulian miller, and Jean-Claude Schmitt on the cult of a dog-saint in the Dombes.12 The recovery of peasant mentalities for which these books are justly celebrated is not the defining feature of microhistory, however. Certainly my project, which centers on church decoration in the context of official ecclesiastical patronage, in no way pre­tends to bring the worldview of twelfth-century peasants to life. Rather, the above-named studies, among others, have carved out a distinctive historio­graphical niche by training attention, methodically, in craftsmanly fashion, on localized formations and anomalous instances. Underpinning the work at hand is a similar value placed on the reduced scale of observation, which permits insight into tensions and possibilities, tactics and accommodations, that belie normative accounts of social, and artistic, order.

Whereas Le Roy Ladurie, Ginzburg, and Schmitt took isolated texts as their starting points, I instead decipher spatial practices from a nexus of uniquely interconnected buildings and images. This configuration, of which only scat­tered, discontinuous fragments survive, must be painstakingly reconstituted through intensive analysis of archaeological, iconographic, archival, and ethno­graphic materials. Only when the painted crypt and the world outside the church are brought together within a mutually explanatory framework, each term the hermeneutic of the other, does the case study yield new insight into space "as a cultural system" (to borrow a phrase from the titles of several articles by Clifford Geertz). The restricted scope of my inquiry means that the exemplary status of its results remains uncertain. All the same, the experiment suggests that "lesser" works formerly thought to lack visual and intellectual interest may indeed generate stories worth telling.

The book moves cinematically, as it were, from a global view of medieval Saint-Aignan (Part i) into the collegiate and parish church (Part ii). The first chapter unravels the intertwined strands in the joint history of castle town and church. The second pieces together the "medical" landscape from the built environment. My concern here is to place the secular canons of Saint-Aignan and their church at the crux of relations between the local lord, a flourishing burgher population, and pilgrims to the crypt as well as to sites of healing in the marshy lowlands outside borough walls. Chapter 3 mobilizes seemingly inconsequential, banal details gleaned thus far as clues to meaningful patterns articulated in and through space. One set of coordinates maps relations between corps and terroir; another, giving priority to spiritual health, returns the ailing body to the church and its paintings. Both systems, I propose, participated in the representation, inchoate and unverbalized, of competing therapeutic regimes. Each deployed images, symbolic in one case, pictorial in the other, within contrasting protocols designed to alleviate pain and suffering.

The second half of the monograph scrutinizes the central monument of ecclesiastical power. Chapter 4 considers how the architectural fabric of the church, significantly altered in the course of construction, orchestrated the transition from an exterior terrain marked by disease and death to an interior in which pictorial images prescribed a remedy for body and soul. Chapter 5 reconstitutes the iconography of the Romanesque ensemble in order to expli­cate its programmatic richness. Crucially, however, what the paintings show does not exhaust what they do. I argue in Chapter 6 that the work recruited a diverse audience within an economy of salvation by exploiting differences in social status and gender roles. Visual images insinuated sexed and stigmatized bodies into spiritual transactions negotiated in the invisible realm of the soul. Having earlier clarified the crypt's multiple functions as consecrated space, I now reflect on the inverse problem: how was the sacred spatialized? By what means, in other words, was the sacred converted into institutional structures that inscribed populations in geographical space? The crypt's painted decora­tion cooperated in ecclesiastical strategies for consolidating the territorial integrity of the parish. Membership in Christian community, dependent on penance and critical especially at death, bound souls and bodies to the land.

Acts of appropriation thread their way into the story of the crypt's use over time. Built in the late eleventh century, the crypt initially served to commem­orate and perpetuate seigneurial domination of the plateau overlooking the Cher River. The painting campaign, which followed the spatial transformation of the lower church in the late twelfth century, reflects the expanding scope of the chapter's patronage beyond the borough to the plat pays. What had originated as a reliquary chamber and mausoleum for the lordly "founders" of the parish became by the late thirteenth century the prized venue for the memorial endowments of burghers. The fifteenth-century reception of the Romanesque Majesty, treated in the epilogue, brings us full circle. The family now inhabiting the adjacent castle reasserted a noble presence through its commission of paintings in the crypt's central space, where previously the town innkeeper and toll collector had installed his chantry foundation. Expendable wealth may have changed hands through the centuries, but above the main altar the pictorial representation of the sick poor petitioning Christ and the saints continued to serve a useful purpose.


Were I a filmmaker, this chapter would dissolve into opening footage designed to set the stage for my unfolding story. Kaleidoscopic cinematography would artfully evoke "life" around I200 in the thriving town of Saint-Aignan, perched on a rocky promontory above the Cher. Sweep­ing across the heel-shaped plateau, an aerial pan would descend past the castle keep at the western summit to the Romanesque church midway down the slope and finally arrive at the borough south and east around the base.

A quickly paced sequence of introductory vignettes would follow. The camera would penetrate the private apartments of the donjon to spy on the lord and his family, observe devotions at church, tag along behind a funeral cortege, and tour the market, near the prison and pillory, at the hub of narrow winding streets crowded with ateliers and houses. Out of a preliminary collage of myriad discon­nected tableaus, the protagonists would come into focus and the plot gradually take shape.

Of course, I am not writing a scenario for a film in the vein of Martin Guerre.' I recount no intrigue, ponder no tragic predicament. I neither re-create intimate relation­ships nor overhear conversations of the sort that sparked confessors' probing inquisitions: readers should not expect to meet characters resembling the colorful villagers of Montaillou or the sympathetic Menocchio, the miller from the region of Pordenone who believed the world began in rotten cheese and worms. The people I discuss remain sadly obscure, though I count myself lucky to be able to name some of them. Instead of conjuring lives and personalities, I imagine a landscape in which space itself plays the starring role. Monuments perform. Articulating the twelfth-century terrain at key junctures, the church in con­cert with subsidiary shrines and outlying hospitals imposes a sacred order that governs ritual transactions between various social groups. The powerful and the weak, the able-bodied and the sick, the living and the dead, townsfolk and wayfarers, clergy and laity, figure as codependents in a single temporal economy with a view to eternity.

The story I have to tell is, in a very real sense, about place. Retracing here the configuration of the medieval site will allow me to say more later about how the collegiate church of Saint-Aignan represented itself through pictorial images as the privileged engine of social exchange. If my purpose were simply to locate things, I could substitute my verbal sketch with a map. But the topography of the town and vicinity presents difficulties on two accounts. First of all, its imbricated geographical, political, and institutional dimensions require explication. Second, its constituent elements are hardly obvious to the eye: detective work is needed to pick apart and sift through successive layers of medieval and postmedieval development. To see into the past is clearly impossible; for a scholar to paint a seamless portrait of a vanished world is irresponsible. As I describe the closely linked foundation of castle and church at Saint-Aignan and the urban growth of the borough, I will acknowledge the gaps in my documentation and leave them exposed. My task is therefore just the opposite of the filmmaker's, whose illusory picture window onto "life" invents a cohesive, saturated whole beyond my range of vision.





The Romanesque church of Saint-Aignan, subordinated to the donjon and dominating the borough, is the most significant mate­rial fragment of the medieval site. I will return in subsequent chapters to treat the specifics of its architecture and painted decoration. Suffice it to remark for now that the oldest and least restored part of the building, the crypt, dates from the late eleventh century. By the time construction began, the radial plan adopted for the east end had become fairly common. Still, a crypt in which the apse is encased in a spacious ambulatory giving onto three apsidioles harks back to a disposition traditionally associated with the presenta­tion of saints' relics. Work on the building proceeded in stages over the course of the next hundred years, and at the end of the twelfth century, the lower church was embellished with murals.

The core scene of God's Majesty in the semidome of the apse, the crypt's main chapel, features the apostles Peter and James with diminutive figures, weak, lame, or crippled, at their feet. The trio of sibling saints, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, appear in the axial chapel, each the beneficiary of Christ medicus: he stops Martha's flow of blood as she touches the fringe of his robe, purifies Mary of her demons, brings Lazarus back to life. Together the episodes form a prelude to Christ's own resurrection, by which he vanquishes death and redeems fallen humanity of its original sin. The miracle-working Saint Giles, whose epic legend spanned Gaul's late antique and Carolingian past, presides in the south chapel. He excises poisonous venom from a man bitten by a snake and saves a ship from wreckage at sea. But of the many deeds he performs, two in particular demonstrate his imitatio christi: Giles heals a beggar through his garment and obtains God's pardon of Charlemagne's unspeakable offense. Although he cures others, he accepts the martyrdom of permanent disability so that through suffering he can increase his virtue. The north apsidiole, too, received a hagiographic cycle similar in format to its counterparts at east and south, but the material is entirely effaced except for the palest vestiges of colored plaster.

A preliminary survey of the painted crypt would thus make it entirely appropriate to posit as a working hypothesis that relics were housed there and attracted pilgrims in search of healing. No wonder, then, that images portray contemporary suppliants begging pardon for sins as well as miraculous cures. But this scenario, for which I will provide compelling, if circumstantial, evidence, is quite incomplete, failing to take into account the multiple functions of the space. Missing from the purview of on-site inspection is the richly textured fabric of patronage and clientele that only deeper investigation into the historical record can begin to delineate. Saints were not the only dead honored in the crypt, nor pilgrims the sole visitors there. The cult activities sustained by the lower church grew out of its interconnections with the castle, town, and nearby charitable houses. Unless the local nobility, secular canons, and burghers are factored into the balance sheet, we are left with a shallow impression of how the shrine complex actually worked.