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

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

by Marcia Kupfer


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Many historians of medieval art now look beyond soaring cathedrals to study the relationship of architecture and image-making to life in medieval society. In The Art of Healing, Marcia Kupfer explores the interplay between church decoration and ritual practice in caring for the sick. Her inquiry bridges cultural anthropology and the social history of medicine even as it also expands our understanding of how clergy employed mural painting to cure body and soul.

Looking closely at paintings from ca. 1200 in the church of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, a castle town in Central France, Kupfer traces their links to burial practices, the veneration of saints, and the care of the sick in nearby hospitals. Through careful analysis of the surrounding agrarian landscape, dotted with cults targeting specific afflictions, especially ergotism (then known as St. Silvan’s fire), Kupfer sheds new light on the role of wall painting in an ecclesiastical economy of healing and redemption. Sickness and death, she argues, hold the key to understanding the dynamics of Christian community in the Middle Ages. The Art of Healing will be important reading for cultural anthropologists and historians of both medicine and religion as well as for medievalists and art historians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780271023038
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Publication date: 09/28/2003
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.75(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Marcia Kupfer is Associate Director for Washington Humanities Program at Johns Hopkins University. Kupfer is also an independent scholar who has taught medieval art at several American universities and in 1999 was professeur invité at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. She is the author of Romanesque Wall Painting in Central France: The Politics of Narrative (1993).

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Copyright © 2003

The Pennsylvania State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-271-02303-1

Chapter One


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 1200 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 (fig. 3), subordinated to the donjon
(figs. 33, 34) and dominating the borough (fig. 2), 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 (fig. 6). 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 (figs. 7-14). 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 (figs. 25, 27), purifies Mary of her demons (figs. 20-22), brings
Lazarus back to life (figs. 19, 20). Together the episodes form a prelude to
Christ's own resurrection (figs. 23, 24), 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 (fig. 15). He excises poisonous venom from a man bitten
by a snake (fig. 35) and saves a ship from wreckage at sea (fig. 36). But of the
many deeds he performs, two in particular demonstrate his imitatio christi:
Giles heals a beggar through his garment (fig. 16) and obtains God's pardon
of Charlemagne's unspeakable offense (figs. 17, 18). Although he cures others,
he accepts the martyrdom of permanent disability so that through suffering
he can increase his virtue (figs. 37-40). 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

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. Relics,
fundamental though their sacred power may be, were but one agent in a
dynamic of healing that involved communities and, as my last chapter will
clarify, exploited asymmetries between rich and poor, men and women. Before
I can show how images triggered this dynamic, elements of the socially differentiated,
gender-bound world to which the church specifically belonged must
be pieced together from "the ground up." At this point, to use an analogy from
any number of classic detective films, I phase away from the immediate scene
that is my focal point (the monument) and turn my attention to what lay
behind it: background now moves into the foreground.


Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher finds itself at the conjunction of three regions (fig. 1).
To the north lies the marshy district of the Sologne. Heath alleviated by
clumps of trees, ponds, and meadows crisscross the vast sandy plains between
the Cher and the Loire. To the south and east, a mix of wood- and pastureland
(bocage) covers the hills of that part of the Berry called the Boischaut. The
Cher valley at the level of Saint-Aignan, however, already presents the limestone
plateaux characteristic of the area around Tours, sixty kilometers to the
west. Geographically an extension of the Touraine but politically a satellite of
Blois, the town was identified throughout the Middle Ages in relation to the
Berry because it belonged, as parish, to the diocese of Bourges. Its urban
development was shaped by the double role its strategic location conferred.
Carved out of the valley by the sinuous course of the river, the promontory
lent itself to fortification. From the late tenth century a walled, garrisoned
enclave (oppidum, castrum) commanded the naturally defended site, gateway to
the Touraine, along the embattled frontier between the domains of Blois and
Anjou. But what began as a military outpost also provided a connecting link
between vital arteries of the surrounding agrarian world. Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher
was both buffer and bridge, critical position in a chain of defense and
point of passage along a well-traveled corridor.

The earliest narrative text to relate the origins of the medieval settlement
is a dynastic history of the lords of Amboise, vassals of the count of Anjou.
The mid-twelfth-century Deeds of the Lords of Amboise (Gesta ambaziensium
devotes a few lines to the garrison's creation while chronicling
the struggle between the Angevin Fulk Nerra (987-1040) and Odo II, count
of Blois (1004-37), for domination of the Touraine. In brief, Odo's father,
Odo I (976-96), fortified a place above the Cher where a church of Saint
Anianus had formerly been inhabited by hermits ("ubi erat sancti Aniani
ecclesia ab heremitis olim habitata"). Odo II gave the oppidum to his closest
associate, the most loyal warrior in his entourage, Geoffrey the Young (of
Donzy). Having been made lord of Saint-Aignan, Geoffrey courageously
fought Odo's enemies, but fell prisoner to Fulk and died (c. 1037) while
incarcerated at Loches. His men brought his body back to Saint-Aignan and,
significantly, buried him in the eastern part of the church of Saint John
("cujus corpus homines sui Sancti Aniano deferentes, in latere ecclesie sancti
Johannis ab orientali parte sepelierunt").

We can infer from the Gesta that the stronghold took its name from the
dedication of a preexisting church to Saint Anianus. The seventeenth-century
historian of Blois, Jean Bernier, associated the primitive sanctuary with
Robert the Strong (d. 867) on account of the count's special devotion to this
Gallo-Roman bishop of Orléans. In the nineteenth century local antiquarians
greatly embellished the purported Carolingian foundation of the "hermits'"
church. One writer presumed that it acquired the relics of Anianus during
Robert's rule, another that it was a simulacrum of the saint's tomb at
Orléans. Unverifiable suppositions notwithstanding, the archaeology of the
Romanesque church (reviewed at greater length in Chapter 4) does confirm
the cult of relics. During a summary excavation conducted in 1933, the crypt's
original western retaining wall, now occluded by the later choir wall bearing
fifteenth-century paintings (fig. 32), was discovered to be equipped with two
tiny round-arched openings (fig. 41). The pair of little windows (fenestellae)
could have had only one possible function-to allow the perception from the
upper church of relics deposited in the crypt below. Although there is no way
to ascertain whose relics were conserved, Saint Anianus-venerated at this site
since at least the tenth century-would seem to be the candidate of choice.

The reference in the Gesta to a church of Saint John, burial place of the
first lord of Saint-Aignan, is therefore perplexing. Does the place-name Saint-Aignan
pertain to the oppidum, or castrum as it is called in eleventh-century
charters, but the dedication Saint John to its church? Were Anianus and John
titular saints of two cult centers within the enclave, or, alternatively, did two
patrons accrue over time to a single sanctuary? Archival and archaeological
evidence indicates that a succession of structures built on the same terrain
resulted in a single church with a double dedication. Whereas the castrum
was always called Saint-Aignan, the church might be designated by either

The early-eleventh-century church of Saint John where Geoffrey of
Donzy was interred c. 1037 very likely corresponds to one so named in a charter
of 1087, issued "at the castrum of Saint-Aignan next to the church of
Saint John" (apud castrum sancti aniani iuxta ecclesiam sancti iohannis)
This topographic locution also fits the relationship visible today between the
fortified height of the plateau and the church below. Yet at the date the document
was drawn up, construction of the church now standing would only
just have been getting under way. As is discussed in Chapter 4, the building's
structural idiosyncrasies presuppose some earlier edifice around which it took
shape and which it supplanted during the course of construction. The late-eleventh- and
twelfth-century church, Maylis Baylé contends, is a rebuilding;
it was not erected on virgin soil.

She advances her argument with an observation concerning four tombs
brought to light at the time of the 1933 excavation of the crypt. Three burial
cavities with rubblework walls were found in the choir, as was a trapezoidal
stone sarcophagus on axis further east at the entrance to the apse (fig. 41). On
the basis of a drawing, the only known record of the find, Baylé suggests that
the oldest of the four tombs predates the crypt itself. To whom the tombs
belonged remains unknown. There can be no doubt, however, that inhumation
in the crypt sanctified by the relics of saints would have been reserved for
the "founders" and patrons of the church-either high-ranking clergy, for
example, priors of the chapter, or, on the ecclesiastical model, the lord of
Saint-Aignan and close members of his family. Given the precedent of
Geoffrey of Donzy's distinguished burial latere ecclesie sancti iohannis ab orientale
the crypt of the new church could well have served, originally at least,
as a seigueurial mausoleum. Lay burial in the crypt at Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher
would by no means be atypical. It compares especially well in this respect with
the crypt of the collegiate/castle church of Notre-Dame, Gargilesse (Indre),
built in the second third of the twelfth century. The lower church there
functioned as the private sepulchral chapel of the lords of Gargilesse, the
Naillac, a Limousin family that originated in the tenth century (the Donzy,
too, were from outside the region). The oldest documented burial at Gargilesse
dates from 1266, but the crypt may have been used for this purpose from the

Although the Gesta and charter of 1087 refer to a church of Saint John,
other, later-eleventh- and twelfth-century acts on behalf of the church of
Saint-Aignan tout court corroborate the existence of a single sanctuary at the

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Copyright © 2003 by The Pennsylvania State University.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations


List of Abbreviations

Introduction: “Confess Your Sins”

Part I: The Medieval Site

1. From Castle to Town

Inside the Painted Crypt

Oppidum and Parish

Lord and Borough

2. Chapels, Hospitals, and Healing Cults


The Leprosery

The Maison-Dieu

The Porticus of Noyers

3. From Spatialized Body to Painted Crypt

Saint Silvanus’s Fire

Local Cults: An Epidemiological Basis?

Local Cults: A System of Representation

Images and the Recapture of Therapeutic Powers

Part II: The Collegiate Church

4. The Architectural Framework: Spatial Disjunction, Social Displacement

Architectural Design and Building Chronology

The Crypt Redefined

Pilgrimage as Penance

5. The Paintings: The Saints in the Crypt

The Apsidal Theophany and the Altar of Saint James

The South Chapel: The Life of Saint Giles

The Axial Chapel: Lazarus, Mary Magdalen, and Martha

From Micro- to Macrocosm

Pictorial Resonance, Programmatic Texture

6. Image and Audience: Infirmity, Charity, and Penance in the Community

Exchange and Mediation

Gender Roles, Body Politics

Infirmity as Social Boundary

Conclusion: The Art of Healing

Epilogue: The Late Medieval Paintings




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