Beth Williamson. The Madonna of Humility: Development, Dissemination and Reception, c. 1340-1400. Bristol Studies in Medieval Culture. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2008. 212 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-419-9.
Reviewed by Beth Kreitzer (Belmont Abbey College)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Cultural Origins and Impact of the "Madonna of Humility"
Beth Williamson's The Madonna of Humility is a well-written, convincing work of art history. Its topic is the popular later medieval image of Mary known as the "Madonna of Humility," whose primary characteristic is that of Mary seated on the ground, with the Christ child seated upon her lap. Beyond this major element, images classified under this title may contain other details, such as Mary suckling the child, visual references to the Annunciation, and/or references to Mary as the woman of the Apocalypse (that is, the sun, moon, and stars mentioned in Rev. 12). The earliest surviving works of this particular Marian type are found in frescoes and panel paintings in Italy and Avignon from the 1340s.
In terms of art historical research into this image type, the major studies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries focused on constructing a "lost prototype," of which the surviving paintings are more or less approximate copies. The historians who researched this image type were interested, according to Williamson, in constructing both a common origin and a common meaning for the frequently varied elements in the paintings included in this type. The end result, she argues, was not only an oversimplification, but an obfuscation of what is really interesting and important about these images: how they functioned. Relying on a Geertzian notion of thick description and a social historical leaning, Williamson takes a new tack in this book: to look at the images of the Madonna of Humility and see what they can tell us about the piety, interests, and needs of the artists, patrons, and viewers of these paintings, as well as the social contexts in which these paintings were conceived, executed, and displayed.
Speaking as a non-art historian, but a historian who also has social historical leanings, it is hard for me to believe that any contemporary scholars would find fault with this program. If any such art historians are around, they should read the first two sections of this book, where Williamson provides a detailed analysis of the early extant paintings of this type, deals with questions of influence, and suggests her own theory of the origin of the painting type. Her suggestion that the image originated most probably from similar images found in manuscript illumination at the city of Metz is somewhat unconventional, she argues, in that it contravenes the accepted standards that "higher" art influences "lower," rather than the other way around. However unconventional, her argument appears quite solid, in that it is based upon existing images in manuscripts (easily available to the primary artists of this image), and not upon an imagined lost prototype.
Non-art historians may well find themselves most interested in the third section of the book, where Williamson spends more time with issues of reception, particularly focusing on why the image is entitled the "Madonna of Humility." Her consideration of which elements of the image relate to humility, especially in the context of previous interpreters, is particularly fascinating. She argues against the assumption that the act of breastfeeding, one of the common (though not ubiquitous) details of this image type, is part of Mary's visual humility. In this chapter, Williamson uses social historical information relating to nursing in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to good advantage, insisting that nursing was neither as uncommon as many have assumed, nor considered a socially inferior practice. She continues in the final chapters to address other aspects of the images' meaning (or meanings), and especially considers the possible meaning of the title "Madonna of Humility," and in what way it is appropriate to the image in its variations.
If a reader approaches this book with the grand expectation that it will provide the key to bringing art and social history together, making it a simple task to read an image as just another kind of text, he will be disappointed. Williamson's study makes it clear that specialized knowledge and attention to details of medium and execution (and other aspects of the images typically analyzed by art historians) are still required in order for visual images to be used as historical evidence. This is still most definitely a work of art history. It does not accomplish as much as its author might have wanted, in terms of really breaking out of traditional art historical conventions. It does, however, provide a good example of what such a mixture of art and social history would have to entail, and it provides food for thought for those who are tempted either to ignore images in their historical research, or make easy assumptions about their use, reception, and interpretation.
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If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Beth Kreitzer. Review of Williamson, Beth, The Madonna of Humility: Development, Dissemination and Reception, c. 1340-1400.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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