Early Franciscan painted panels as a response to the Italian Cathars
The wood-panel paintings created by the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century present a dramatic transition from a static, stoic Byzantine style to increasing degrees of naturalistic, realistic, emotional, and corporeal representations. As a driving force behind the iconographic and stylistic shifts evident in these paintings, this study presents the parallel relationship between Francis of Assisi and his mendicant brothers to the heterodox Christian community known as the Cathars, a religious sect that competed directly with the Order of Friars Minor and the Catholic Church in duecento Italy. Using portable and monumental artwork to cultivate orthodox beliefs among the laity, the early Franciscan order positioned itself as one of the most prolific and innovative patrons of the arts nearly from the order's inception, despite their devotion to material poverty--a position that mirrored the ascetic Cathars. Focusing on three compositional models, specifically, large full-length icons of Francis, vita dossals of the saint surrounded by hagiographic scenes, and outsized crucifixes with the poverello depicted at the foot of the cross, this study analyzes the artwork in light of the Franciscans' and Cathars' shared historical context, their divergent theological beliefs, and their intersecting material cultures. Iconographic and material examinations are informed by the writings of early friars and the scarce textual remnants of the persecuted heretics. Evidence indicates that images of Francis were set as a foil to the Cathar leaders and preachers, presenting the saint as alter Christus, as confirmed by the wounds of the stigmata. Painted representations of Francis' life and reported miracles further provided opportunities for the friars to catechize on doctrines that the Church had recently reaffirmed at its Fourth Lateran Council. The imagery of the icons, vita dossals, and crucifixes highlights orthodox Catholic teachings such as Jesus Christ's Incarnation and Real Presence in the Eucharist and his physical suffering at the Crucifixion, as well as the intrinsic goodness of the natural world--all of which repudiated the Cathars' dualist and docetist beliefs. While the community of the Cathars has long been discounted, the Franciscans' rich artistic reaction to refute heterodox beliefs makes clear that the relationship between these two mendicant groups should be recognized and further explored.
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