Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 22, 2008
Frédéric Cousinié Images et Méditation au XVIIe Siècle Rennes, France: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007. 240 pp.; 59 b/w ills. Paper €22.00 (9782753505148)
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Frédéric Cousinié’s Images et Méditation au XVIIe Siècle is a collection of six essays that focus on the relationship between devotional treatises and visual images in seventeenth-century France. This book has neither a formal introduction nor a conclusion, but in the last section (22–24) of the first essay, Cousinié provides an overview in which he briefly summarizes the questions raised in each essay. To best appreciate the book, the reader will need, in addition to knowledge of seventeenth-century imagery, familiarity with the religious history of the period, as well as the fundamentals of semiotics.

Central to the study is the concept of orison (oraison in French), a type of meditative prayer popular in the seventeenth century. Throughout his book, Cousinié uses the word dévot (devout) to refer to anyone involved in the act of praying, a deviation from the term’s historical meaning. According to Father Charles de Condren (1588–1641), the dévots were “belles âmes” (beautiful souls) who believed that religion and its practice cannot be separated from everyday life. During the seventeenth century, many religious books, most famously Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, helped the dévots reach a higher level of contemplation through the practice of orison. At its simplest, orison is the recitation of prayers. But in its more complex form, orison becomes a sophisticated and silent inner dialogue between the dévot and God. The reader will find Cousinié’s fullest explanation of this mode of contemplation in the first section of the last essay of the book (187). However, it comes too late to assist his discussion of two little-known and fascinating portraits by Jean de Troy (1638–1691)—the Portrait of Jeanne de Juliard de Mondonville (Toulouse, private collection) and the Portrait of a Cordelier Monk (Narbonne, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire)—in his second essay, entitled “L’image absente?” Cousinié sees these two images as “spiritual portraits” that modernize the archetypical images of meditative saints, such as Mary Magdalen and Saint Jerome, by showing the sitters practicing a contemplative, silent orison.

Cousinié’s great strength lies in his mastery of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century devotional books and complex theological issues. The range of religious texts in the bibliography is impressive. The section on treatises for meditation and contemplation (231–232) provides a valuable research tool for anyone interested in this topic. However, only a handful of art-historical texts are cited. For instance, none of the basic reference books on Philippe de Champaigne and Simon Vouet are listed, while several of their paintings appear in the book. Among the fifty-nine works of art illustrated, only about a dozen are discussed in depth, while the remaining works are mentioned in passing as examples of their respective iconographic subjects. Furthermore, Cousinié rarely provides dates for these works, even in the case of Jacques Blanchard’s St. Jerome (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts), a signed and dated picture (1632), and never gives dimensions, which would have been useful especially for works of art in private hands. The choice of illustrations is at times puzzling. Why give well-known paintings such as Philippe de Champaigne’s Presentation in the Temple (Brussels, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique) and Nicolas Poussin’s The Ecstasy of St. Paul (Paris, Musée du Louvre) full pages, when they are barely discussed, while the few works of art analyzed in depth, such as Charles Le Brun’s Pentecost (Paris, Musée du Louvre), are often printed on half or even a quarter of a page? The quality of the illustrations ranges from excellent (Blanchard’s St. Jerome) to poor (the background of Champaigne’s Ecce Homo, on loan at the Musée des Granges de Port-Royal, is indistinguishable).

When Cousinié bases his theological analyses of seventeenth-century religious texts on specific works of art, the results vary greatly in quality, perhaps because he appears to be more interested and better equipped to discuss religious ideas than images (with the exception of prints). I choose here to discuss four specific cases that bring to light the strength and weakness of Cousinié’s scholarship.

In the first essay, “Vers une lecture spirituelle de l’image: La Descente du Saint-Esprit de Charles Le Brun (1657),” Cousinié analyzes how Le Brun’s Pentecost was received by its patron Jean-Jacques Olier, the founder and priest of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. When Olier saw the painting, he experienced a mystic ecstasy that Claude Nivelon recorded in his Vie de Charles Le Brun et description détaillée de ses ouvrages (ca. 1695–1699).

Cousinié analyzes Olier’s ecstasy in terms of the imagery of the painting, the ecstasy of the Apostles and the Virgin at the descent of the Holy Spirit, and its significance as a link between the earthly and divine realms. He further explains that the words and ideas Olier used to express his ecstasy fulfill the four degrees of spiritual contemplation as understood by contemporary theologians and practiced daily by the members of the Saint-Sulpice Seminary. For readers unfamiliar with the founder of the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, Cousinié could have added that Olier was himself a significant theologian, trained and influenced by such personalities as Saint Vincent de Paul and Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, and that he wrote important treatises on spirituality.

In this painting, Le Brun represented himself as one of the Apostles; he is on the far left of the composition looking directly at the viewer. Cousinié rhetorically lists and then discards the possible explanations for the inclusion of Le Brun’s self-portrait (desire to stress the importance of this particular work, pictorial signature, sign of the artist’s devotion, compositional trick to draw the viewer in the picture) in favor of a more spiritual interpretation. For him, Le Brun becomes a supplementary contemporary mediator who legitimizes and facilitates the identification of all dévots with the Apostles. Cousinié, who is aware that Le Brun had asked Olier permission to include his self-portrait in the picture (see fn. 22, 26), makes no use of this remarkable bit of knowledge, nor of Emmanuel Coquery’s intelligent discussion of seventeenth-century religious paintings with self-portraits (see Coquery’s “La sensibilité religieuse des artistes de l’Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture au XVIIe siècle” [especially, 54–56] in the exhibition catalogue, Le Dieu Caché: Les peintres du Grand Siècle et la vision de Dieu, Olivier Bonfait and Neil MacGregor, eds., Rome: Académie de France à Rome, 2000–1, which is listed in Cousinié’s bibliography).

In “L’image au cœur du livre,” Cousinié begins with an analysis of two still-life paintings by Simon Renard de Saint-André, both in private Parisian collections. In these paintings, we see among various objects an open book, with an image on the left page and a text on the right. The book, easily read, is Michel de Marillac’s translation (1659) of Thomas à Kempis’s De imitatio Christi (1527). Cousinié’s interpretation of these still-life paintings is difficult to accept. I am not convinced that the “unbalanced” and “unstable” manner with which these objects are represented creates an unresolved tension toward the absence (“une tension non résolue vers une absence”) of both the owner of the painting and God (78). Most of the artist’s still-life paintings have elaborate compositions characterized by asymmetry and the superimposition of objects. Moreover, Cousinié argues that the painter’s decision to include seashells was due to his knowledge that seashells are the supports of one of the usual modalities of meditation on living creatures, and that they are marked by divinity, which can be read on symbolic, mathematical, and iconic levels. If Cousinié found new evidence of Renard de Saint-André’s theological interests, he should have explained it. I am more inclined to follow Alain Tapié’s thoughts on this matter. In his catalogue entry on another Renard de Saint-André Still-Life (Marseille, Musée des Beaux-Arts), which also shows seashells among an hourglass, skull, and musical instruments, Tapié wrote that the seashells have no iconographical message (see catalogue entry O.19, p. 256, Les Vanités dans la peinture au XVIIe siècle, exhibition catalogue, Paris: Musée du Petit Palais, 1990–91). Whatever the case, Cousinié’s interpretation wanders far from the purpose of this essay, which is to show the importance of engraved images in religious texts in the first half of the seventeenth century and how these images functioned to help the dévots in their religious readings.

Cousinié is interested in the existence of various types of images that assisted orison. The images range from an illustration in a religious book, to what he calls an “image mentale” that the dévot imagines when reading a religious text or looking at a religious image. One of the most interesting sections of the book can be found in the fourth essay, entitled “L’image et le rituel,” which discusses two texts published several times after 1657: Sébastien Le Clerc’s Tableaux où sont représentés la Passion de N.S. Jesus-Christ et les actions du Prestre a la Messe. Avec des prières correspondantes aux Tableaux and Pierre Le Pautre’s Explication des ceremonies de la Messe. As Cousinié explains, these books comprise both text and illustrations to explain step by step the ritual of the Holy Mass. The images show a priest performing a specific ritual in front of an altar. In each of Le Clerc’s images, the setting changes, including the representation of the painting hanging above the altar, probably, as Cousinié suggested, to keep the reader interested. He does not explain how these books were used in the seventeenth century, but a quote (127) by the Abbé Pierre Le Lorrain de Vallemont, the biographer of the artist, is revealing. In his Éloge de Mr. Le Clerc (1715), the Abbot wrote that he wished that Le Clerc’s book were better known and used more often; he even suggested that it would be beneficial to read it after attending a Low Mass.

One image discussed in the fifth chapter, “L’image intérieure” (162ff), is worth mentioning. Cousinié’s analysis of Boëtius a Bolswert’s print entitled “La façon de bien méditer” (“How to Meditate Well”), published in Antoine Sucquet’s Le Chemin de la vie éternelle (1623), is fascinating. The print shows at the foreground an artist (with whom the dévot must identify) in the act of painting on a heart-shaped canvas the various scenes visible in the background of the print. Cousinié explains that this is a rather unusual image because of its reflective and cumulative aspects. Effectively, the print shows at the same time the protagonist of the meditative exercise (the painter/dévot), the subject of his meditation and orison (the holy scene taking place in the background), the interiorization of the meditation (the painted canvas), and the ultimate goal of orison (the representation of celestial glory). I would have liked to read a more detailed analysis of each of the visual elements in this print. The theological explanation of this image represents Cousinié’s work at its best.

Anne Bertrand-Dewsnap
Teaching Associate for Core Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Marist College

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