Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 4, 2019
Andrew H. Chen Flagellant Confraternities and Italian Art, 1260–1610: Ritual and Experience Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 325 pp.; 13 color ills.; 66 b/w ills. Cloth $115.00 (9789462984684)

Flagellant sodalities originated in 1260 following the tumultuous processions of self-scourging lay penitents who, enflamed by the charismatic Fra Raniero Fasani of Perugia, beseeched God for peace and mercy. Their number significantly increased throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as flagellation became a structured lay male ritual enacted in both private confraternal spaces and public processions. From the later quattrocento, flagellation in large part was no longer a private weekly practice. Rather, it was performed as a grand public spectacle, primarily during Holy Week, when the imitatio Christi experience resonated most profoundly for spectators and battuti (flagellants) alike.

The seven-hundredth anniversary of the flagellant movement in 1960 initiated new, groundbreaking scholarship on disciplinati sodalities and the art they commissioned. Since then, confraternity studies have burgeoned into an international, cross-disciplinary field. Art historians have published in-depth accounts of the spiritual, visual, material, architectural, theatrical, ceremonial, and festive culture of flagellant sodalities in conference proceedings, articles, and monographs. In Flagellant Confraternities and Italian Art, 1260–1610: Ritual and Experience, Andrew H. Chen has assembled “normative images and texts [to] provide a starting point for a historical study of [flagellants’ visual and imaginative] experiences,” then asks “to what degree sixteenth-century pictures, and developments in ritual culture, troubled these traditional modes of engagement” (29).

Chen proposes multiple approaches to the subject. Liturgical texts, ceremonials, and statutes regarding dress, comportment, and settings are introduced to interpret ways in which disciplinati engaged with images. He argues that “the full significance of confraternities’ flagellation practices is revealed only when these acts are considered in relation to a spectrum of visual experiences” (24) that compelled “a compassionate . . . immersion” (29) in Christ’s suffering, a contention that long has been accepted. To contextualize the artworks’ meaning, he turned to the archives and retrieved many unpublished fourteenth- and fifteenth-century documents. Secondary sources for statutes, inventories, and matriculation lists are also quoted at length in both English and the original Latin or Italian. Although Chen considers major cities (Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Perugia, Siena, and Venice), Rome, the center of Christendom, which counted more than a hundred confraternities by 1600, is barely mentioned. Since the volume incorporates the post-Tridentine decades, the omission is unacceptable.

The book is divided into two main parts. Part 1, “Art and ritual, to 1450” (31–150), provides an overview in five chapters, some more substantial than others. Considering questions investigated by earlier scholars, Chen focuses on the “ideal” flagellant experience to gauge how images “enhanced acts of withdrawal, shaped attitudes and frames of mind—priming [the battuti] for the rituals to come” (84). Each chapter illustrates panel paintings, manuscript illuminations, and frescoes from various cities and towns. Many of these are little known, reattributed, or newly published, and their inclusion here is an important contribution. Viewed together, they demonstrate the prevalence of flagellant visual culture and underscore the significance of disciplinati during this era.

Chapter 1 examines indoor settings that displayed a range of flagellant imagery. Chapter 2 considers those at entrances to confraternal spaces. In rare cases in which a site is described in some detail—most significantly, the premises of the Compagnia di sotto at Santa Maria della Scala, Siena (87–103)—neither a ground plan nor measurements are included in the text, thus negating a sense of scale or space. Chapter 3 reflects upon the inner experiences of Sienese, Venetian, and Bolognese flagellants by examining the exquisitely illuminated liturgical books they commissioned. Chapter 4, which looks at comforting rituals, depends significantly on Nicholas Terpstra’s edited The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy (Truman State University Press, 2008). Chen suggests that during processions to execution sites, hooded battuti shared a “dislocation from the world” (139) with the condemned, who beheld panels portraying Christ’s torments. Chapter 5 (141–50) devotes cursory attention to the spiritual and social agency of confraternal processions. Instead, Chen concentrates solely on well-published large banners that inspired the flagellants’ “inward turn” (146).

Although Chen offers many valuable insights in part 1, his understanding of the role of women in flagellant sodalities—a controversial issue that has deeply engaged scholars—is questionable. He touts his discovery of a late trecento manuscript belonging to a Veronese confraternity with members of both sexes that records a Good Friday indulgence for “each man and woman who performs the office of the holy discipline.” Chen uses this passage to justify his assumption that “unequivocally . . . the women of this confraternity took part in flagellation” (77–80). However, he does not specify where or how such devotions were practiced. Did women perform them as a group in the confraternal oratory from which they were usually barred, or in the privacy of their homes? By selectively extracting snippets of text and providing no contexts of place, space, membership, or women’s duties as prescribed by statute, this “evidence” remains unsubstantiated. Yet based on this premise, Chen argues that Valentino Pica’s Plague Virgin of Mercy processional banner (after 1446) depicts female flagellants under the Virgin’s mantle on the distaff side, positing that the exposed face with upturned nose is “recognizably female,” a dubious assertion. Disregarding chronology, he further contends that in Bartolomeo da Camogli’s Madonna of Humility panel (1346), the pair of hooded disciplinati—whose genders are completely obscured by their habits—followed by a crowd of prayerful women must themselves be female. In these instances, Chen’s reasoning and conclusions are specious.

Part 2, “Transformations” (153–97), considers in three brief chapters the later quattrocento to 1610, the year of the canonization of Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan from 1564–84. Beginning with chapter 6, the text reworks a previously published essay on a group in Pavia that gave up flagellation by 1450, although the later imagery remained consistent with older traditions. This confraternity, like so many disciplinati, became engaged in performing charitable works in the public sphere. Unfortunately, Chen does not explore the significance or implications of this development.

Chapter 7 concentrates on two works by Signorelli and Rosso painted for flagellant sodalities in Sansepolcro during the early cinquecento. According to Chen, they “disrupt[ed] the immersiveness of rituals” (28) and “troubled . . . traditional modes of engagement” (29). Without any justification by contemporary sources, he states that these images were “not as straightforwardly assimilated as a memory image” (170) as were their predecessors because the disciplinati became “immersed in the artifice of the picture rather than the theme of the ritual” (171). His interpretation shows little interest in evolving aesthetic tastes and expectations. He further ignores evidence from 1583 when the confraternity decisively endorsed Rosso’s Deposition (1527–28) by disregarding a visiting bishop’s instruction to remove the “very indecent” altarpiece, an ecclesiastical judgment presumably based on Christ’s nudity, as David Franklin documented in Rosso in Italy (Yale University Press, 1994, 164). Nonetheless, Chen is most unsettled by the “monster soldier” in the background painted by “our roguish artist” (176), which allegedly “posed a threat to contemplative focus” (178). The figure’s simian countenance could just as easily be explained in light of traditional depictions of Christ’s bestial tormenters, as derived from Psalm 21, the Passion psalm of Good Friday’s liturgy.

The final chapter (186–97) considers Florence and Milan after the Council of Trent (1545–63). Chen’s discussion of the Florentine Compagnia dello Scalzo depends largely on studies by Douglas Dow and Alana O’Brien and here focuses on the Flagellation of Christ (1591) by Giovanbattista Mossi, commissioned for the ritual’s newly designated space. Chen then turns to examine “the actions and influence of Carlo Borromeo and his circle in later sixteenth-century Milan” (191), a crucial topic that has received extensive scholarly attention. Alas, readers find a superficial discussion of Borromeo’s reestablishment (1579) of a flagellant sodality that was affiliated with the famous Roman Archconfraternity of the Gonfalone, leaving unmentioned the cardinal’s membership in and benefaction of that venerable group. Borromeo’s Roman experience with flagellant confraternities, his exemplary devotion to the Flagellation column relic in his titular church of Santa Prassede, Rome, and the profound effects of his Milanese confraternal program, including the establishment of a system of archconfraternities based on that of the Eternal City, are never considered. Moreover, this concluding chapter leaves readers uninformed about the post-Tridentine evolution of Florentine and Milanese flagellants in general, the range of artworks they commissioned, and how comparable sodalities fared in other Italian cities. The short epilogue nods at the Iberian Peninsula, then jumps to nineteenth-century New Mexico and the Penitentes brotherhoods, invoking “a long tradition of yearning to imitate Christ and to see Him inwardly” (204). 

Elucidating 350 years of art patronage, ritual practices, and the imaginative experiences of Italian flagellant confraternities is an ambitious objective, which, regrettably, this study does not fulfill. Glaring omissions and problematic interpretations of visual and textual evidence undermine its value. Published alone, chapters 1–6 would have been a useful, often thought-provoking compendium of tre- and quattrocento flagellant imagery and ritual practices. The chapters concerning the cinquecento, however, require deeper scrutiny and substantial revision, a task for future scholars.

Barbara Wisch
Professor Emerita of Art History, Art and Art History Department, SUNY Cortland, New York