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JEFFREY F. HAMBURGER
New York: Zone Books, 1998. 608 PP., 5 color ills., 241 b/w. $45.00
Following The Rothschild Canticles and Nuns as Artists (1997), Jeffrey Hamburger continues his study of the relationship between images and feminine devotion during the Middle Ages in this long, magnificently presented book. Most of the chapters rework or develop separately published articles, but this does not detract from the coherence of the whole. The chapters are built around little-known or unpublished records, collected from original sources with a rare meticulousness, and they shed light on each other.
The introduction defines the methodological choices of the author, who presents himself as an art historian and sets himself the task of finding and analyzing works that shaped the religious life of nuns. By resolutely affirming his interest in the past and the conviction that history is not condemned to withdraw into the fleeting preoccupations of the present, that it is still possible to speak of something other than ourselves, he calls postmodernism into question, presenting it as a form of intellectual abdication of responsibility. Likewise, he sets his sights on feminist historiography. If, in a first stage, feminists accepted what they read as the authentic recording of female voices from the past, without taking into consideration the elaboration and transmission of the texts by men, the tendency has now reversed itself; many feminists no longer hope to find anything in the texts except the voice of men covering that of women. These feminists thus agree with hypercritical postmodern pessimism, which ha s stopped looking for the original intention of works, renounces the study of the production of these works, and considers itself condemned to do an exegesis of their reception. In order to extricate himself from these conundrums, Hamburger shows that the object of study is neither the nuns nor their spiritual guides but the sometimes amicable, sometimes antagonistic relationships between these partners. The spiritual direction, the cura monialium, thus constitutes the leitmotiv of Hamburger's work.
The first chapter analyzes the influence that a more or less hermetic monastic enclosure exerted on the connection between the nuns and art or images: the seclusion, the mediation by men of all relations with the exterior world, the often thwarted attempts to form a private sphere by possessing personal objects. The second and third chapters concern the role of the image in feminine devotions and show how much these devotions contributed to the quantitative development of images and their iconographic evolution. Here, too, men played a decisive role by defining …