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Members' Research Report Archive

In the Footsteps of Our Fathers: The Morgan Library's Vitae patrum, M. 626

Denva Jackson [Harvard University]
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2015–2017


Elijah, John the Baptist, Anthony the Abbot, from Vitae patrum, 1350/1375, fol. 1v. The Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 626

The Lives of the Desert Fathers, known in Latin as the Vitae patrum, formed the cornerstone of the Western monastic tradition. Because of its focus on the lives, sayings, and practices of the Eastern Christian hermit saints known as the Desert Fathers, who were believed to be among the first exemplars of monasticism, the Vitae patrum was essential reading for monks. Pope Gelasius I (d. 496) recommended the lives of Paul, Anthony, and Hilarion in his decretal of 494. In his Rule, Benedict of Nursia (480–547) mentions the Vitae patrum as appropriate reading material for monks as they sat in silence after their meals. Later, in the thirteenth century, Humbert of Romans (1200–1277), master general of the Order of Preachers, recommended Vitae et dicta patrum among the books to be read by Dominican novices. Though we know the Vitae patrum was critical to the edification of monastics, relatively little knowledge has survived of how it was read in the cloister or how its stories, set in the Eastern world of fourth-century Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, inspired those in its Western audience, instructed them in monastic virtue, and recommitted them to a life of self-denial.

My dissertation offers a new approach to understanding the Vitae patrum by looking to the manuscript’s illuminations and other related images, exploring them as sites of meaning and interpretation. During the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, mendicant orders in Italy saturated the devotional landscape with stories of the Desert Fathers. Their emphasis on the hermit saints as models of an ideal piety inspired the unprecedented appearance of images based on narratives from the Vitae patrum. My study focuses on one of the most extensively illuminated manuscripts of the work produced during the period (N.Y., P. Morgan Library, MS M. 626). In examining the relationship between the Morgan manuscript’s text and images, my dissertation offers a reading of the work within the context of the late medieval resurgence of the Desert Fathers in Italy. It also explores what the sudden turn to such imagery in the fourteenth century offered its monastic audience.

Chapter 1 begins with an overview of the history of the Vitae patrum from its origins as a corpus in the fifth century to its vernacularization in the fourteenth century by the Dominican friar Domenico Cavalca (1270–1342). In this chapter, I position the work within the context of the renewed interest in the Desert Fathers in late medieval Italy and in relation to other images that resulted from that interest, such as panel paintings, frescoes, and other illuminated manuscripts. Within this context, the Morgan manuscript is revealed to be a singular witness. It has no direct iconographic models, nor does it share much in the way of iconography with other illuminated manuscripts of the Vitae patrum or with painted cycles narrating the lives of the saints in Tuscany. The Morgan manuscript testifies to the diffusion of the revival, revealing Naples as another engaged center of the return, an innovator of style and iconography.

Chapter 2 focuses on the first two lives of the Morgan’s Vitae patrum, those of Paul the First Hermit (d. c. 341) and Anthony the Abbot (261–356). I advance the argument that the manuscript was made for an audience of Augustinian Hermits. After detailing the importance of both the Vitae patrum and the Desert Fathers to the order’s institutional identity, I examine the first six folios of the Morgan manuscript, demonstrating how the illuminations form a narrative affirming the Augustinians’ claim that their order originated with Paul and Anthony. The illuminations transform the Morgan’s Vitae patrum from a general history of monasticism into a historiographic document, legitimizing the place of the Augustinian Hermits in the history of the church.

Chapter 3 takes a focused look at the manuscript’s visual representations of anonymous or otherwise unidentified monks. I argue that these images serve to locate the Augustinian reader within the narrative, traversing the historical distance between the fourth and fourteenth centuries. The chapter then turns to the moments within the narrative that encourage affective engagement to help the reader navigate the most difficult challenges of the monastic life.

Finally, chapter 4 turns to issues of patronage, looking further into the circumstances surrounding the manuscript’s production. Examining a representation (fol. 60v) of Robert of Anjou, king of Naples from 1309 to 1343, I argue that the Vitae patrum was commissioned by a member of the Angevin royal family. Not only does the illumination promulgate an image of Robert as a defender of orthodoxy; it also encourages the intended readers, the Augustinian Hermits, to pray on behalf of the sovereign. This chapter considers the Morgan manuscript as a part of the larger economy of gift-giving, looking at the work from the standpoints of both its commissioners and its recipients.

The illuminations in the Morgan’s Vitae patrum offered its Augustinian readers a means both to return to their roots and to reconnect with the contemplative life. By the fourteenth century, the Augustinian Hermits were fully engrossed in preaching and ministering to the laity as mendicants. I argue that the desire to return to the contemplative origins of the monastic tradition is at the very heart of the renewed significance of the Desert Fathers and the turn to imagery in the late Middle Ages and that it informs the very reading of the Vitae patrum itself.