An Allegory of Divine Love emerged out of the author and her husband Irving Lavin’s The Liturgy of Love: Images from the Song of Songs in the Art of Cimabue, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt, The Franklin D. Murphy Lectures, vol. XIV ( The Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, 2001). Lavin became interested in the Canticum Canticorum blockbook, dated ca. 1465-70, while working on Cimabue’s Assumption of the Virgin in the Apse of San Francesco, Assisi, which she read as the marriage of Christ and Mary as Ecclesia. Returning to the blockbook years later, Lavin brings to it her well-known skills as an iconographer. ü Ü
The Canticum Canticorum exists in two editions (the second with recut blocks and a Dutch title). Lavin’s study begins with an introduction, followed by a sheet-by-sheet description and analysis of the book, and a conclusion. Back matter includes a summary of the physical history of the blockbook, select bibliography, a scriptural index, and the index to Lavin’s book itself. In her introduction, Lavin argues that the blockbook is based on a cento (i.e. a poem composed of complete lines or fragments of lines from another poem). The creator(s) of this inventive patchwork poem mined the Song of Songs for phrases and lines allegorized to relate to Christian theology and liturgy, and then commissioned some individual or workshop to illustrate the Latin text appearing in large banderoles. Given the sparse evidence, Lavin wisely does not dwell on trying to attribute the book’s design to major painters, but states some previous theories suggesting Rogier van der Weyden, Dirk Bouts, Petrus Christus, or Hans Memling as the main designer. Her interest is primarily in the woodcuts’ meaning. Denys the Carthusian’s contemporary commentary on the Song of Songs serves as the basis for the three aspects of Mary’s symbolic identity depicted in the woodcuts: she is the virgin Bride and Mother of Christ, the human soul seeking the love of God, and the Church. is establishes the interpretive threads that will occur in the lengthy sheet-by-sheet section of her book. Lavin takes the order of the sheets as bound in four copies ( first editions in the Paris and Munich state libraries, and in the Pierpont Morgan Library, and one second edition in the British Museum) to represent the designer’s intention, and builds her interpretation on this order.
In the body of her book, divided into eight sections, one for each sheet, Lavin addresses each image (four to a sheet) in turn, moving from the upper left frame on the sheet to the lower right one. Each individual scene is illustrated with a large plate from a 1949 facsimile of the blockbook, which give no sense of the subtlety of the cutting and the pale ink, as do the reproductions of the Morgan Library’s first-edition copy that appear in sheet form at the beginning of each section. Although the facsimile images are sharper, I do not see the need for them. Lavin’s text for each individual image is divided into a literal description, a section she calls “visual parallels,” translations of the inscriptions of the banderoles, a section of medieval commentaries on the biblical verses plus those of a modern commentator (Marvin Pope, The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Commentary, Doubleday, 1977), and finally her own brief analysis. I found this approach disjointed and overly rigid. Continuing the essay format of her introduction to build her thesis on the progression and meaning of the allegorized narrative would have made for a much more satisfying reading experience. Could major themes like Christ and the Bride’s courtship, their sorrowful absences from each other, and the Bride’s education (with Christ as her teacher) in her complex theological role have been the subjects of chapters, for instance?
Sometimes the medieval commentators on the Song of Songs, chosen by Lavin for their temporal proximity to the blockbook (Denys the Carthusian, Giles of Rome, and Nicholas of Lyra), aid understanding, but sometimes their intricate allegorical extrapolations from the biblical text stray far from direct relevance to the images; different commentators may have been more helpful at times. Perhaps the oddest part of Lavin’s book, however, is her “visual parallels” sections, which needed serious winnowing. Comparative images illustrating passages from the Song of Songs in the Bible Moralisée, the Rothschild Canticles, and the damaged murals in the convent in Chelmno, Poland make sense because of their direct relationship with the blockbook in subject matter. Also, comparative images of iconographic motifs (e.g. the Gnadenstuhl, Christ and Ecclesia, the Bed of Solomon, the Coronation of the Virgin) that were inventively adapted by the designer of the blockbook to express Marian iconography are useful. However, the numerous large color plates of northern European and Italian paintings used as visual parallels to poses, gestures, or spatial and architectural settings that are quite legible in the woodcuts themselves are puzzling and distract from Lavin’s main thesis. One example of this, among many others, is the inclusion of two full-page color plates of the Visitation by respectively Rogier van der Weyden and Ghirlandaio, as analogies to woodcut scenes of Christ and Mary greeting each other. This approach makes for a colorful book, but often these large plates of paintings overshadow the more delicate prints and add little or nothing to the central argument.
In a surprisingly brief conclusion, Lavin stresses the fact that the Canticum Canticorum blockbook establishes a narrative that does not exist in the Song of Songs itself or in any previous set of images: the story of Mary’s maturation into her theological role. If Mary is the soul as well, then the story also had very broad popular appeal to lay souls seeking the love of Christ (although reading the banderoles would require knowledge of Latin and its abbreviations). As Lavin notes, however, the theology of Mary in the blockbook suggests a Franciscan context, and one of its functions could have been to educate nuns of the Poor Clares. Lavin might have explored the gendered aspects of this function further in her conclusion. As we know, particularly from Jeffrey Hamburger’s work, male spiritual counselors often educated nuns, and this may be echoed in the images in which Christ teaches his Bride. The issue of how these gendered roles of nun and counselor may have affected these images could have been explored more thoroughly in the conclusion.
An Allegory of Divine Love establishes, via an essentially Panofskian methodology centered on Christian theological texts, an iconographic interpretation of the blockbook that provides a foundation for further work. With more evidence, scholars might speculate further on the book’s function and context, perhaps tying it more closely to specific convents. For an excellent example of this kind of work, see Ursula Weekes, “Convents as Patrons and Producers of Woodcuts in the Low Countries around 1500,” in The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe, ed. Peter Parshall, National Gallery of Art, 2009, 258-75. Lavin cites this superlative anthology, but does not mine its many insights on the function and uses of early woodcuts as thoroughly as she could have. And, finally, Lavin assumes a seamless bond between the intense eroticism of the biblical text and its allegorical interpretation, and this premise itself is open to challenge. Since the human figures in allegories do not always behave according to orthodox or expected meanings (see Early Modern Visual Allegory: Embodying Meaning, ed. Cristelle Baskins and Lisa Rosenthal, Routledge, 2007), scholars may be able to develop alternative interpretations of the blockbook’s images. Recent biblical scholarship dealing with gender in the Song of Songs (too prolific to cite here) may provide art historians with models for taking a second look at these remarkable images.
Linda C. Hults
The College of Wooster