Gregory Waldrop, S.J., an assistant professor of art history, is researching clerical iconography in Italian art from the late Middle Ages and early modern period.
By investigating images of anonymous or little-known priests paired with famous female mystics, he is documenting the transformation of priestly identity within clerical culture and European society at large.
“I use the relationships between priests and so-called ‘holy women’ to talk about an emerging self-consciousness among priests around the 13th century,” he said. “One function that reflects—and even furthers—the change is priests’ participation in the phenomenon of female prophets and visionaries.”
Father Waldrop describes the book he is working on, Painting Priesthood: Male Clerics, Female Charismatics and the Construction of Identity in Early Modern History, as “cultural history through the lens of art history.”
His research focuses on priests during a time rife with clerical decadence and anti-clerical rhetoric. While that period has been written about, there has been no analysis of imagery depicting priests, Father Waldrop said.
“Today we have this notion about what a Catholic priest is—his ministry, social role, sense of vocation—in other words, an identity,” he said. “That was not necessarily the profile of priests in the early days of Christianity. So I’m looking at a moment, documented in painting, when priests—as ‘priests,’ not just as ‘clerics’ in general—begin to take on real cultural weight, which starts to happen in the later Middle Ages.
“That’s because it’s a moment of crisis for clergy in general,” he said. “Priests have a crucial and expanding role, religiously and socially, which helps shape their sense of themselves. But there was also a lack of training, little financial support, and they were often isolated in communities. The result could be scandal, controversy and critique. That becomes part of the new priestly identity, too.”
By analyzing images of priests with holy women, Father Waldrop believes he has found a method to spotlight some of these complexities.
“It’s almost impossible to understand medieval culture and religion without a proper appreciation of these women,” he said. “Whether nuns or devout laywomen, they had reputations for extreme asceticism, intense devotional lives manifested in visions and raptures, and a conspicuously direct relationship with God.”
Women like Germany’s Hildegard of Bingen and St. Catherine of Siena in Italy became well known during a difficult period in the institutional church. During the 14th century, the time of Catherine of Siena, the church was split by the Western Schism. Into that vacuum stepped female figures who were normally excluded from circles of authority due to their gender.
“People trusted them, took seriously their revelations and were fascinated by their religious practice,” Father Waldrop said.
Priests assigned to such women as chaplains worked to keep them and their reputations “within orthodox bounds,” he said.
“What gender scholars have recently provided is a nuanced view of the relationships between female mystics and their priests. Though the men heard their confessions, they were often subordinate to these women,” he said.
Take Blessed Raymond of Capua, the priest assigned to St. Catherine of Siena. In his letters, Raymond noted that he tried to help Catherine and to keep her critics at bay, Father Waldrop said.
“He understood his job as overseeing—but really directing in positive ways—the energy coming out of female religious communities,” he said. “Catherine’s own experiences really won him over. He became her devoted disciple.
“To examine the transformation in priestly identity in the period, which is a major and overlooked phenomenon, I focus on images of priests juxtaposed with these women as visual evidence for my larger argument,” Father Waldrop said.
For example, in the painting The Miraculous Communion of St. Catherine of Siena, Raymond of Capua is shown saying Mass while Catherine receives communion from Christ. Yet Raymond, who is the author of the story on which the painting is based and a major character in it, is absent from the earliest visual depictions of the miracle.
“At first, it was just Catherine and Christ. But the first important painting of the event, from around 1461, includes Raymond,” said Father Waldrop, who has traced the iconography over time.
“In its evolution, this one image goes from small to large format and migrates from subordinate positions on altarpieces to monumental versions in fresco. Raymond is almost always depicted as a major figure,” he said.
Father Waldrop is particularly interested in how, writing St. Catherine’s hagiography, Raymond managed to tell his own priestly story at the same time.
“He demonstrated great concern for the Eucharist and went to great lengths to defend Catherine for her unusual practices,” he said. “This is a case of literature about a woman, written by a priest, in which he actually assumes a central role. He would slip in doctrinal statements about, say, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or his own priestly rectitude. He certainly wanted to portray himself as extremely conscientious at a time when many priests were not.”
In fact, some the most common complaints about priests during this period were for Eucharistic negligence—not celebrating Mass correctly or not accepting the consecrated host as the true body of Christ, Father Waldrop said.
“Raymond’s statements are a way for him to say, ‘I’m a proper priest because I’m learned; I know theology and I believe,’” Father Waldrop said.
During this time, the figure of the priest begins to appear as a visual motif.
“The body of the priest in culture was a topic for comment and debate—what he wears, what he does—and the representation of this priestly body starts to change,” he said. “Incorporating the figure of a priest in a painting, artists could actually reference all sorts of hot-button cultural issues, from Eucharistic devotion and female sanctity to the sacramentality of holy orders. I’m interested in how images often seen as straightforward in their meaning can shed light on a complex and little-known world of human experience in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.”