Past & Present: The Caporali Missal

One of the museum’s current special exhibitions proves more relevant by the day, despite the fact that the central piece dates back to the year 1469. The Caporali Missal: A Masterpiece of Renaissance Illumination revolves around a beautifully illuminated missal, a service book for the priest at the altar during Catholic mass. The historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and subsequent selection of the new Pope Francis I have put the Catholic Church front and center in recent months, providing a fortuitous opportunity to call attention to this exhibition. We hear from Curator of Medieval Art, Stephen Fliegel, on the nuances of this fascinating exhibition.

The Caporali Missal is one of the best preserved and most elaborately decorated missals on record. Acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2006, this manuscript is on display for the first time at the museum and is presented along with other liturgical objects and paintings to place it in artistic and historical context. The missal was commissioned for a community of Franciscan friars in the small town of Montone, in the Umbrian region of Italy. The missal’s colophon, or inscription at the end of the manuscript, dates it to 1469 and identifies its scribe as Henricus Haring. The decoration of the manuscript is attributed to the Italian brothers Bartolomeo and Giapeco Caporali, well known artists in the region at the time. Most missals from the fifteenth century were only modestly decorated - the ornate Caporali Missal, with its vivid colors and exquisite detail crafted by the Caporali brothers, is uncommon. Missals are still used at in the celebration of Catholic Mass by priests, bishops and the pope alike, but today’s missals reflect functionality more than artistic design.

What is particularly relevant to our current moment in history is The Caporali Missal’s connection to St. Francis of Assisi and the traditions of the Catholic Church, both popular topics since the election of the new Pope Francis. St. Francis of Assisi, from whom the new pope took his name, is perhaps one of the best known saints in Catholicism. His image is seen throughout the Caporali Missal, which was commissioned for Franciscan friars, as well as on the surrounding liturgical pieces, which illustrates the influence St. Francis had in his day. St. Francis of Assisi gave up a life of power and material goods, became a friar, and turned his attention to the needs of the poor and the sick. He shunned all worldly possessions, begged for food and shelter, and worked among the people of Assisi, a lifestyle that was unheard-of for spiritual leaders at the time. After his death, St. Francis’ followers organized the Franciscan order, which followed in his footsteps of humility and self-sacrifice.

One might ask why this Franciscan community from Montone, Italy, which embraced a life of poverty and ministering to the sick, would have such an opulent book made on their behalf. In fact, there was a division in the Franciscan community, almost from the beginning. There were two strains of belief among the Franciscans, one being the Observants: those that adhered strictly to the founding principles of the order, and the very humble lifestyle that St. Francis kept—begging for food and shelter, going barefoot, and rejecting material goods—and another being the Conventuals: those Franciscans who cared for the less fortunate but made certain exceptions to St. Francis’ way of life by living in convents, wearing special vestments, and cooking their own meals. However, the Conventuals were not allowed to own any of the material things they used. Others, usually wealthy nobility, would endow the convents or commission liturgical objects for them to use. The community of Franciscans that used the Caporali Missal was Conventual and thus used the manuscript in their convent’s church, San Francesco.

The timeliness of The Caporali Missal exhibition is found in the message of many of the liturgical pieces on display. They illustrate the admiration Catholics had for St. Francis of Assisi’s selfless lifestyle. This message of humility is what Pope Francis has espoused since becoming head of the Catholic Church and has received much attention for his shake-up of tradition and rejection of the excessive trappings of liturgy. This exhibition presents the roots of such a philosophy, its challenges and the influence it has had over people, art, and tradition for centuries.

—Therese Conway



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