A historiographical and artistic survey of confraternities from the later Middle Ages to the early Renaissance



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The last twenty to thirty years of confraternal research have yielded ground breaking results in the field. However, while historiographical surveys appear throughout the literature of confraternal scholars, both contemporary and past, the works tend to focus on the origins of confraternal studies up through the cultural and social shift of the 1960s. Thus, many modern historians and their contributions to confraternal research have been recently ignored; no body of literature exists which attempts to create a synthesis of these works. I propose that a modern survey of historiographical research is needed before confraternal studies can progress any further. A historiography of modern works would make available to current historians the needed knowledge to proceed in their fields and would bring the scholarship of confraternal historians to the forefront, providing them with the recognition they deserve for their collaborated efforts. Furthermore, a confraternal historiography considering a number of areas and genres would demonstrate the significant role that confraternities played in the past.

Furthermore, while the roles of confraternities in society and their implications concerning culture have not been neglected by historians of the present, only just recently historians have put a twist on social and cultural confraternal research in relation to artwork. Artwork commissioned by confraternities can yield explanations that some archival records, such as membership lists, statutes, enrollment charts and death registers cannot. However, even though clearly aware of the benefits of artwork, there has been little exploration in the field of confraternal artwork; thus I contend that efforts should be initiated to bring confraternal artwork and confraternal patronage to the forefront of modern scholarship.

I propose that specific confraternal images can produce meanings about the confraternities that in turn provide information concerning the culture in which they inhabited. It is thus necessary to perform a cultural analysis of confraternal artworks grounded in cultural theory and iconography in order to understand confraternities and society. The best evidence for the culture and cultural changes is confraternal artwork from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance as the visual sources with their contractual counterparts provide a clear transition of the events that occurred. However, before delving into an analysis of the works of art, it will first be necessary to examine the evolving relationships between the institutional Church and confraternities in general, which will provide a context for the confraternities and their artwork. With the foundation in place, the study of confraternal artwork may proceed. Overall, the analysis will allow for a closer examination of not just the culture of a particular confraternity, but also the cultural values, ideals, and practices of an entire community in one period of time. Furthermore, the examination of confraternal artwork will prove important, as it will demonstrate the unique power of confraternities.