In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mendicant Orders and Late Medieval Art Patronage in Italy

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works

Medieval Studies Mendicant Orders and Late Medieval Art Patronage in Italy
Sarah S. Wilkins, Corinna T. Gallori
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0302


First emerging in the early thirteenth century, the mendicant orders rapidly rose to prominence in the religious landscape of the late medieval period. While initially quite diversified in their aims, mendicant orders are characterized by communal poverty and a consequent need for mendicancy. Their emphasis on an apostolic lifestyle involving preaching, teaching, and living among the people whom they served, contrasted with long-established monastic orders, such as the Benedictines, who isolated themselves away in the cloister. It also led them to very quickly becoming major commissioners of art and architecture, often argued to be seminal in the development of the emerging naturalism of the Duecento. Each order came to be composed of three branches: the friars, the nuns, and the tertiaries, or lay affiliates, both men and women. Which religious orders should be considered mendicant was first codified at the Council of Lyon in 1274: Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians. While these four formed the core of the mendicant orders, others were added over the subsequent centuries, including the Trinitarians, Mercedarians, Jesuati (originally a lay congregation, not an order), Minims, etc. The mendicant identity of the Servites is more problematic and complex than that of the original four, but was definitively established by 1418. In this article, we provide a guide to the scholarship on the artistic patronage of the four original mendicant orders, as well as the Servites, in the period from c. 1200 to 1400. After a general overview of the problematics connected to mendicant patronage, the article is organized primarily by order. Each section first presents a brief selection of the most important historical references for the order to orient the reader, and then continues on to consider general studies on the order’s art patronage, on patronage by nuns (when possible), and on key monuments and works of art of the order. As a preliminary warning, scholarship on the singular mendicant orders’ patronage is fragmented and unbalanced. Franciscans occupy the leading position, with Dominicans a distant second. Only recently a book was devoted to Augustinians (Art and the Augustinian Order in Early Renaissance Italy, edited by Louise Bourdua and Anne Dunlop [Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007]), while Carmelites and Servites are the most lacking. Due to a lack of prestigious (and therefore visible) settlements or works of art, nuns’ patronage tends to be understudied and it could not be included in the Carmelites entry, since the order did not accept women until after 1452.

Reference Works

There is no comprehensive study on the mendicant orders and their patronage. The most frequent approaches are discussed in Bourdua 2002 (cited under Conditions of Patronage and Commissioning), and Dunlop’s introduction to Bourdua and Dunlop 2007 (under General Augustinian Patronage), which are both recommended as a preliminary overview. Encyclopedias often include entries on a particular order’s patronage, but do not discuss all of them. For example, the Italian Enciclopedia dell’Arte does not cover Carmelites. Barbaglia 1978 (under Mendicant Architecture) provides an overview of the early studies and approaches devoted to mendicant architecture, while Bruzelius 2012 (under Mendicant Architecture) follows the evolution of the discussion. For a comprehensive review of the history of the singular orders, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Friars.” Anthologies rarely cover all mendicant orders and tend to focus on specific order(s), regions, or time periods. See, as an example, Kennedy 2014.

  • Kennedy, Trinita, ed. Sanctity Pictured: The Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy. Nashville: Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 2014.

    Catalogue for an exhibition at the Frist Center of Visual Arts, containing works of art from major American collections and the Vatican. In addition to catalogue entries, it has essays by some of the most important recent scholars of mendicant art, including Janet Robson, Amy Neff, Donal Cooper, and Holly Flora. By examining the art of these rival orders together, it offers new insights into their considerable contribution to art.

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