Illuminating the Vitae patrum: The Lives of Desert Saints in Fourteenth-Century Italy

"Illuminating the Vitae patrum" has received a College Art Association Millard Meiss Publication Fund Grant as well as a 2002 ICMA-Kress Research and Publication Grant.

Denva Gallant, in a masterful analysis of this manuscript’s unique imagery, convincingly argues for a renewed rise in the interest in the desert fathers in trecento Italy. Her study reveals ways that religious trends of the period encouraged laypeople to adopt some of the spiritual practices of monks, nuns, and even hermits, including penance, prayer, and imaginative contemplation of religious narratives.

-Holly Flora
Professor of Art History, Tulane University

During the fourteenth century in Western Europe, there was a growing interest in imitating the practices of a group of hermits known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Laypeople and religious alike learned about their rituals not only through readings from the Vitae patrum (Lives of the Desert Fathers) and sermons but also through the images that brought their stories to life.

Illuminating the Vitae patrum examines the Morgan Library’s richly illustrated manuscript of the Vitae patrum (MS M.626), whose extraordinary artworks witness the rise of the eremitic ideal and its impact on the visual culture of late medieval Italy. Drawing upon scholarship on the history of psychology, eastern monasticism, gender, and hagiography, Illuminating the Vitae patrum deepens our understanding of the centrality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers to late medieval piety. It provides critical insights into the role of images in making the practices of the desert saints both compelling and accessible to fourteenth-century city dwellers, who were just beginning to cultivate the habit of private devotion on a wide scale.

By focusing on the most extensively illuminated manuscript of the Vitae patrum to emerge during the trecento, this book sheds new light on the ways in which images communicated and reinforced modes of piety. It will be of interest to art historians, religious historians, and students focusing on this period in Italian history.

Articles & Essays


In the Land of the Thebaids: Landscape, Place, and Ambulatio

 Denva Gallant and Amelia Hope-Jones, eds. “Environmental Narratives and the Eremitic Turn.” Special Issue, Different Visions, (in progress, Spring 2025).


The Monastic in the Dynastic: Images of Kingship in the Morgan Library’s Vitae patrum (NY, P. Morgan Library, Ms. M.626)

I Tatti Studies, (Spring 2024).


Into the Desert: Demons, Spiritual Focus, and the Eremitic Idea in Pierpont Morgan Library MS. M.626

Gesta 60, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 101-119.


Approaches to Alterity: Race and Racialization in Late Medieval Italian Art

Ethnicity and Race in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, ed. Lamia Balafrej and Hannah Barker (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, expected 2025).

For a full list of publications, please see CV.

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