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Agnes Howard


Saints and Sisters

On female monasticism.

In 1653, a painting of Jesus crowned with thorns was brought to the convent of San Paolo in Orvieto, Italy, by a young woman taking the veil there. The image was of dramatic provenance, discovered in a stable by a young Orvietan merchant captured and enslaved by Turkish pirates. Associated with more than thirty miracles of healing, including a delivery from the plague, the picture was venerated inside the convent by the sisters until the 19th century, when Napoleon shut down religious houses in Italy. Forced to abandon their beloved walls, church, and devotional art, the Dominican sisters were scattered to private homes. For the next century the image shared the unsettled fate of the remaining nuns, moved from building to building and suppressed again by the new Italian state, until it came to rest with some lay sisters in a hard-to-spot chapel at the foot of a piazza used for markets Thursday and Saturday mornings.

The checkered career of the miraculous image of the Santissimo Salvatore reflects the history of the monastery itself, though Benedictine then Dominican women had been living in prayerful community there already for more than four hundred years before their fates came together. Gordon College's fine-arts and humanities program was based for some years in the restored Monastero San Paolo. Though the Gordon program has now moved to another Orvieto monastery, teaching and living with my family in San Paolo for a semester several years ago colored my reading of two fine books. One is a state-of-the-field collection of scholarly essays about convents across Europe, and the other is an intensive look at a single convent in Pisa. Taken together, the books illuminate research about religion and women in early modern Europe and show lay readers how much these closed houses can open up about the consecrated life.

Perhaps it should not be necessary to justify interest in female monasticism. Some nuns medieval and modern, like Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) and Mother ...

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