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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 Teresa (1910-1997), are well known. Mystic and magistra of convents on the Rhine, St. Hildegard combined visionary piety with voluminous theological, devotional, and scientific writings and musical compositions. Pope Benedict XVI elevated her to the status of Doctor of the Church in October 2012, recognizing her "acute wisdom-filled and prophetic sensitivity." Beyond such famous women, the study of female religious has enjoyed something of a boom time among academics. But outside such scholarship, much of it concentrated in art history and social history, convents can seem like backwaters, remote from the flow of important events. Surprising effort is required to get around caricatures of nuns and convents, so that the topic often meets either with polite but faintly embarrassed lack of interest or else a kind of lurid curiosity. Google search results bristle with the mocking or pornographic, imagining all those single women locked up behind walls together. In fact the ways that convent women—often high born and well-connected, much likelier to be literate than women outside—interacted with the world made them anything but peripheral.

The articles in Crown and Veil were commissioned alongside the eponymous "Krone und Schleier" exhibition that debuted in Bonn and Essen in spring 2005. They reflect disciplinary sophistication, comparative perspectives, and temporal and geographic breadth, treating many facets of female religious houses: prayer, mysticism, liturgy, literature, structure, patronage, economy, and interactions with outsiders. The variety and longevity of women's religious institutions—in the book's scope, spread over a thousand years and divided by various orders and Rules—make generalizations hazardous. Chapters chronicle the rise of powerful Frauenstifte, founded in northern Europe from the 10th century and frequently initiated by female rulers; 12th-century double monasteries, where men and women lived in holy proximity; and houses generated by waves of monastic reform and then the mendicants, Franciscans and Dominicans, in the 13th century. The foundation of women's houses prompted new building conventions to accommodate their devoted but often cloistered life, blending local styles with details particular to the order.

Through what kind of lens are convents best viewed? As a social institution addressing the family problem of excess female children? As a proto-feminist edifice offering opportunity for personal growth and leadership apart from a culture persuaded of female inferiority? As an oasis of prayer for the glory of God? In a trenchant historiography chapter, Jan Gerchow and Susan Marti challenge familiar interpretations of the convent as a solution to problems of dowry inflation and unmarriageable daughters. They also fault lopsided focus on the women's-movement character of female monasticism for "lack of attention to, or inability to take seriously, the religious motivations that led women to live in a monastery or Frauenstift."

Art and architecture have offered rewarding venues for study of women's religious life, as they do in this volume. Though "Krone und Schleier" presented art and artifacts in museums, in her foreword Caroline Walker Bynum observes that these works are not best seen in such settings. They "were not created for the dispassionate viewing suggested by our modern museums with their boutique lighting and didactic labels identifying primarily the 'artist' and the nature of the materials employed …. [They] were made to be used—handled, dressed and undressed, censed with smoke and spices, kissed." Harvard art historian Jeffrey Hamburger contends that "[e]nclosed women did not merely participate in the broader artistic currents of the Middle Ages; they consistently changed their course." This art prompts nuanced reconsideration of visual piety, whether deemed inferior because associated with the body and experience (and women's inferior intellect), or appreciated as fitting aspects of liturgical worship. Hamburger and others insist that nuns' works need to be assessed not primarily in terms of form or technical merit but rather through the devotional context in which they were created, seen, and used.

That presupposition would serve as a fitting banner not only over nuns' art but over their lives and institutions in general. In articles deserving much more attention than can be given here, Crown and Veil charts women's monasteries as players in town life or ecclesiastical politics, as recipients of patronage or sufferers of crisis, underscoring connections between convents and broader historical currents. The history of these institutions makes sense largely in the context of the religious life to which they were dedicated. It is perhaps an obvious point, but sometimes obscured in studies demonstrating convents' additional influence.

This rich collection poses many questions for further inquiry. Bynum calls for future study of monasteries in gendered terms, for comparative handling of men's and women's institutions. Convents are not just a subfield of women's history—a side glance at the feminine angle while men were engaged in more noteworthy undertakings—but are integral to understanding the religion, culture, and social life of Europe throughout this period. One index of contrast between male and female practice can be found in the period immediately following that of Crown and Veil, the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. In areas that turned Protestant and closed down monasteries—in Switzerland, Germany, and England, for example—women's houses put up much stiffer resistance than men's. In some cases they survived confessional sea-change and, in a turn of particular interest to Christians now discovering a "new monasticism," sometimes even functioned as Protestant convents or contained a mixed, Protestant-Catholic sisterhood.

Though itself a fine example of current scholarship on women's monasticism, Ann Roberts' monograph trains the lens much more narrowly. She traces the experience of the convent of San Domenico in Pisa, founded by the Blessed Chiara Gambacorta in 1382. Roberts narrates the women's achievements in commissioning and creating art. The story is a compelling one, with a pious and strong-willed foundress, patronage of Tuscan worthies including the Medici and Tornabuoni families, and peril in the warring between Florence and Pisa. Roberts notes features and likely artistic influences in the nuns' altarpiece and varied paintings. But the limitations of treating convent life from an art-history perspective are evident, particularly in the author's sketch of the "Observant" or Dominican-reformed identity of the sisters. That identity presumably centered upon what the women perceived and performed as spiritual improvement. What did they pray? When did they gather? Who assisted or benefited from their piety? What the chapter ascribes to a distinctive Dominican character either seems generally true of monasticism, like virtues of silence or humility, or else stresses parallels among artistic styles of this convent and other Dominican houses. The religious life inside San Domenico remains surprisingly obscure for a study focused on a single house.

The most interesting aspect of the book may be its sources. In addition to a biography of Gambacorta, much of the research is drawn from an inventory made upon the Napoleonic suppression. The house was dissolved and its contents sold or moved to museums. The inventory tells not only what the nuns had but where it was located, hinting at the balance between private and community devotion, the structure of daily life, the relationships among sisters. But the irony of this should not be lost on us: only because the monastery was violated can we see inside.

When she herself paid a visit to the Bonn showing of "Krone und Schleier," Caroline Bynum overheard several guests who had strayed unwittingly into the exhibit lament, "Oh dear, it's nuns." But the historian also noticed that when guests attended to the paintings, sculpture, and prayerbooks, they found something fascinating. What Bynum observed will not surprise readers of Crown and Veil—and certainly should not surprise me, my family, or the Christian-college students in Orvieto conditioned by monastery stays. Nuns and their stories can be so intriguing that readers, pious or lay, might hardly be able to keep away: replete with venerable old monasteries, mysterious walls and gates, centuries of strong community run by women, nobility choosing voluntary poverty and asceticism, cycles of corruption and sometimes dramatic reform, harrowing attacks by bandits and armies, and, of course, art, some of it miraculous.

Agnes R. Howard is assistant professor of history at Gordon College.

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