Clausura Explains it All?: Review of Sister Act, Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550

Jennifer Atwood, Giuseppe Capriotti and  Daniela Rywiková take questions

Jennifer Atwood, Giuseppe Capriotti and Daniela Rywiková take questions

After last year’s Friarsday, there could only be a sequel in the form of a Nunday. Organised by Michaela Zöschg and Laura Llewellyn, two research students at the Courtauld working on art associated with female convents, this conference set out to ask important questions about art historical enquiry within their field. The problem of agency behind the appearance of a work of art is common to all medieval art history, but is a particular problem for female monasticism, as the clausura of the community would seem to displace nuns further away from the act of making than was typical for other groups, such as monks, priests or laypeople. Furthermore, if the art associated with a particular social group shows as much diversity as it does homogeneity, how credible is it to interrogate it from their perspective? The strength of this conference is that it was exceptionally well-curated to explore these problems, and was clearly shared by many, judging by the healthy turn-out.

Joanne Anderson shows faith in the Real Presence of Professor Kline

Joanne Anderson shows faith in the Real Presence of Professor Kline when asking a question

It is now widely accepted in art history that reception of art can be just as interesting as its creation. The opening session on Friday afternoon explored books and furniture from female convents via the perspective of their cloistered audiences: Jennifer Atwood on a book from Littlemore Priory in Oxfordshire; Giuseppe Capriotti on the choir stalls of the Camerino Clarisse in the Marches; and Daniela Rywiková on a variety of Bohemian manuscripts. All made reference to internal factors rather than simple stereotypes: something that would become important throughout the conference. Gendered space is a more controversial topic: the sort of term you can drop into a research application (a bit like ‘liminal’) because no one is precisely sure what it means. Professor Jonathan Kline’s paper (pre-recorded, and successfully given in-absentia), on the detached frescoes from the upper chamber of Santa Maria Inter Angelos near Spoleto, was well-received for that way it explored the issue. Nuns are intensely holy people, but their connection with the Eucharistic liturgy is severely limited, so these frescoes now largely preserved in American museums asserted the Real Presence of the Host outside of a liturgical context. Susan Sharp’s and Eva Sandgren’s papers took similar approaches to possible female audiences, respectively to the paintings of the hitherto named ‘Chaplain’s Room’ at Lacock Abbey and the fittings of the highly unusual choir at the Birgittine Monastery of Vadstena.

Carola Jäggi’s keynote at  the close of the first day compared the well-documented St Katharinental in Switzerland, a limited network of artists and internal patronage, to the much more trans-regional connections of the convent of Konigsfelden. Christian Nikolaus Opitz took a remarkably similar approach for his comparison of winged altarpieces in Clarissan convents in Nuremberg and Bamberg in his paper which opened the second day. He concluded that the former attracted potential donors, the latter potential nuns. This idea that that two similar convents’ artistic solutions could be so markedly different, surfacing as it did at the mid-point of the conference, was well-timed to stimulate much discussion.

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James D’Emilio, Stefanie Seeberg and Diana Lucía Gómez Chacón under the unusual double-image of Beatrice of Portugal in the Dominican habit

The following session on nuns as artists, explored some problems again related to the problem of clausura. Fausta Navarro showed how the Dominican nun Suor Plautilla Nelli’s art was restricted by her conservative use of models derived from Fra Bartolomeo from the same order. Similarly, Ingela Wahlberg looked at the embroidery of female convents, showing how it was wayward and eccentric in its technique compared to ‘professional’ workshops in the external medieval art market. Three papers then looked at female monasteries and royal patrons: James D’Emilio on Cistercians around León; Stefanie Seeberg on the convent of Altenberg under Gertrud of Thüringen; and Diana Lucía Gómez Chacón on the extraordinary tomb monument of Beatrice of Portugal. All approached their topics with the agenda of discovering the agency of the female communities, but all found some grey areas in which their influence was more difficult to attribute amid the stylistic choices by the artists themselves. Angelica Federici showed at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura that an inscription tells of the nuns’ (specifically the sacristan’s) agency; while Veronique Bücken used the images on the remarkable chariot for the shrine of Nivelles’ collegiate church as demonstrating the canonesses affirming their predominancy over the male canons. The closing paper of the day by Saundra Weddle was a fitting finale in that it achieved an interesting synthesis of this problem. It showed how Venetian convent architecture was integral with the city fabric, but modified the local vernacular – obviously unique to Venice – for the demands of clausura and self-identity, such as canal-side doors solely for waste disposal and iron window-grates with wooden shutters.

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Alexandra Gajewski and the Graefenthal crucifixion with its army of nuns

Alexandra Gajewski’s excellent paper on the striking Graefenthal crucifixion came with a magisterially concise overview of the historiography central to this conference. Replacing Georges Duby’s view of medieval women as passive objects, feminism introduced the concept of gender as a societal concept that could be undermined, and eventually moved toward reception theory, that maintains the agency of a passive, enclosed community. Yet her paper and many other showed that there is no such thing as a normal nun, and that analysing the community for its own peculiarities is essential in ‘nun studies’. Without contraries is no progression, but in setting up such binaries as male and female; external patronage and internal agency; liturgical and devotional, enquiry will find that invariably, the most accurate picture will lie somewhere in between these extremes. If ‘nun studies’ conform to the assumption of a single character type, then it risks being no more accurate to real medieval holy women than Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 musical comedy (which Carola’s keynote reassuringly referenced) was to the modern religious female community.

Sister Act: Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550 was held at the Courtauld Institute on 13 and 14 March 2015