Behind (and Beyond) the Walls

Nunsby By Silvia EvangelistiOxford Univ. Press. 304p $34.95
Early Christian literature, both Greek and Latin, tells us that there is a long history of Christian women living in celibate communities of prayer and service. By the end of the fourth century, at least, such communities were not unusual; and through the Middle Ages in the West, womens monastic establishments developed in tandem with those of men, sharing founders, rules and sometimes even churches and monastic buildings. But it is in the world the distinguished Jesuit scholar John OMalley calls Early Modern Catholicism that the figure of the nun took on the form we know best: great communities of cloistered women wearing the habit of their orders, following traditions only partially glimpsed by those in the world. These are the nuns Silvia Evangelisti presents in this lively and wide-ranging book.

A lecturer in early modern history at the University of East Anglia, Evangelisti covers the period 1450 to 1700, the centuries in which womens monastic communities played the largest role in European social history, even as they are the centuries in which clausura, the strict enclosure of nuns behind monastery walls, was most stringently enforced. As Evangelisti explains, the concept of enclosure was preached by ecclesiastical figures, notably the monastic reformer Caesarius of Arles, in the early Middle Ages. But it is in the period leading up to the Council of Trent in the 16th century that enclosure became increasingly important, and it was with the last session of Trent in 1563 that enclosure was formally legislated for all nuns. Actually, the flowering in the later Middle Ages of semi-religious womens communities, like Beguines and tertiaries, had led to something of a crisis about womens religious life in the century before this study begins. In the second chapter, Cloistered Spaces, the author tells us enclosure was connected to a domestic economy in which families attempted to save their patrimony by sending at least one daughter in each generation to be a nun. These girls often had no particular religious vocation, and sometimes chafed at the religious bit. In the 17th century, a Venetian nun named Arcangela Tarabotti wrote LInferno Monacale (Monastic Hell), which criticized this system for having more to do with politics and worldly goods than spiritual goals.

And yet, behind the cloister walls, early modern nuns created marvelous worlds of literature, theater, music and the visual arts. It seems that being locked up led directly to an explosion of creativity. Evangelisti describes the contributions of early modern nuns to each of these artistic forms, admirably synthesizing recent scholarship that has brought nuns theater and music, religious and secular, out of manuscript libraries and onto modern stages. This is the heart of Nuns, a warm description of some remarkable artistic accomplishments of early modern Catholicism: the spiritual works of Caterina Vigri in Bologna and Teresa of Avila in Spain; the plays of Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico and Beatrice del Sera in Tuscany; the music of Lucrezia Orsina Vizana in Bologna and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani in Milan. One of the most interesting questions about these recently rediscovered works concerns their intended audience. Written and performed in the monastery, by nuns, perhaps originally as educational exercises, they nevertheless came to have some paradoxical worldly fame. Many of these works circulated in manuscript and even printed editions, and visitors to Milan in the 17th century often made a stop at the Monastery of Santa Radegonda to hear the nuns sing from behind the grate.

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The realm of visual arts is equally intriguing. We know that in spite of rules of poverty, nuns owned many lovely private art objectsstatues, illustrated books, crucifixesand that womens houses could be sumptuously decorated by the most famous artists. Although the objects behind cloister walls, such as the altar painting by Raphael in the Monastery of Montluce, Perugia, and the panels by Hans Burckmair and Hans Holbein in Saint Katherines, Augsburg, were visible only to the community, sometimes artistic programs included a complementary set of decorations in the outside church, such as the frescos of Bernardino Luini in both the cloister and the public sides of the monastery church of San Maurizio in Milan. And nuns were also artists, usually for the devotional life of the community, but sometimes they were famous artists like the Florentine Dominican Plautilla Nelli, painting religious and secular themes, for both their world and the wider one. Evangelisti gives special attention to the genre of nuns portraits, a tradition of remembrance that places the important abbesses and women leaders in the same category as the great men of their time. The 21 illustrations in the book include intriguing examples of artwork done by and for nuns.

In the last two chapters, Evangelisti turns, for contrast, to the strict enclosure of the Tridentine worldnuns who roamed the colonies as missionaries, teaching and catechizing to spread Christianity. These new orders, like the Ursulines and the Visitandines, and congregations of sisters who were not formally nuns, like the Daughters of Charity, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, had to combine venerable traditions of seclusion with a new vision of womens religious life.

Evangelisti ends her tale at this point with a brief look ahead to the more recent centuries, in which womens religious life suffered a steep decline in both numbers and cultural position. These elements are related, of course, but it would be most interesting to have a sequel to Nuns, bringing the history of convent life into the 21st century. While this book is a celebration of a world of womens monastic life, perhaps Nuns II could help us understand better what role intentional communities might play for Catholic women of the future.

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