Could women be artists in the late medieval to early modern period? Did women participate as artists as well as patrons in the dialogue between the Franciscan movement and new directions in the visual arts? The answer to both questions is yes, as explained by Kathleen Giles Arthur in her fascinating monograph on the writer and artist Caterina Vigri (1413-63), later St. Catherine of Bologna, for thirty years a sister at the Poor Clares’ convent of Corpus Christi in Ferrara, the period of focus in this study.
The artistic oeuvre securely attributed to Vigri consists of illuminations to her 500-page, mostly self-copied Breviary, as well as a “Man of Sorrows” drawing found in a different manuscript (19-20, 114-18). With a “freedom and originality” already noted in the art of medieval German nuns (87), Vigri “invented an arte povera appropriate to the Poor Clares poverty” by combining prototypes known to her, including the sisters’ ubiquitous needlework (88), while rejecting the opulent style of the neo-Gothic prayer books that she must have seen (90). Arthur’s study is imbued with “the foundational principle of visual culture,” that the study of art must not be limited to “masterpieces” produced by and for the powerful, and must include art works created by women (19). Throughout this richly illustrated study, she also gives examples of other devotional art works the sisters must have seen and contemplated, and in some cases, probably commissioned.
Arthur’s introduction describes the surviving evidence, both artworks and documents, that allows us to study the life and work of the fifteenth-century Ferrara Corpus Christi nuns in unusually fine detail. As explained in chapter one, “The Pious Women of Corpus Christi,” the convent began its life as a house of semi-religious women or Beguines, known in Italian as pinzochere or bizzoche, who obviously supported themselves by needlework, including the production and repair of ecclesiastical vestments (27-30). Vigri entered this house in 1426 as a thirteen-year-old brought up in the court of Niccolò III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, where she found a lifelong friendship in his natural daughter Margherita d’Este. Vigri received a good courtly (but not a humanist) education in reading, writing, and music (72-73). She was lady-in-waiting to Niccolò’s wife Parisina, who was a patron of art and literature (72). Possibly seeking refuge, Vigri entered the convent shortly after Parisina was beheaded for adultery in 1426. By 1431, the pinzochere had succeeded in reorganizing their house as the Poor Clares’ convent of Corpus Christi (now Corpus Domini), which followed the Rule of St. Clare enjoining obedience, lack of personal possessions, and physical labor—including manuscript production—as an antidote to temptation (55).
Arthur expounds upon the material culture and art works already present in the earliest days of the convent as a house of semi-religious. Among all the objects needed to celebrate mass, they also owned a monstrance, suggesting “an incipient Eucharistic cult of the body of Christ even before they became Poor Clares” (30). Possibly this early, they also owned a most remarkable panel painting known as The Dream of the Virgin or Radix Sancta. This unusual work depicts the Virgin Mary asleep in bed, with Jesus hanging crucified from a tall and spreading tree that emerges straight up from her abdomen. Beside the sleeping Virgin, a woman in secular garb sits reading a book (33), possibly representing the dreamer reading the book that inspired the dream. I find the iconography not as obscure as claimed. Many pictures of the Virgin have symbols of the Passion, and according to legend the wood from the Tree of Life was used to make the cross. Vigri must have seen this painting every day, and she refers to it in one of her writings (33). According to Arthur, the sisters would have understood the imagery from a Franciscan perspective as St. Clare’s vision of “the Tree of the Cross rising from the Virgin Mary’s body” as described in The Versified Legend of St. Clare (33).
In chapter 2, “Building a Public Image of Piety,” Arthur describes how the sisters at Corpus Christi established their Observant Franciscan culture of poverty in a sort of competition with the neighboring Clarissan house of San Guglielmo, which followed the more lenient Urbanist rule allowing the convent to acquire property and play host to secular visitors (42-46). A surviving document box, a humble object belonging to Corpus Christi, depicts Francis and Clare as figures of equal height standing side by side, a remarkable statement of true partnership between the First and Second Minorite Orders (53-54). Two amazing altarpieces (ca. 1450-60), possibly commissioned by the nuns (64), express devotion to Franciscan saints as well as the physical body of Christ. The surviving altarpiece, an Entombment, shows a peacefully recumbent Jesus gently lowered into the tomb atop a winding sheet by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus while the expected biblical figures cluster around him, accompanied by Franciscan saints Francis, Anthony of Padua, Clare, Bernardino of Siena, and Louis of Toulouse, all in attitudes of lamentation, with Francis meeting the eyes of the observer (color plate II). “This is one of the earlier, if not the earliest, representation of five ‘modern’ Franciscan saints joined together in a single narrative scene” (58), a witness to the sisters’ encouragement of artistic innovation. The female observers in Franciscan habits have more “veristic” features and may represent “living nuns in the community” (61). The now-lost altarpiece, the Adoration of the Host, was even more overtly Eucharistic in character. It showed “saints Clare and Francis, accompanied by two kneeling nuns, adoring the Holy Sacrament (63), flanked by parallel episodes from the Bible and religious legend. Together, “these examples suggest that Corpus Christi was exceptionally progressive in developing the parallel visual imagery of the Adoration of the Host and Entombment in the mid-fifteenth century” (65).
In chapter 3, “The Sette Armi Spirituali and its Audience,” Arthur examines Vigri’s most famous literary work, a spiritual guide for novices which survives in twenty-one manuscripts and was published in 1475 (120-21) As this work contains no pictures by Vigri, Arthur focuses her analysis on its use of visual imagery based on art objects that the sisters would have seen (67, 76). As shown by convent documents, the women of Corpus Christi were upper-class, highly educated in medieval Latin and the vernacular, and familiar with the visual riches of surrounding court culture (71-76). Thus, Vigri could appeal to a common pictorial memory in teaching the seven spiritual weapons against temptation that form the subject of her treatise. Extolling the virtue of Obedience personified, Vigri depends on familiar portrayals of such a character placing a yoke on the neck of St Francis (77-78). The sisters would have seen manuscript illuminations of Jesus tempted on the mountaintop (77-79). Devils portrayed in various media underscore the reality and power of temptation (80-81). Under the topic of contemplating the Holy Scriptures as a spiritual weapon, Vigri recounts her personal vision of Mary placing the swaddled Christ child in her arms as she prayed the Hail Mary in church on Christmas Eve (83-84). The sisters would have been familiar with artistic portrayals of Mary with Jesus in swaddling clothes (85-86), making Vigri’s experience relatable for them.
Chapter 4, “Drawing for Devotion: Sister Caterina’s Breviary,” is the most original and exciting in the book. The unique manuscript of the Breviary is preserved as a holy relic in the Archive of the Convent of Corpus Domini, Bologna, where Vigri ended her days. Arthur has examined the manuscript on site, with help from the Poor Clares. The manuscript is a composite, with the Psalter and Calendar written by other hands but illustrated by Vigri, and the other components copied and illustrated by herself. It was most likely shared among the sisters as not all owned breviaries of their own (90). Like the better-studied art work of German nuns, Vigri’s illustrations “disregard models from professional scriptoria” to create “unusual, if not idiosyncratic” illustrations of Jesus and the saints, all to serve a spiritual purpose in accord with Observant Franciscan values (87). Preaching to the sisters, Vigri condemned illuminations adorned with “flowers and foliage” as a distraction from prayer, but defended pictures of Jesus and the saints as an aid to devotion (89). As raw material for the breviary, Vigri had access to paper, vellum, and books of recipes for pigments, some of them created by nuns for nuns (91), as many female convents had scriptoria. “The single unifying principle in the breviary is the adaptation of needlework designs replacing borders of flowers, fruits, birds and animals in intertwined leaves that were popular in Lombard-style illustration” (91). The theology of the needlework-style borders, prolifically pictured in Arthur’s study along with an actual piece of lace from the period (92), is rich and complex. It alludes to St. Clare’s own diligence at needlework (92), as well as the embroidery worked by nuns to adorn the corporal and the chalice veil used in celebrating mass. Spread over the altar, the corporal “symbolizes the linen shroud that wrapped Christ’s body for burial” (97), while the chalice veil is used to cover the chalice and host before communion (96). In this way, Vigri’s lacy borders evoke the Clarissan model of poverty and humble labor, as well as the sisters’ devotion to the Body of Christ.
Usually framed with the “corporal design” carried over from needlework, Vigri’s faces of Jesus and the saints adorn the Temporale and Sanctorale in her Breviary with a simplicity that must have served the purpose of undistracted prayer. Quite often, Vigri incorporated her own personal prayers into the text, sometimes within an initial letter (e.g. 105). The face of the Christ Child appears often, frequently emerging from swaddling clothes (100). The adult Christ and other male saints generally have forked beards and peaceful faces devoid of much expression. In the Temporale, Vigri accompanied her picture of St. Thomas Becket in an archbishop’s hat with a special appeal for prayer to the saint, who had graciously appeared and spoken to her in a vision (101). The Sanctorale has some of the most “idiosyncratic” images of the saints (105), including Franciscan saints. St. Clare appears in the cheapest of fabrics, underscoring her devotion to poverty (107, color plate VI). Mary Magdalen’s appearance in profile recalls familiar images of her as a penitent praying in the desert, as St. Francis would do in emulation (106, 108). St. Jerome appears in a scholar’s hat with more “veristic” features possibly modeled after a painting (110-11). The feast days of St. Francis inspired Vigri’s most original conceptions, including—to my mind—the most beautiful and theologically complex of her illuminations. For the Feast of the Stigmata, Vigri’s image shows not the stigmatization, but a well-executed waist-length profile of the habited St. Francis adoring Brother Sun, with trees in the background, and his upraised stigmatized hands lightly touched with gold leaf in honor of the miracle (122-13, color plate VII). The picture recalls the saint’s association with light and his love of nature as expression of the love of God (113). The chapter closes with a discussion of Vigri’s Man of Sorrows illustration, its artistic antecedents in prints available at the time, and its reflection of the nuns’ devotion to the body of Christ (114-18).
Arthur’s final chapter, “Corpus Christi’s Later Religious and Civic Identity,” is a kind of sequel outlining Corpus Christi convent life in Ferrara after Vigri’s departure in 1456 to become abbess of the Corpus Christi convent in Bologna (now Corpus Domini). First, Arthur discusses the influence of Vigri’s widely copied Sette Armi on observant reform, its secular readership, and later art history. The future saint’s Christmas Eve vision found portrayal in at least two professional manuscript illuminations (122-23). Another Settemanuscript was illustrated with a peculiar picture of a nun in in the poorest of habits encased in a fanciful fishlike shroud that Vigri might have censured as a distraction (123-25). The Sette and other works were copied and illustrated at Corpus Christi, Ferrara, by nuns who were scribes and illuminators (126-32). Continuing the tradition of art work at the convent, they painted author-portraits of Vigri, a stigmatization, and perhaps most endearing, a portrayal of Vigri in a Madonna of Mercy pose with sisters sheltered under each of her caped and outstretched arms (131). The chapter closes by describing the extreme change in Corpus Christi culture when the nuns inherited a spacious new building, already adorned with sophisticated works of art, from the Ferrarese banker Giovanni Romei in 1483 (138-39). Beginning around that time, they were patronized, and given art objects, by two generations of powerful and highly educated d’Este women, including Lucrezia Borgia (142-43). The convent came to be known and respected as a retreat house and boarding school for aristocratic girls and women (141), a role potentially at odds with Observant Franciscan piety. These later days at Corpus Christi make a fascinating story, but it is another story.
Scholarship is served in this volume by a thorough apparatus: a list of illustrations with good detail, appendices listing an inventory of convent property and individual sisters with their social origins, many floor plans and photos of remaining convent structures, and a copious bibliography divided by manuscripts, printed primary sources, and secondary sources.
Even such an excellent work has its careless mistakes and minor anomalies. Picture captions sometimes identify figures in reverse order. The volume Pregare con le immagini (2004), edited by Fortunati and Leonardi, is not a “first modern edition” (88) of the Breviary, but a collection of articles with color photos. It seems the Breviary has yet to be published or digitized entire—which points to a need. I believe the name of Jesus is IES, the first three letters of “Jesus” in Greek, not YHS. Vigri’s inscription “sapientia xps est deus noster” (103) means “Christ the Word is our God,” as Wisdom represents the Logos or second person of the Trinity. If Vigri wrote such phrases as “Mirate xps” (103) and others like it, her unconventional Latin grammar calls for comment. The temptation of Christ is only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Given Arthur’s emphasis on the swaddled Christ child in Vigri’s spirituality, why doesn’t she include a reproduction of the baby Jesus viewed at full length as a tight cocoon with a face and head? Such illustrations that appear in the Breviary are reproduced in Fortunati and Leonardi, Pregare con le immagini.
These quibbles aside, Arthur’s monograph is to be recommended as groundbreaking work on women’s history, Observant Franciscan spirituality, and true “outsider art.” There is the thrill of discovery in progress around such direct study of manuscripts still too little explored. In short, this is a superb work of scholarship as well as a fascinating read.