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Monday, April 15, 2019

Nuns and Art

The Nun, 1983, Andy Warhol. Though neither Warhol nor movie actress, Ingrid Bergman (upon whom Warhol based his portrait) ever sought refuge in a monastic life, the "art thread" runs strong down through history in the lives of those who have. 
Guglielmo Giraldi, 
Saint Catherine of Bologna, ca. 1469.
Just a little over three months ago the world of art lost one of the towering advocates of our time. On December 26, 2018 (Boxing Day in England), Sister Wendy Beckett died at the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham in Norfolk, England, where she had lived much of her latter years in a small, windowless, mobile home (caravan in English). Although her cause of death has not been officially disclosed, she apparently died of what has commonly come to be known as old age. She was 88. (A Sister Wendy video excerpt can be seen at the end.) It seems unlikely she ever picked brush and palette to create paintings on her own, but the history of art is replete with a surprising number of convent artists, both female and male who did.

Art historian, Sister Wendy Beckett

One of the earliest examples we know about (whose work survives) was Maria di Ormanno degli Albizzi, a 15th-century Italian nun, who au-daciously painted her own self-portrait. Forgoing the demure profile view that male artists cus-tomarily used in their depictions of refined quattrocento ladies, this miniature version of Maria stares out openly from the heart of a sumptuous gold and blue background. Yet this groundbreaking self-portrait was only intended to be seen by her Augustinian sisters; di Ormanno footnoted her likeness on the bottom of a page in a 490-page prayer book. We may think of nuns as sequestered, But just as she was safely cloistered inside the walls of the Florentine San Gaggio convent, di Ormanno was able to paint her daring self-image precisely because it was safely nestled between the covers of her private prayer guide. For Renaissance nuns with a creative bent, convent life was not a problem—it was a creative solution. Many prospective nuns came from wealthy households and had some education; nunneries extracted women from the domestic responsibilities of marriage and motherhood, freeing them to further pursue their studies and even artistic careers.

Sister Juana Beatriz de la Fuente, Arbol de la Vida, 1805.
A century later, the prospect of courtship and marriage drove the early 1600s, Neapolitan painter Luisa Capomazza to find refuge in a convent. She rejected many advantageous marriage proposals, while nobly enjoying herself with painting. According to her biographer, the late-Baroque art historian and painter Bernardo de Domini, she was very much "in love" with painting. Luisa saw herself as quite constrained by the irksome pleadings of both suitors and their parents. Thus she decided to become a nun. In the habit, Capomazza was free to paint a range of subjects, including altarpieces and landscapes. The latter genre was especially challenging for all women artists working in her time inasmuch as the direct study of nature was limited by rules of decorum, which dictated that women be chaperoned outside the home. Despite later having her own biographer, few if any of Capomazza's paintings can reliably be attributed.

Sister Plautilla Nelli,
Saint Catherine with Lily. 1750. 

During the Renaissance, it was common practice for families to send women who weren’t in line to receive the hefty dowry reserved of eldest daughters off to convents. For a variety of economic reasons, not to mention the inclinations of women like Capomazza, convent populations exploded in Italy.. In 1515, there were 2,500 nuns in Florence alone, but by 1552, one out of every nineteen Florentines was a nun. The popularity of this lifestyle is not surprising, considering the socially repressive alternative. Generally speaking, convents have served as one of the most supportive artist residency programs available to women in the history of Western art.

Lamentation with Saints, Sister Plautilla Nelli,
Sister Plautilla Nelli (above, right), for example, was probably enticed to join the Florentine convent of Santa Caterina of Siena because of its artistic reputation. After entering the sisterhood in 1538 at age 14, Nelli gained access to the convent’s large collection of prints and drawings, some of which she may have traded with art historian Giorgio Vasari, who mentioned her in his second edition of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, (1550). Nelli learned to paint at the convent. Vasari relates, “She, [began] little by little to draw and to imitate in colors panels and paintings by excellent master. She has executed some works with such diligence, that she has caused artists to marvel.” Her works were in demand, and she soon headed her own workshop at Santa Caterina with as many as eight nun/artists studying and working under her. Though they proudly produced devotional paintings for private collectors, the nuns of Santa Caterina also created expensive, monumental artworks for themselves. Nelli’s workshop painted a large-scale Last Supper (ca. 1560) for the convent’s refectory is nearly equal in length to Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco on the same subject. It is currently undergoing extensive restoration and this October will be unveiled to the public for the first time in nearly 500 years.

Conservation work for Sister Plautilla Nelli's, Last Supper, dating from around 1560. Leonardo discontinued his misbegotten efforts about 1498.
Portrait of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz,
c. 1750
Convents beyond Italy and long after the Renaissance continued to nurture women artists. Their stories are still slowly being patched together as religious works change hands. Decades ago, Marion Oettinger, curator of Latin American art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, spotted an unusual 19th-century painting for sale at a Latin American folk art gallery in California. He examined the signature and found that it was created by Juana Beatriz de la Fuente, a nun from colonial Mexico. This is still her only known work. “We have no idea who she was,” Oettinger explains, though he imagines that her life resembled that of her more famous sister of the cloth, the 17th-century Mexican scholar, painter, and poet Juana Inés de la Cruz, (right) who had the luxury of a room of her own and materials provided for her.

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