Encyclopedia of Women in Religious Art / Boccaccio's 'Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes': Systems of Signification in an Illuminated Manuscript / Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent / Women, Art and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy

Article excerpt

DIANE APOSTOLOS-CAPPADONA Encyclopedia of Women in Religious Art New York: Continuum, 1996, 442 pp.; 101 b/w ills. $44.50 BRIGITTE BUETTNER

Boccaccio's Des cleres et nobles femmes': Systems of Signification in an Illuminated Manuscript

New York: College Art Association, 1996. Distr. University of Washington Press, Seattle. 139 pp.; 4 color ills., 106 b/w. $45.00


Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 318 pp.; 12 color ills., 118 b/w. $55.00


Women, Art and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 272 pp., 100 b/w ills., 14 diagrams, plans, maps. $70.00

As in other fields in art history, scholars concerned with the history of late medieval art have turned their attention in recent years to the role of women in the production and consumption of art. The four titles under review here highlight three different strategies by which scholars have attempted to write women into the history of late medieval art: Jeryldene Wood considers women as patrons of and audiences for works of art; Jeffrey Hamburger investigates women as artists making images for other women; and Brigitte Buettner and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona examine the representation of the female figure to signify something beyond herself to a primarily male audience. All of these approaches will be familiar to colleagues working in other fields, even if the means by which these questions are addressed and the results are different.

The fact that two of the three major studies focus on nuns is indicative of the particular opportunity that religious women offer to study medieval women at all. Nuns of the Middle Ages have provided the modern scholar with some of the documentation and contextual material that is sorely lacking for secular women of the same time period. As corporate bodies, nuns left archives of records of their daily lives; chronicles that provide not only glimpses into their houses, but records of their attitudes; obituaries that tell us more than when they died; and a body of literature that was developed both for and by them. As members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, nuns have left a mark on the history of a much larger institution that dominated cultural production during the Middle Ages. However, like their secular sisters, nuns were often ignored as the history of that institution was written, beginning in the 16th century. Only recently have scholars begun to fill this gap in our knowledge.l For art historians, convent culture has proved a rich new vein to mine for the history of architecture, painting, and manuscripts, as well as other art forms.2

Women, Art and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy is an important study by a specialist in Italian Renaissance art, a field that, in terms of women's relationship to art, has hitherto been concerned mainly with secular women.3 Jeryldene Wood examines works of art and architecture commissioned by and for women of the Franciscan order, the Poor Clares, from the 13th through the 15th centuries. Rather than compiling a comprehensive, pan-Italian catalogue of Clarissan convents and their art, Wood focuses on a few central Italian houses, from Umbria, Tuscany, the Marches, and Emilia-Romagna; Mantua is the most northerly of the cities discussed. This book brings together the results of the author's research on these convents in a clear and cogent presentation of individual case studies that the author hopes will "offer a multifaceted view of Clarissan art and spirituality" (p. 9). While a few of the objects she discusses are made by the Clares, the book largely focuses on the patronage of the order.4

To reconstruct the histories of these convents she depends on local histories, archival accounts, and chronicles from the convents. She also consults the vitae of various Clarissan women, surving letters written by and about the Clares, and makes good use of devotional texts written for and read by Franciscan women during this period, such as the pseudoBonaventure's Meditations on the Life of Christ and the Sette Armi Spirituali, a devotional tract written by Caterina Vigri. …