Breaking the Silence: The Poor Clares and the Visual Arts in Fifteenth-Century Italy

Article excerpt

As Dante and Beatrice begin their ascent to the Empyrean in canto 3 of the Paradiso, they alight on the moon where they encounter pale spirits, not mere reflections but "true substances ... assigned [there] for inconstancy to holy vows" (Dante, 29-31).(1) Encouraged by Beatrice, Dante asks an eager soul identified as Piccarda Donati, a Poor Clare abducted from a Florentine convent by her brother and coerced into a politically expedient marriage, "through what warp she had not entirely passed the shuttle of her vow" (Dante, 95-96). Like the followers of Saint Clare who "go cloaked and veiled on earth," she replies, "as a girl, I fled the world to walk the way she walked and closed myself into her habit, pledged to her sisterhood till my last day" (Dante, 98-99, 103-05). Disheartened by her family's actions, Piccarda expired eight days after her unwanted nuptials.

Dante clearly expected his tale of breached cloister and broken vows to be understood as a failure of will, for the doubts he expressed concerning the justice of punishing those who were forced against their desire usher in his discourse on free will in the next canto. Nonetheless, for modern readers both Dante's exemplum and his choice of language also elucidate the pervasiveness of traditional attitudes that viewed the female gender as weak by nature. Dante locates the inconstant souls on the moon, the lowest of the celestial spheres and a secondary planet visible only by virtue of the reflected light of the sun, and he singles out a monastic woman who has slighted her vows, not because she is intrinsically evil but because she exemplifies inherently passive beings who submit to a stronger force regardless of its sinfulness. While the families actually break the sanctity of the cloister in his poem, it is Suor Constantia, as Piccarda was called in the convent, who pays an eternal price for her frailty of will.(2)

Piccarda's voice is of course Dante's, yet until recently our notions about nuns in early modern Italy were largely formed by such fiction. As contemporary literary and historical studies have revealed, monastic women were in fact not silent. They conversed among themselves and with others - laypersons as well as ecclesiastics - in letters, histories, devotional tracts, prayers, and sonnets. The role of the visual arts as vehicles of communication for nuns has been less explored, however.(3) This article argues for the cogency of the arts to religious women in Renaissance Italy by examining the patronage, production, and response to works of art made for three fifteenth-century convents of Piccarda's order, the female Franciscans.

Bright illuminations on the calendar pages in a breviary decorated by Sano di Pietro in the 1470s for the Poor Clares at Santa Chiara in Siena provide a glimpse of women whose contemplative lives usually included as much labor as prayer.(4) Saint Clare's monastic rule required the nuns to work; indeed, their survival as a community committed to the practice of corporate as well as personal poverty depended on their labor to supplement the alms donated to the convent.(5) As Dante's choice of words to question Piccarda implies, the nuns wove and embroidered ecclesiastical vestments and altar cloths; thus the sister who pauses to watch the falling snow on the right of Sano's illumination for January appropriately holds a distaff [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Most convents of Clarisse owned land that was cultivated with grains, olives, and grapes and worked by unprofessed lay sisters, tenants, and outside workers who were hired to perform specialized or heavy tasks and labor intensive jobs that needed extra hands, as illustrated on Sano's page for March [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].(6)

The representation for March reveals that the recipients of the breviary were Observant Poor Clares, for the painted nuns wear the coarse black veils legislated by the reformers in 1460. Their community would have observed the vow of strict communal poverty as it had been outlined by Saints Francis and Clare and then revived in the early Quattrocento by such Observant reformers as Saint Bernardino of Siena, who strove to reinstate the original Franciscan spirit that they believed had been abandoned by the order. …