2024 International Congress of Medieval Studies Annual Conference HYBRID, Kalamazoo, MI (Hybrid Format)
IAS-Sponsored Session

Spatial Confinement and Virtual Peregrinations of Women in Late Medieval Italy

Organizer & Chair: Shane Harless, Rice University

Women’s movement during the Middle Ages was often controlled within domestic life, the church, and the convent. Variations of enclosure permeate the secular and sacred lives of women throughout the Middle Ages. This session will explore women’s spatial confinement within domestic and cloistered environments, and their visual responses to representations of sacred topography. This panel will focus on how devotional art within manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, altarpieces, and private tabernacles functioned as a conduit for virtual pilgrimage within the restricted lives of laywomen and female religious in late medieval Italy.


Renana Bartal, Tel Aviv University, Israel
Contemplation and Assumption: Reading the Meditationes Vitae Christi in Perugia

Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 410 is the only known fully illuminated copy of the long Latin version of the Meditationes Vitae Christi, one of the most popular devotional texts of the later Middle Ages. Now believed to have originated in Tuscany around 1300, the text was intended for the Poor Clares, a contemplative Franciscan order of nuns. MS 410, I argue, was produced in Perugia circa 1300–20 for a nun from Santa Maria di Monteluce, one of the oldest and wealthiest establishments of Poor Clares in Umbria. The contemplation offered by the manuscript and its rich pictorial program was interior and solitary, yet it also had a communal significance that went beyond Monteluce and involved the entire city of Perugia. In this paper I focus on the convent as a culminating site for the liturgical procession of the Assumption in Perugia and link the feast’s liturgy with the act of contemplation prescribed by the MVC. I argue that MS 410 activated the association of Monteluce with the house where the Virgin Mary dwelt during her last days, which is depicted a number of times in the manuscript, thereby integrating the present convent with the biblical past. Contemplative practice then carried wider social functions and could play a role in the construction of civic identity as well as personal redemption.

Michaela Zöschg, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
‘Totum parietem [...] ad corum eiusdem ubi sorores [...] dicunt horas’: Visual Journeys in Enclosure

Since its discussion in Caroline Bruzelius’ seminal article with the programmatic title ‘Hearing is Believing: Clarissan Architecture ca. 1213-1340’ (Gesta X, 1992, pp. 83-91), the extensive cycle of wall paintings in the nuns’ choir of the Clarissan monastery church of Santa Maria Donnaregina in Naples has occupied a central place in art historical discourse concerned with the question of what role images may have played in the devotional life of enclosed nuns. The scenes with their detailed renderings of biblical stories arranged in complex architectures and rocky landscapes, originally accompanied by inscriptions in Latin, are now generally interpreted as a means for their audience to inhabit biblical stories and figures in a similar way to contemporary texts written for enclosed Clarissan nuns, such as the famous Meditationes vitae Christi. This gospel meditation, in all likelihood written for a Clarissan sister, invites its audience to accompany Christ and the Virgin on their journey from Christ’s childhood to his Passion.

In this paper, I would like to revisit some of the narrative strategies employed in the Passion and Resurrection cycle in Santa Maria Donnaregina, and juxtapose them with a now lost wall painting of a Tree of Life in the Clarissan monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes in Barcelona, whose appearance can be reconstructed through a detailed contract between the painter Arnau Bassa and Abbess Francesca Saportella, made in 1343. This juxtaposition will, it is hoped, not only highlight that imagery for enclosed nuns was highly sophisticated, and employed various modes of seeing and visual meditation, but also offer some avenues to further our understanding of the use and function of mobile objects made for Clarissan contexts, such as for example the famous panel associated with the house of Santa Maria di Monticelli near Florence, now at the Galleria dell’Academia.

Christopher Platts, University of Cincinnati
Images of the Vocation, Devotion, and Salvation of Poor Clare Nuns in Paolo Veneziano’s Clarissan Altarpieces for Venice and Trieste

The Venetian Gothic painter Paolo Veneziano (active 1310-58) executed three complex altarpieces for communities of Poor Clares in Venice and Trieste, altarpieces that feature unusual representations of Saint Clare, Franciscan nuns, and specific objects of Clarissan devotion. Many of these representations have not been adequately explained, yet when each altarpiece’s historical context and viewership are considered, and when all three paintings are explored together and compared with other early Clarissan images, it is possible to identify key themes, narrative episodes, and iconographic motifs in Paolo Veneziano’s works. Therefore, in this paper I explore the visual programs of the painter’s Santa Chiara polyptych (ca. 1330-35), Trieste triptych (ca. 1320-25), and Tiflis polyptych (ca. 1350) in relation to their provenance, patronage, and potentially diverse audiences and functions. I focus on how each altarpiece could be interpreted as a gendered image; that is, how each was rendered so as to have historical and devotional meaning for particular female Franciscan viewers who lived in strict enclosure.

Images of Saint Clare’s own religious vocation and conversion are uniquely visualized in these works. So too are significant aspects of Clarissan identity and devotion, including a specific type of Franciscan habit, an emphasis on Saint Clare’s imitatio Mariae, and a concern with Christ’s suffering as related to key Passion relics such as the Veronica and one of the holy nails from the Crucifixion. Ultimately, these Venetian altarpieces visually celebrate not only the founder’s heavenly salvation but also that of all Poor Clares who, through their conversion, spiritual dedication, and mimetic suffering, showcase the vital role of the Franciscan Third Order in the history of Christian redemption.

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