Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 19, 2020
Kathleen Giles Arthur Women, Art and Observant Franciscan Piety: Caterina Vigri and the Poor Clares in Early Modern Ferrara Visual and Material Culture, 1300–1700. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 252 pp. Cloth $120.00 (9789462984332)

Kathleen Giles Arthur’s concise study illuminates the intersection of visual culture and the spiritual lives of Observant Franciscan women in fifteenth-century Ferrara, Italy. Her book is an outstanding and much-needed contribution to scholarship on art and the Poor Clares.

Historians of this topic have focused primarily on the visionary treatise Le sette armi spirituali, written by Caterina Vigri (1413–1463), founder of the convent now usually known as Corpus Domini in Bologna. Caterina spent much of her life in Ferrara, first at the d’Este court of Niccolò III, where she served as lady-in-waiting to his wife Parisina. In 1426, Parisina was beheaded for adultery, and the thirteen-year-old Caterina entered a local house of pinzochere or bizzoche, semireligious women. By 1431, these women had formed a Franciscan convent known as Corpus Christi, later renamed Corpus Domini. We learn much that is new about Caterina, and Arthur also expands our knowledge toward a broader understanding of female Franciscan life in Ferrara.

Arthur begins her study with a close examination of the early artistic activity of the pinzochere and the formation of Corpus Christi. In chapter 1, “The Pious Women of Corpus Christi,” she discusses how, at the time Caterina joined the group, the women had been earning their living by sewing and repairing ecclesiastical vestments. Turning then to the works of art known to have been owned by the women, Arthur presents a new interpretation of the iconography of an unusual and beautiful panel attributed to Simone dei Crocifissi, the Radix Sancta (Dream of the Virgin), now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Ferrara. The painting features an image of the sleeping Virgin in a bed and with a tree growing out of her body upon which Christ is crucified, topped by the Eucharistic symbol of a pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Caterina knew this painting well and refers to it in one of her writings. Arthur argues that the image refers to a vision recounted in the Versified Legend of Saint Clare, in which the saint witnesses the Tree of the Cross rising from the body of the Virgin. A woman in secular garb sits at left, reading a book; her identity is unknown, but her presence suggests that a vision such as this might occur in the practice of meditation she, and by implication Saint Clare, models. 

Chapter 2 of Arthur’s study makes another essential contribution to the literature on Franciscan women, clarifying the differences in artistic patronage and spiritual practices between Corpus Christi, established as an Observant Franciscan house, and the nearby Franciscan convent of San Guglielmo. While the nuns at Corpus Christi held to a stricter renunciation of property, San Guglielmo was allowed to acquire property and to host secular visitors, according to the Urbanist rule.

Among the works commissioned by the Corpus Christi nuns were two altarpieces dating to the middle of the fifteenth century. Only one of these survives: on the theme of the Entombment, and now also in the Pinacoteca in Ferrara, it includes, unusually, figures of the Franciscan saints Francis, Anthony of Padua, Clare, Bernardino of Siena, and Louis of Toulouse. Even more extraordinary are the portraits of five nuns, probably members of the Corpus community, placed among them. The second, lost altarpiece featured the Adoration of the Host, with two kneeling nuns adoring the sacrament. As Arthur argues, the nuns at Corpus Christi pioneered the pairing of these two themes in works of art, a further sign of their intense devotion to the Eucharist.

Chapter 3, “The Sette Armi Spirituali and Its Audience,” probes the relationships between Caterina’s text and works of art that would have been known to the nuns of Corpus Christi. Le sette armi was written as Caterina’s guide for novices, and it centers on seven spiritual weapons that would steel the nuns against temptation. Arthur convincingly maintains that the text was designed to recall images the nuns would have been familiar with, such as portrayals of Mary holding the Christ Child in swaddling clothes. As Caterina recounts in the treatise, as she prayed the Hail Mary on a Christmas Eve, she experienced a vision of Mary holding the swaddled Jesus.

Arthur’s most compelling scholarship comes in her fourth chapter, “Drawing for Devotion: Sister Caterina’s Breviary.” Preserved now in the archive of the Convent of Corpus Domini, Bologna, the breviary manuscript contains a number of illustrations attributed to Caterina herself. Designed to be shared among the convent’s members, it is remarkable for its incorporation of abstract patterns modeled on needlework designs, as Arthur argues through persuasive comparisons with lace from the period. Arthur postulates that these details are not simply decorative but refer to the needlework and making of corporals practiced devotionally by Saint Clare and by the nuns at Corpus Christi. Clare is among the saints Caterina painted in the manuscript, along with simple yet at times unusually imaginative images of other saints, including Francis, Mary Magdalen, and Jerome.

In 1456, Caterina left Ferrara for Bologna, where she founded a sister convent, Corpus Christi (later Corpus Domini). In Arthur’s final chapter, “Corpus Christi’s Later Religious and Civic Identity,” she traces the legacy of Le sette armi, a text that was widely read in the context of Observant Franciscan reforms. The text survives in several illustrated manuscripts from the period, including codices copied and illuminated by the nuns at Corpus Christi in Ferrara. In 1483 the nuns received a sumptuously decorated Ferrara building bequeathed by the banker Giovanni Romei (now the museum of the Casa Romei). Arthur discusses this period as one of change for the Corpus Christi nuns; the convent established close ties to two generations of d’Este women, including Lucrezia Borgia, and served as a school and retreat house for aristocratic girls and women.

Arthur’s fascinating study brings the story of the Poor Clares in Ferrara to an anglophone audience for the first time. She offers new insights into the visual culture of Observant Franciscan women in a crucial period of transition for the order. The author’s extensive archival research reveals the names and ages of many of the nuns at Corpus Christi, providing much new material for future scholars. Also impressive is the access she obtained to artworks that remain in the care of the Poor Clares in Ferrara and Bologna. Packaged in a handsome, slim volume, Arthur’s book includes images of many rarely or never published works of art. It is a shame that better images and more color plates were not included, although given the economics of academic publishing this comes as no surprise. Nonetheless, this volume is an enjoyable, clearly written account of Clarissan spirituality and artistic production and patronage. Accessible to students and scholars alike, it is a superb contribution to the field.

Holly Flora
Tulane University