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Invisible Presence: The Poor Clares of Central Italy; Families, Veil and Art Patronage, c. 1350-1550


My PhD project will investigate how the ideology of the Mendicant Orders was reflected in the visual arts and architecture of female religious communities, specifically the Franciscan Poor Clares, in 15th and 16th century Italy, mainly in the geographical region of Umbria.

My interest in this topic is many fold but focuses on the following points described below.

The good functioning of an Italian conventual community during the late medieval and early modern period was based on a strict set of rules governed from within and without a site constructed specifically for the perfection of the life of women within a religious community. Apart from being built to enclose women and to exclude those outside the community, these sacred houses contained a number of ‘aids’ to the daily religious acts and practices of contemplation, which ultimately framed the life of nuns. Often informed by devotional literature, such as the Meditations on the Life of Christ, the visual narratives executed in fresco or in other media such as painting or sculpture, enhanced the women’s understanding and connection to God and ultimately aided their ‘success’ as sacred virgins. Therefore the first aim of my study is to build on existing scholarship related to the study of images found in female conventual communities and the extent to which they were indebted to textual sources or provided distinct kinds of stimuli; asking how images enhanced or sought to direct the religious life of the Franciscan Poor Clares.


Of course the contemplative and devotional aims of the material culture of a convent was of great interest to audiences wider than the nuns themselves. Religious objects ranging from wooden Christ Child images, books of hours and reliquaries to fresco narratives or panel paintings have been shown to have been acquired by convents through a network of interested and pious patrons, often members of the urban elite surrounding the convent. Frequently these not disinterested donors were close relatives of women living inside the convent. These more wealthy nuns were often ranked higher in the convent hierarchy than women deriving from less illustrious families. Hence, the wealth and power of earthly urban families informed hierarchies formed within the sacred realm of the convent; aristocratic daughters of the urban elites, who filled many of the convents during the period under discussion, could aspire to an ambitious conventual career and mark the economic, political and cultural landscape of their surroundings by attracting funds from their relatives. The second aim of this study is to identify how the material culture of a convent was governed; how powerful urban families and reforming religious brought in from other convents as well as the nuns themselves, could mark the nature and sign of their surroundings. What effect did these urban power structures have in practical terms for those living in the convent? How far are social and other previously mentioned hierarchies played out in the material culture itself? Equally, I am interested in how these power structures worked mutually; what was the effect of sending your daughter to a convent on the urban elite? Did the patronage of conventual communities bring outside families more prestige in their community? Did whole communities benefit from the amount of praying virgins in their city?


The approach to the material this study aims to understand builds on gender scholarship, which has acknowledged and recognized both the significant role of women as viewers and as patrons of material culture, but also the complexity of their function as women religious in a male dominated society. It is clear that part of my work will involve evaluating the relationship between the Poor Clares and their male counterparts, the Franciscan friars, who ultimately were responsible for the pastoral guidance, cura monialium, of their pious sisters.

The challenge has been to find the case studies that will be used as tests for my questions. After consulting a number of scholars in the field such as Dr. Roberto Cobianchi and Dr. Jeryldene Wood, who have both written extensively on Poor Clare communities, I decided that my work needed a comparative approach. I have since identified the former convent of Santa Maria di Monteluce in Perugia, which will feature, in my doctoral thesis. The convent of S. Lucia in Foligno will play a more marginal role.

The ancient foundation of Monteluce was established in the 13th century as a Poor Clare community. It was a very wealthy establishment, which included members of renowned local families such as the Alfani, Oddi and Baglioni. There has been no full-length study of this convent although the archival material, including a chronicle containing notes on the daily lives of the community, and the surviving visual evidence, the earlier work still in situ in the church and refectory of the former convent and other objects moved to the national gallery of Perugia, make this foundation an excellent example. 

Date:1 Oct 2012  →  24 Apr 2017
Keywords:Italy, Poor Clares, Culture, Art, Architecture, Religion
Disciplines:History, Art studies and sciences
Project type:PhD project