Gabriella Bruni Zarri, “Consacrazione e conversione tra rito e simbolo,” in Vestizioni: Codici normativi e pratiche religiosae, ed. Sofia Boesch Gajano and Francesca Sbardella (Rome: Viella Libreria editrice, 2021), p. 13-36.
Summarized in English by Mary Maschio
When a young woman entered a convent in Early Modern Italy, her vocation was symbolised by the acceptance of monastic dress, including the veil, but also by the rejection of secular clothes. Zarri’s bipartite study focuses first on dressing, the accoutrements received by girls as they entered the nunnery, and then on undressing, the discarding of the clothes and jewels associated with a certain social status in order to signal an abhorrence of worldly vanity. These two acts were associated respectively with St Catherine of Alexandria (fig. 1) and St Mary Magdalene (fig. 2 of the article).
- Mystical marriage of Saint Catherine. Bologna, Fototeca Zeri. Anonymous Ferrarese of the sixteenth century.
The first part of the article discusses the clothing and objects given to a novice as she entered the monastery for the first time and then, more briefly, the corresponding items of dress that were conferred when a nun made her permanent vows and the variations in clothing between convents. Whilst the rite of consecration was inspired by ancient marriage ceremonies, the ceremony of dressing and the entry of the novice into the convent were more closely modelled on baptism. Each item and piece of clothing represented an aspect of the spiritual journey that the postulant was undertaking. In some rituals, we find a crown of thorns. An anonymous Lombard painting from the first half of the sixteenth century, probably commissioned to commemorate a novice’s entry into a convent, follows the model of St Catherine and the Child Jesus, but the ring is replaced with a crown of thorns (fig. 3 of the article). The words to which the Child Jesus points are also found in the Dominican rite of dressing from Genova (fig. 4 of the article).
A document from the second of half of the sixteenth century describing the ritual as it took place in the Augustinian convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Bologna is particularly interesting for the level of detail it includes about the ceremony of dressing. Following the council of Trent, the process for entering a nunnery became far more rigorous: a postulant would spend a year at the monastery, followed by a month-and-a-half at home. During this period, she was expected to dress modestly and refrain from partaking in worldly pleasures. If accepted as a novice, she would be sent a small crown of thorns and a copy of the rule of St Augustine. In contrast to the grand processions of the preceding century, it was stipulated that the entry to the convent should not resemble a marriage procession. The girl should arrive simply, accompanied only by her family. Mass was celebrated in the exterior chapel, followed by the ceremony of dressing. The priest blessed each item in turn: first the girdle, the chain of perfection, then the veil, the sign of humility and submission to the lord. The novice’s hair was then cut. The collar and wimple followed. The dressing proper then commenced: she removed her secular clothes, the priest dressed her in a black habit, to remind her of Christ’s suffering, girded by a sash to guard against the temptations of the flesh, a scapular as a shield against adversity, a white veil, a sign of continence and purity, and finally a crown of thorns, for Christ. She was handed a cross to signify her rejection of the world and a candle. The last step was the bestowal of a new name. Unusually, in this convent it was the celebrant rather than the girl herself who chose this name. After a final blessing, she was led to the grille to greet her family and friends. These celebratory meetings could continue for up to three days, during which time the girl often received precious objects or artworks to commemorate the ceremony.
The common practice of demanding a dowry for novices meant that entry into convents was usually restricted to girls from wealthier families and that institutions became linked to specific important households within a city. Ceremonies of dressing therefore varied between convents. The portrait of Caterina de’ Pazzi made before her entrance into the convent depicts her in secular clothes (fig. 5 of the article), indicating a desire to preserve her worldly and familial identity even as she supposedly renounced them upon entry into religious life.
In all convents, the rite of profession was shorter than that for entry as a novice. The most important of these was the black veil, but there is no mention of the ring that is commonly found in other rites of profession. Afterwards, the sister was once again permitted to meet family and friends at the grille for three days.
In all convents, nuns were given two types of clothing: one set for work and private prayer, and another for prayer in the chapel. Nuns’ habits also reflected the varying economic fortunes of their convents and differed between rural and urban institutions. The convent of San Giovanni Battista di Bologna, a wealthy Dominican foundation, included detailed descriptions of rather luxurious clothes in its rule. This document confirms that nuns’ habits did follow contemporary fashions to some degree, that there were different clothes for novices and fully professed sisters, and that exceptions could be made in the case of illness or other pressing circumstances. Another document from a Bolognese convent, that of San Ludovico e Alessio, testifies to the personal goods a nun had in her cell.
The second part of the article looks at the rejection of secular clothes. This normally marked entry into a convent but was also relevant in a number of other situations. It is no coincidence that this practice went hand in hand with the increasing popularity of the cult of St Mary Magdalene and the rising number of convents for reformed prostitutes at the end of the fifteenth century. Wealthy women would also signal their conversion to a more spiritual life by their rejection of luxurious clothes. The most famous case is that of Vittoria Colonna, who became a contemplative in her widowhood. At the urging of numerous preachers, many women abandoned their finery without necessarily entering convents. This practice was encouraged by written texts and images, as well as by preaching. A translation of a sermon by Pedro Chavez from 1561 on the conversion of St Mary Magdalene describes her casting off her fine clothes. A visual representation of such a scene is found in the altarpiece designed by the Bolognese painter Francesco Cavazzoni for the parish church of St Mary Magdalene in Strada San Donato in 1582 (fig. 6 & 7).
- Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.
- Detail from Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.
A possible inspiration for this painting is that by the Milanese artist Gaudenzio Ferrari in San Cristoforo di Vercelli, from around 1530. A later example by a Brescian painter, perhaps Francesco Ricchino or perhaps Agostino Galeazzi, was created in the context of the growing popularity of the Compagnia di Sant’ Orsola which included many charitable matrons. The position of Cavazzoni’s painting, above the main altar of an urban parish church, ensured that the message was widely transmitted in Bologna. The Franciscan Antonio Pagani was particularly interested in women’s spiritual life and frequently used St Mary Magdalene as an example. In response to the spiritual needs of the day, he championed the idea of secular women living in community, not bound by vows but subject to a rule. Entrance into this community was made not by a liturgical rite, but by the rejection of fine clothes as a mark of distinction from other women.
Zarri’s consideration of dressing and undressing highlights the importance of clothing in the construction of religious identity in Early Modern Italy. The examples from written and visual sources highlight the symbolism imbued in the clothes and objects given to novices and newly professed nuns, but also reveal the concessions to practicality, and even to fashion. This acceptance of religious dress had its counterpart in the rejection of secular and luxurious clothes, which came in itself to signify the adoption of a more devout life in lay women’s communities (fig. 8).
- Mulier dicta DIMESSA. Filippo Bonanni, Ordinum religiosorum in ecclesia militanti catalogus eorumque indumenta in iconibus expressa et oblata, 1738.