Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Christ with adoring nun (fol. 149v); Swaddled infant Christ (fol. 157r)
  • Creator: Catherine Vigri, Saint
  • Description:

    These pages come from a breviary illustrated by Caterina Vigri (also known as Catherine of Bologna), a Franciscan nun in Ferrara, Italy. On the page on the left she drew a portrait of Christ with detailed decoration that calls to mind the needlework designs used by nuns, in particular the cutwork or reticella done by Poor Clares in Ferrara in the 1440s-50s. KathleenArthur, in her book Women, Art and Observant Franciscan Piety, argues that Vigri's breviary is part of a rich aesthetic tradition developed by nun artists to serve devotional needs and to exemplify an arte povera in harmony with the values of St Clare. Beneath Christ's portrait is a small roundel with the face of a nun whose eyes are raised to Christ in devotion. On the other page Vigri drew a swaddled infant Christ with a nimbus. Even in this smaller drawing there is an attention to Christ's beauty and to decorative elements.

    On other pages in the breviary, Vigri drew portraits and illuminated initials celebrating Francis, Clare, Anthony of Padua, Mary Magdalen, Paul, Jerome, Catherine of Alexandria, and Thomas Becket. However, the chief artistic subject is Christ which matches Vigri's belief that devotion and art needed to be Christocentric. In a biography written by a life-long friend, Vigri says " "What can flowers and branches do there? Would not Jesus Christ be better in the initial letters [of texts] as he is in prayers and lessons? What sentiment is derived from these boughs if not a wandering of the mind? But Christ Jesus is a sweet and gentle memory." While the breviary was a text intended for prayer and devotion, in the context of the Corpus Domini monastery it could be seen and admired by all the sisters. The hundreds of prayerful rubrics enjoin the viewers to devote themselves to prayer and meditation on the presence of Christ.

    Catherine Vigri entered Corpus Domini monastery in Ferrara in the late 1420s when it was transitioning to a house of Observant Poor Clares. In 1456 she led the creation of a daughter house, Corpus Domini in Bologna, serving as abbess until her death in 1463. Catherine Vigri was remarkable as an abbess in having been educated in painting, music, and Latin at the court of Ferrara. There she served as a lady-in-waiting to the daughter of the d'Este ruler until she entered the religious life. She preached to her nuns and encouraged their intellectual engagement with studies. While serving as abbess, Saint Catherine continued to write and paint. Her written works were inspired by her religious dreams and visions. She wrote the Sette Armi Spirituali as a training manual for novices and included stories about demonic tempters who encouraged pride and disobedience

  • Source: Web Gallery of Art
  • Rights: Use permitted for educational purposes.
  • Subject (See Also): Abbesses Artists Breviaries Catherine Vigri, Saint Devotional Practices Monasticism Nuns Prayers Women Artists Women Scribes
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: Finished in 1452
  • Related Work: Advent frontispiece from Caterina Vigri's breviary, fol. 10r. The large initial presents the head of Christ, while the smaller one depicts the infant Christ.
    Head of Christ within the letter K and nimbed Christ on the right from Caterina Vigri's breviary, fols. 71v and 112v.
    Saint Catherine of Bologna with Three Donors, painted by the Master of the Baroncelli Portraits, Feminae image record.
  • Current Location: Bologna, Corpus Domini Monastery
  • Original Location: Ferrara, Corpus Domini Monastery
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript Illumination
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Arthur, Kathleen G. Women, Art and Observant Franciscan Piety: Caterina Vigri and the Poor Clares in Early Modern Ferrara. Amsterdam University Press, 2018;
    Arthur, Kay G. “Images of Clare and Francis in Caterina Vigri's Personal Breviary.” Franciscan Studies 62 (2004): 179–92;
    Wood, Jeryldene M. "Breaking the Silence: The Poor Clares and the Visual Arts in Fifteenth-Century Italy," Renaissance Quarterly 48, 2 (1995): 262-286.