How Nuns Have Shaped the Course of Art History

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How do you solve a problem like Maria, and unveil her place in art history? Maria di Ormanno degli Albizzi, a 15th-century Italian nun, was one of the earliest females in Europe to audaciously paint her own self-portrait. Forgoing the demure profile view that male artists customarily used in their depictions of refined quattrocento ladies, this miniature version of Maria stares out unswervingly from the heart of a sumptuous gold-and-blue checkered background. Yet this groundbreaking self-portrait was only intended to be seen by her Augustinian sisters; di Ormanno footnoted her likeness on the bottom of a page in a 490-folio prayer book.

We may think of nuns as sequestered, but di Ormanno was able to paint a daring self-image precisely because it was nestled between the covers of her breviary, just as she was safely cloistered inside the walls of the Florentine San Gaggio convent. For Renaissance  nuns with a creative bent, convent life was not a problem—it was a creative solution. Many prospective nuns came from wealthy households and had some education; nunneries extracted women from the domestic responsibilities of marriage and motherhood, freeing them to further pursue their studies and even artistic careers.

A century later, in the early 1600s, Neapolitan painter Luisa Capomazza sought an escape from her potential future husbands, finding refuge in a convent. She “sent back every advantageous marriage proposal, [instead] nobly enjoying herself with painting, with which she was exceedingly in love,” writes her biographer, the late-Baroque“We think of these nuns as imprisoned, but it was a very enriching world for them,” Linda Falcone told Artsy.  art historian and painter Bernardo de Dominici. “Luisa, seeing herself almost constrained by the irksome pleadings of [a suitor] and his parents, decided to become a nun.” In the habit, Capomazza was free to paint a range of subjects, including altarpieces and landscapes. (The latter was an especially challenging genre for all women artists working in her time—direct study of nature was limited by rules of decorum, which dictated that women be chaperoned outside the home.)

Read entire article at Artsy

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