Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Nuns at Home: The Domesticity of Sacred Space

Marilyn Oliva, Marymount College of Fordham Univerity

The language, ritual, and visionary art and literature of female monasticism is imbued with domestic imagery. Bridal symbols describe a nun’s vocation and profession with a veil, a ring, and salutations for her groom. Though usually discussed in terms of a mystical union with Christ, this bridal imagery nevertheless conjures the domesticity which marriage implies. Nuns’ mystical visions, like those from the convent of Helfta in Germany in the thirteenth century, includes images of Christ’s heart as a house, of God’s grade as a bed with pillows, and of a tabernacle as a kitchen cupboard. Visionary images of domesticity like these found further expression in the small paintings produced two centuries later by the nuns at St Walburg Abbey, beautifully reproduced by art historian Jeffrey Hamburger.

Rituals and visions which sacralize domestic settings and household furniture have been discussed by Hamburger as well as literary critics and theologians interested in the development and promotion of the Cult of the Sacred Heart. Scholars have interpreted this iconography, however, solely as expressions of a mystical union with Christ, or as images which promoted an interactive, affective response from a viewer. Scholars have not addressed the inherent domesticity of nuns’ lives nor has this imagery been contextualized with details of the material culture within their cloisters. This paper will discuss spiritual and monastic domesticity by looking at the actual physical elements of medieval English nuns’ households in conjunction with their German counterparts’ visionary art and literature. I will draw on inventories, household accounts, and foundation charters from the twelfth through sixteenth centuries to ground the spiritual, visionary expressions of nuns’ devotional space to the physical components of their households.

This paper will thus focus on the domesticity of nuns’ sacred space by showing the multivalence of devotional/domestic objects and the spiritual and monastic meanings which infused household implements with a sacred quality.


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