Detail, Birgitta in Cave of Nativity, Pisa, Museo Nazionale di San Matteo

. . . .

e have been reminded of late that masculine protectors and agents were necessary parts of a nun's spiritual and economic life, and warned to take account of the roles of these men in the nuns' patronage of works of art. With a male confessor or other intermediary as the buffer between herself and the artist, what sort of impact could the religious woman have on the form or content of a work of art?[3] I hope that the objects discussed here will respond in some measure to this question. My focus will be the convent of San Domenico of Pisa, and its founding prioress, Chiara Gambacorta, whose features are recorded in the marble tomb slab created at her death in 1419 (Figure 1).[4] I wish to explore the impact that the prioress had on the commissioning, style, and imagery of the works of art produced during her prioracy and demonstrate how extensive her role in the creation of these works actually was.

Although not as familiar to us as come of her masculine contemporaries, Gambacorta is venerated as a Beata by the Church, as a local saint by Pisans, and as a key figure in the history of the Observant movement by the Dominican order.[5] She was born in 1362 to Pietro Gambacorta, who became the ruler of Pisa shortly after her birth. Called Tora by her family, she was married at 13 and widowed by age 15. To avoid another arranged marriage Tora surreptitiously entered a Franciscan convent in Pisa and took the name Chiara; her enraged family removed her from the convent and confined her for several months. Through Chiara's perseverance and the influence of Catherine of Siena and Alfonso Pecha da Vadaterra [Hermit Bishop of Jaen] - the last confessor of Saint Birgitta of Sweden - Chiara's father was persuaded to consent to his daughter's profession and ultimately to build a new convert for her.

Although she had initially chosen a Franciscan house, Chiara's final profession was to the Dominican order, and when given the means to found a convent, it was to the order of preachers and their founder it was dedicated. Pietro Gambacorta obtained the grounds and buildings of a defunct convent, and Chiara and several other women installed themselves in the convent of San Domenico of Pisa in 1382, with papal approval secured in 1385. Inspired by the lessons of Catherine of Siena, Chiara devoted the convent of San Domenico to a strict observance of the letter and spirit of the Rule of Saint Augustine and the constitutions of the Dominican order. San Domenico was, in fact, the first Dominican convent of either sex which may be called 'Observant'. Her interpretation of the rule led to strict enclosure, austerities, a truly communal life, and careful attention to Dominican customs and liturgies. The example and mode of life chosen by Chiara Gambacorta were themselves an inspiration to the more well-known Dominican friars who led the Observant movement, including Raymond of Capua, Tommaso Cafferini, Giovanni Dominicini, Leonardo Dati, and Antoninus Pierozzi.[6] . . . .

A strong-minded woman, Chiara was elected prioress of San Domenico in 1395, a post that she held until her death in 1419. She was renowned for her charity, piety, good counsel, and leadership. After her father was assassinated and much of her family killed or exiled, Chiara showed special kindness to the female members of the assassin's family. Her activity included an apostolate by correspondence involving, among others, Francesco Datini, the Merchant of Prato, and his wife, to whom she directed spiritual instruction and prayers, as well as requests for alms. . . .

[After discussing several paintings once belonging to Chiara Gambacorta's convent, San Domenico, in Pisa, a Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, a Marriage of St Catherine of Siena (whose stigmata took place in Chiara Gambacorta's Pisa, 1375), a Crucifixion, Ann Roberts in her article next discusses paintings which feature St Birgitta of Sweden, pp. 135-154.]

Catherine of Siena receiving the stigmata, Pisa, 1375, from Orcherd of Syon, Wynken de Worde, 1519

he same year that Giovanni di Pietro di Napoli painted the Crucifixion, he and Martino di Bartolomeo executed another painting for San Domenico. This is a well-preserved polyptych with the Virgin and Child at the centre of a group of saints, separated by the arcades of a gold-leafed frame (Figure 8).[43] Here we are definitely dealing with an altarpiece. . . . In the privileged spot to the right of the Virgin stands Saint Dominic with his book and lily; on the Virgin's left is John the Evangelist. Female saints are placed on the outer flanks of the altarpiece: next to Dominic is the Magdalene and next to the Evangelist is Birgitta of Sweden. . . . A fragmentary inscription in the center panel dates the painting to April 1405 (1404).[46] The altarpiece may be the object mentioned in a document from Chiara's own hand, dated 1405, which records a legacy left to the convent by Chiara's aunt, Monna Giovanna; among the gifts were funds for building the church and 'la tavola dello altare'.[47] [In a later footnote Ann Roberts notes that the nuns still have a stone tablet recording the Masses to be said for Francesco Datini's friend, Manno degli Agli, who died in Pisa, 1400, on the days of St Mary Madgalen, St Birgitta, St John the Baptist, and St Domenic. Those of St Mary Magdalen and St Birgitta are on contiguous days.]

. . .

Yet this description of the altarpiece from San Domenico is incomplete. The polyptych originally had a predella, which Miklos Boskovits has identified with five predella panels in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.[51] . . . The predellas in Berlin are attributed on the basis of style to Martino di Bartolomeo.

These predellas have as their theme the achievements and miracles of Saint Birgitta of Sweden, the mystic and reformer who died in Italy in 1373. After her death, her visions and prophecies were edited by her confessor, Alfonso Pecha da Vadaterra, Bishop of Jaen, who circulated copies of the Liber Celestis Revelationum all over Europe. Birgitta also founded a monastic order, based - like the Dominicans' - on the rule of St Augustine; the order flourished in the fifteenth century not only in her native Sweden, but in Italy, the Lowlands, and England. She was canonized in 1391, and her sanctity was confirmed in 1419 by Martin V.[52]. Although she was championed by powerful members of the order, her feast was not entered on the Dominican calendar. So her presence in the high altarpiece for the church of San Domenico cannot be linked to the order's own liturgy.

As reconstructed, the predella depict from left to right: Birgitta writing down the words of an angel (Figure 9); Birgitta writing down what Christ and the Virgin dictate (Figure 10); the Nativity of Christ as Birgitta experienced it in a vision in Bethlehem (Figure 11); her appearance in the dream of a Swedish princess standing on a column with red and white roses pouring from her mouth (Figure 12); and her delivery of pilgrims from a shipwreck (Figure 13). Thus the two images of the Swedish saint in her cell appear at the left of the predella, while two images of her miracles appear to the right. At the center is the Nativity, the most influential of Birgitta's visions; it stood directly below the Virgin and Child in the main section of the altarpiece.

The emphasis on Birgitta is surprising here. If this was the main altar of the public church, one might expect the predella to focus on Dominic, the titulae, or at least to give equal space to the other saints depicted. When we examine the altarpiece in the context of the spiritual and liturgical life of San Domenico, however, the focus on Birgitta makes sense. As we have seen, Chiara Gambacorta was especially devoted to Birgitta, about whom she learned from Birgitta's own confessor and editor. Her vita reports that she owned a copy of Birgitta's Istoria, a gift from the bishop;[53] this was probably her Revelations.[54] There are certain parallels between their lives that may explain why Birgitta had such appeal for Gambacorta: both were widows, both were concerned with reforming the church, both had the gift of seeing into people's hearts. And Chiara Gambacorta used her considerable influence in Pisa to promote the Swedish mystic's cult. Special celebrations were held in San Domenico on the saint's feast day, and Chiara arranged for public preaching about Birgitta.[55] She seems also to have maintained close ties with the Brigittine foundation in Florence, the double monastery called Paradiso; at one point about 1395, a rumor circulated that Chiara intended to leave San Domenico and enter the Florentine Brigittine house.[56]

So the altarpiece, probably destined for the high altar of the public church of San Domenico, not only reflects Chiara Gambacorta's personal devotion to Saint Birgitta, but is part of a deliberate effort on her part to promote the cult of Saint Birgitta in Pisa. As such, the themes for the predella must have been chosen to udnerscore the aspects of Birgitta's life that Gambacorta felt were most important or most persuasive to an audience in Pisa. Therefore, this predella does not show the founding of her order, which is depicted in several Tuscan manuscripts of the Revelations and in altarpieces for the Florentine Brigittine house, or the transmission of her Revelations to the Kings of the Earth, which is depicted in some of the earliest manuscripts of her Revelations.[57] The predella instead emphasizes Birgitta's writings, her visions, and her miracles. Two of the images, in fact, stress Birgitta's access to divine truth by representing the nun's taking dication from an angel and from Christ and the Virgin. Rather than presenting the content of her visions, these images stress their divine source and Birgitta's active role in recording them. She is not depicted dictating the text, although her vita makes clear that her usual procedure involved a scribe. The central predella describes her most famous vision (about which more later), which was popularized by her writings.

The choice of miracles depicted is equally selective. Although the canonization documents describe numerous miracles of healing the blind or paralytic, or Birgitta's intervention in difficult childbirths, the predellas focus on other issues. The fourth image attests to the persuasiveness and inspiration of Birgitta's words, which fall from her mouth like roses before a spellbound audience of lay people in the dream of a Swedish princess.[58] Often in her vita and in the canonization documents Birgitta is heralded for having converted a sinner by her words. A local interest may have played a part in the selection of this event from among Birgitta's miracles; a member of the community at San Domenico, Maria Mancini, had a similar vision. Having heard about Saint Birgitta, she desired to see and hear the Swedish saint, and was blessed with a vision of the saint, who instructed her in aspects of the spiritual life.[59] The final image in the predella represents Birgitta's rescue of seafaring pilgrims, a choice certainly apposite in teh seagoing culture of Pisa with perhaps a personal significance for Chiara Gambacorta, whose father had been a pilgrim to the Holy Land with Alfonso of Jaen [and Birgitta of Sweden, where they all narrowly escaped the shipwreck Birgitta had prophesied would take place]. Birgitta is presented as learned, authoritative, mystically inspired, a potent intercessor. The predella offers the viewer in the public church of this convent not only a catalogue of qualities that Chiara Gambacorta admired in Birgitta, but qualities that the viewer could associate with the nuns in the convent of San Domenico.

Confronted with a commission to execute these scenes of a relatively new saint without a standard iconography, Martino di Bartolomeo likely looked for models in the illustrated manuscripts of Birgitta's Revelations, of which several late fourteenth-century Italian examples survive. He probably found little in the Sienese tradition to supply him with sources . . . [60]. Closer parallels may be seen in manuscripts produced in Naples (an early center of Brigittine devotion), such as Morgan Library M498, which Carl Nordenfolk has identified as one of a series of illuminated Revelations that date shortly after Birgitta's death.[61] The frontispiece of this manuscript (Figure 14) depicts Birgitta seated at a desk in the lower right corner of the composition. Martino di Bartolomeo's Birgitta (Figure 10) [is dressed in exactly the same way], sits in much the same posture, in the same direction, with a book in her lap and her hand upraised as in the Morgan miniature. A similar depiction of the saint occurs in an historiated initial on folio 8 of the Morgan manuscript.[62]

Although the Morgan manuscript may have been executed in Naples, it then traveled to Genoa as the property of Alfonso de Vadaterra, who had given a copy of the Swedish mystic's Istorie to Chiara Gambacorta probably in 1378. We cannot be certain that the book Alfonso gave to Chiara was decorated, but Alfonso was distributing such deluxe manuscripts all over Europe at this time and he may have given the daughter of Pisa's ruler a book rather like his own. The similarities in parts of Martino's predella to some of the images in the Morgan manuscript suggest that he was looking at something like the Morgan Revelations, for which Gambacorta would be the logical intermediary. Chiara, then, would have been important to the altarpiece not only in selecting the themes to be depicted, but in providing models from which the artist could work.

Chiara Gambacorta was probably the force behind the commission of another work of art dedicated to Saint Birgitta, an image of her vision of the Nativity at Bethlehem, also in Pisa's Museum and with a firm connection to San Domenico (Figure 15). This panel has been assigned to several Pisan artists, but is currently attributed to the Pisan painter Turino Vanni.[63] The theme is the same as the central predell of the high altar. In her vision, Birgitta saw the Virgin dressed in a gown of white, having cast off her outer garment and shoes, adoring the newborn Christ who lay naked on the ground. She describes Saint Joseph holding a candle whose light was outshone by the supernatural glow of Mother and Child. Popularized by her Revelations, this vision greatly influenced the iconography of the Nativity in the fifteenth century.[64]

Turino Vanni, St Birgitta's Vision at Bethlehem. Pisa, Museo Nazionale di San Matteo ( Courtesy, Soprintendenza ai beni ambientali, architettonici, artistici e storici, Pisa). The painting shows the scene as Birgitta described it in Revelationes VII, with the Virgin taking off her shoes and blue robe [in Birgitta's text this is white], and veil, giving birth in merely her white shift, having brought with her two lengths of white linen, lying beside her and the Child, in which to wrap him. She addresses the Child: "Bene veneris, Deus meus, Dominus meus et filius meus!" ['Welcome, my God, my Lord and my Son'], words which are painted in the same scene in Birgtta's Vision of the Nativity in the Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art. A third version is at Santa Maria Novella.

The painting from San Domenico faithfully depicts these picturesque details in the context of an otherwise conventional nativity scene, which includes such standard features as the ox and ass, music-making angels and the annunciation to the shepherds in the distance. The mountainous setting refers to the grotto where the vision took place. This mountain formation has three alcoves in which the figures are placed, with the Virgin and Child in the largest opening at the center, Joseph in a separate alcove on the right, and Birgitta herself in an alcove on the left. [This arrangement recalls the cave at Bethelehem, adjoined by the further caves of Jerome and Holy Paula and Eustochium.] In a mandorla above the scene appears God the Father, from whom rays of light descend on Christ, the Virgin, Saint Joseph, and Birgitta herself. Birgitta is thus a partner in this event, equal at least to St Joseph; in fact, her position at the left of the composition makes her more prominent than Saint Joseph.

(Ann Roberts next discusses the Niccolo di Tommaso altarpiece, now in the Johnson Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of the same scene. [This altarpiece is likely the one discussed and commissioned in Francesca Papazzuri's letter to Lapa Acciaiuoli, immediately following Birgitta's death, and to be placed in her chapel, thus having a Naples/Rome/Florence ambience. Jan Svanberg has demonstrated that Niccolo di Tommaso was likely the Revelationes illuminator for Alfonso de Jaen's presentation copies of the Revelationes to Popes and Emperors, such as those now in Palermo and in the Pierpont Morgan Library.] Roberts suggests the Turino Vanni painting had already been executed before the altarpiece's predellas of St Birgitta by Martino di Bartolemeo. She ends by saying the placement of these works in the public part of the convent's church in emphasizing the 'visions and miracles of Saint Birgitta, demonstrated to the laity the important role that religious women played in the lives of secular men and women'.)

Brigittine scholars are urged to obtain this book, studying the complete article, the plates, the footnotes, of the essay originally published in as 'Chiara Gambacorta as Patroness of the Arts', in Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance, ed. E. Ann Matter and John Coakley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 120-154 and extensive plates, ISBN 0-8122-3234-4. The Turino Vanni Nativity is especially fine, while all these depictions discussed above are clearly remembered portrayals of Birgitta, the first two predellas likewise recalling Birgitta's rooms in Rome in which she prayed and wrote.


To donate to the restoration by Roma of Florence's formerly abandoned English Cemetery and to its Library click on our Aureo Anello Associazione:'s PayPal button: