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Spaces for friars and nuns

Haude Morvan


Caroline Bruzelius

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  • 1 There were, of course, considerable differences between the two orders; only the features that spe (...)

1In the early years of the thirteenth century, saints Francis and Dominic introduced new interpretations of religious life that focused on individual and institutional poverty in order to more effectively engage with the public through preaching and conversion1. Their followers, Franciscan and Dominican friars (also called Friars Minor and Friars Preachers) are identified as friars or mendicants to distinguish them from monks or priests. Francis and his followers were initially laymen who adopted a form of life that imitated the Apostles of the New Testament, and therefore lived by begging, whereas Saint Dominic’s community consisted of members of the clergy who had the authority to offer the sacraments and to preach. For this reason, the study and teaching of doctrine was also an essential component of the Dominican mission, and in time Franciscans also became a clerical order and their convents important centers of theological study. Although they lived in urban convents, friars preached in public spaces: markets, streets and piazzas, as well as (by invitation) in parish churches, especially in the early decades: this new concept of religious vocation was thus simultaneously conventual and externalized. The relationship (and complexity) of the mendicant engagement with the public, together with the necessary physical seclusion for prayer, meditation, and study form a central theme of the topic of choir screens and other internal barriers.

2In their public mission, mendicants presented a model of religious life that contrasted with that of traditional monastic and ecclesiastical institutions. Monks were to retreat from society to live in isolated rural communities to work, pray, and study. The secular clergy, on the other hand, ministered to the public in parishes under the authority of a bishop. Over time the mendicant orders came to combine certain features of both, as friars lived in urban convents according to a rule, yet focused on an externalized mission of preaching. In the course of the thirteenth century, their engagement with the public increasingly came to challenge the role of parochial and ecclesiastical clergy for the care of souls. Ironically, especially in view of their profession of poverty, the friars’ charismatic appeal to the public also competed with many of the economic resources of monasteries and parishes, especially for the donations of the faithful. Although there are few documents on the economics of the new orders, gifts from donors were an essential component of financial support for mendicant communities, and on many occasions the choir screen itself became an important element in demarcating spatial zones of patronage.

3Both religious orders had important female components; indeed, the first community founded by Dominic was for women converted from heresy: Prouille in southwestern France. In the Franciscan movement, the charismatic preaching of Saint Francis converted a local noblewoman, Clare of Assisi, who established the female branch of the order that came to be named for her. Although poverty was adopted as an essential principle in both male and female communities, its practice took different forms, as legislation on the strict enclosure of religious women beginning in c. 1220 made begging impossible.

4There were thus two forms of early mendicant life, one for men engaged with the spiritual life of the laity, and one for religious women enclosed within a convent and dedicated to prayer and contemplation. Within their churches and chapels, however, both mendicant men and women were separated from the laity behind the barriers of walls, screens or upper galleries. The present volume represents a series of cases studies on the character and position of such divisions in both male and female communities.

5The topic of these liturgical separations is deeply complicated, however, by their almost total destruction between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century. The authors in this volume, with admirable sleuthing in archives or on site, using both archaeological and art historical analysis, have identified a series of examples in which the internal divisions of mendicant churches can be located or reconstructed, thus providing us with a far better understanding of their variety, function, and meaning.

  • 2 Blaauw 1994; Recht 1999; Jung 2013.

6Liturgical and spatial divisions in churches began to receive significant attention in recent decades as the result of interest in how liturgy, lay and clerical experience of the sacraments, patterns of veneration, images, processions and ostentations, pulpits, and burial conditioned the appearance and impact of sacred space in the Middle Ages2. Previously, traditional formalist narratives had often ignored church furniture and other features that seemed irrelevant to the physical structure of a building; this formalist tendency focused on the architectural frame has been exacerbated by modern restorations, which often “sanitized” interiors, leading to the obliteration of screens, altars, tombs, sculpture and paintings as part of a post-war modernist aesthetic. Often the purgation of interiors was begun long before: in Protestant countries, purist reformers whitewashed church interiors and destroyed images; in late eighteenth century France, the Revolution and subsequent imposition of Napoleonic conquests led to the secularization and eventual demolition not only thousands of churches and convents, but also of the choir screens within the churches that did survive. The casual traveler can today only rarely encounter architectural fragments of these monumental structures, the flotsam and jetsam of choir screens, in museums or the lapidary collections of cathedrals such as Bourges, Chartres, or Noyon, and these displaced components do little to enhance our understanding of their role as part of the spiritual experience of sacred space. Museums around the world offer thousands of “floating” altarpieces produced for the altars of choir screens; often their fragments are dispersed among numerous collections. Furthermore, the scholarly reconstruction of these lost monuments is hindered by the nineteenth and twentieth century restorations that frequently removed all traces in walls and pavements, obliterating the evidence of altars, tombs and other sacred furniture. The process reduced church interiors to vast and open architectural shells that had once been filled with zones of sacrality, memory, and the rhythms and patterns of the liturgy.

7A choir screen is therefore a sic and a non: it was once present, and it once conditioned the spiritual experience, function and meaning of sacred space for the laity as well as for the religious community. But it is there no longer. On one hand, the screen sanctified a reserved zone for the religious community, while on the other it excluded most laity from proximity to the main altar, thus separating, limiting, and controlling vision of the Elevation of the Host for laity and for communities of religious women. At the same time, however, screens presented important secondary altars as an alternative locus of lay piety often dedicated to the founders or the saints and martyrs of the orders (for example saints Peter of Verona or Anthony). The screens were often a form of a micro-architecture of great beauty and rich decoration, offering edifying and delightful ornament in the form of relief sculpture, altarpieces and votive paintings. Because of this, and because of their proximity to the choir, even the pavement on either side of a screen was imbued with the sacred and as a result became a privileged place of burial.

8Choir screens thus functioned as the juncture between two zones in a church: the sanctuary reserved for the clergy, and the nave for the laity, often described as the “internal” and “external” church. These monumental divisions offered mystery, affirmed authority and stimulated curiosity, ennobling the area of the altar by reserving it for those for whom either religious vocation or social status were permitted within. The distinctions existed not only in life but also in death, for the choir was a highly sought-after location for the tombs and private chapels of nobles and wealthy merchants. It was precisely because of the ways in which choir screens separated public from the clergy and obscured a clear view of the altar that religious reform movements, changing tastes, and the desire for an aesthetic and formal unity, led to their destruction in later centuries.

  • 3 Chiffoleau 1987.

9The sic et non of the choir screen is particularly interesting and complex for the mendicant orders because their engagement with preaching took friars outside the convent and into the markets, piazzas, and private homes of a city. The transverse barriers within churches were heavy with spiritual, social, and economic significance: on one hand, they offered the “yes” of the altars at the screen, but on the other, the “no” of lay access to, or vision of, the main altar and the religious community at prayer. In the long run, it was the magnetism of the new orders that made of the choir screen a barrier that was to condition, temper and symbolize the challenge of the mendicant commitment to poverty, for as noted above, the renunciation of the normal sources of clerical income rendered mendicant communities particularly susceptible to the desires and requests of donors, patrons, civic institutions, and guilds. These donations, after all, provided funds for food, habits, and shelter3. Within the frame of reciprocal social relations, the choir screen that separated, concealed, and perhaps even exalted, a religious community from the public, was an area of irresistible attraction of donors who desired the privileged access: think, for example, of the Bardi and Peruzzi at Santa Croce in Florence.

10For the women’s branches of the orders, the early imposition of particularly rigorous enclosure presents the question of why they stimulated new regulations. Why at this particular moment? Was it precisely the externalized and public facing vocation of the mendicant movement that presented a challenge in relation to women religious? Was the notion of apostolic poverty a special challenge in relation to the safety and protection of women, one that led religious authorities to focus with greater attention on developing more complete, and eventually universal, definitions and restrictions for religious women? We shall return to some of these questions in relation to comments on the essays within this volume.

  • 4 See on this topic the many studies of Sible de Blaauw.
  • 5 On this topic Jung 2013.
  • 6 Barclay Lloyd 2004, p. 242-243.

11There is no precise evidence on when exactly choir divisions were adopted by friars. In this matter, however, as with so many other aspects of the organization and structure of the new orders, the Friars Preachers, a clerical order from the outset, were in advance of the Franciscans. Liturgical separations had existed in religious architecture since at least the fourth century4, if not before, but the phenomenon had particular efflorescence in the Gothic period, especially towards the middle of the thirteenth century with the creation of the high sculpted screens of cathedrals5. In the mendicant orders, however, choir screens may have been introduced because some of their earliest churches were or had been pre-existing parishes, as at the Dominican house of Santa Sabina in Rome6. After the Friars Preachers acquired the site in 1239, the secular clergy continued to offer services for the laity in the nave and baptistery, while the Preachers occupied the presbytery. This may also have been the case at Dominican Sant’Eustorgio in Milan, a Romanesque church built over an Early Christian cemetery.

  • 7 Meersseman 1946, p. 152; Odetto 1940, p. 326.
  • 8 Alce 1972, p. 154; see also Gelichi – Merlo – Nepoti 1987, p. 109.

12The explosion of popularity of the mendicant orders also meant that their first small chapels and churches soon needed to be expanded to accommodate the public. On occasion, the friars re-used an older church, which became the ecclesia laicorum, to which was added a presbytery, an “internal” church (ecclesia fratrum), an arrangement that in general terms is still visible in the Dominican church of San Giovanni in Canale in Piacenza. At both San Nicolò delle Vigne in Bologna (reconsecrated as San Domenico), and Sant’Eustorgio in Milan, the erection of a masonry choir screen isolated and separated the religious community from the crowds that came to venerate the shrine of Saint Dominic (canonized in 1234) and Peter Martyr (canonized in 1253). In Milan, the existence of a choir screen was attested as early as 1239 by Galvano Fiamma7. In Bologna, where the remains of Saint Dominic had been translated to a shrine in the nave in 1233, the choir separation became a necessary partition because of the crowds gathered at the tomb of the saint, a phenomenon that some members of the religious community regarded with consternation8.

13As Morvan observes in her chapter, Dominicans adopted formal instructions and regulations on choir screens in the General Chapter of 1249. This formed part of a longer process of institutional uniformity imposed by Master General Humbert of Romans (1254-1263), who required consistency in liturgical practice and many other matters, including the heights of buildings and uniformity in habits. According to these regulations, a choir screen, the intermedium, which concealed view of the friars at their stalls within the choir, as well as during entrance and exit, was to be erected to separate the exterior and interior church. The regulations specified, however, that the screen be pierced by a window so that the public might see the Elevation of the Host. Access was to be strictly limited.

  • 9 Bruzelius 2014, p. 30-36.
  • 10 The phases of construction and property acquisition are outlined by Vicaire 1974, p. 210 and Prin (...)

14Choir screens in Dominican churches mediated a complex equilibrium between the promotion of the order’s saints and the preservation of the peace and sanctity of the choir. As briefly noted above, however, choir separations were also part of the systematic institutionalization and “conventualization” of the new orders, a process that brought about the adoption of many features typical of monastic planning: chapter houses, large square cloisters, dormitories, and refectories. The disposition of the church and convent of San Domenico in Bologna, acquired in 1219, and extended and reconstructed from c. 1220-21 to 1251, created a model for many other early houses of the Friars Preachers9. At the Dominican church of Toulouse (the Jacobins), settled in 1229, a series of phased building campaigns transformed an original rectangular church with two parallel naves and small claustral wing to a large conventual complex that had all the essential structures of a monastic community10.

  • 11 Sundt 1987, p. 398-400.

15Dominican legislation permitted vaults in choirs, but naves usually had a wooden truss ceiling11, a disposition that can be seen at San Giovanni in Canale in Piacenza, closely modeled on San Domenico in Bologna. Within Dominican churches, therefore, the liturgical choir was identified not only by a transverse barrier but also by vaulting: acoustical considerations no doubt played a role.

  • 12 There are many studies of this phenomenon. See for example Manselli 1974; Merlo 2003, p. 135-187. (...)
  • 13 Hall 1974b.

16As noted above, however, the Franciscan order was initially a lay movement, and as a result uniformity of practice and liturgy was a slower process that generated dissent and conflict. A major step in the direction of systematization was the increasing clericalization of the order, although even during the lifetime of Saint Francis (d. 1226) there had been growing pressure to regularize various features12. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Franciscans also adopted the model monastic planning, as is visible in the excavation of the mid thirteenth century church of Santa Croce in Florence13.

  • 14 Cooper 2001.

17Franciscans were far less uniform in stipulating the location and character of choirs. As Donal Cooper describes in this volume, expanding and qualifying some aspects of his 2001 article14, individual provinces of the order adopted local variants on the organization of liturgical space, and in Umbria often created a retro-choir behind the main altar, perhaps in homage to the location of the choir in the upper church of Assisi (complete by c. 1250). This was a distinct local phenomenon and rare before the sixteenth century. As Cooper notes, the location of a choir behind the altar had important consequences for altarpieces, which as a result were often double sided in order to serve both the lay public in the nave and the friars in the choir. As these Franciscan retro-choirs long preceded post-Tridentine liturgical reform, it raises the question of whether the impulse was similar to that of three centuries later: to bring the laity closer to the altar, as well as to create a more unified internal space. One fascinating implication of the double-sided altarpiece used in the context of retro choirs is that they may have been raised over openings that could have included a Eucharistic tabernacle for the reserved Host. This detail of liturgical furnishing and spatial division echoes arrangements in many women’s communities, as we shall see below. Imitation of the Franciscan model is also visible in the churches of the other religious orders in the region: as Gromotka notes, until San Pietro in Perugia entered the Santa Giustina congregation in 1436, the stalls were located in a retrochoir behind the main altar. The subsequent transformation of the liturgical choir was the result of the adherence of the convent to the Congregazione di Santa Giustina.

  • 15 Bruzelius 2014, p. 89-105.

18Mendicant churches and convents were often built as long-term, incremental enterprises, as M.-H. Vicaire demonstrated in his study of the Jacobins in Toulouse. At this site, expansion of church and convent were the result of strategic property acquisitions that in time permitted the insertion of the vast church and convent within the city. The location of the choir at Toulouse, as in many other mendicant churches, must have changed as a result of the progressive expansions. Strategic land acquisition, the enlargement of conventual buildings, and often the creation of public piazze for preaching beside or in front of a church, thus formed part of well-planned expansion strategies by the orders, although it might be noted that the increasing scale of mendicant convents often created tension and discord within densely inhabited cities, where property values were often high and land for construction in short supply15. In the present volume, Roger provides a remarkable example of this type of strategic and innovative construction in her discussion of the Dominican church of Annecy, where a chevet is built over and bridges a city canal.

19The progressive enlargement of mendicant churches, as space and funding became available, had important implications for the locations of choirs. As a result, we need always to ask: which choir? and at what moment of a building’s long history? The discovery of choir screen foundations, through excavation or ground-penetrating radar, do not always permit us to fully understand the complicated and organic life of change in mendicant liturgical space; buildings were often “in motion”, not only because they were enlarged, but also as changes in style, liturgy, or the introduction of religious reform, imposed new arrangements (see Gromotka and Allen). The frequency and degree of change in mendicant architecture is all the more remarkable if we consider that choir screens were usually substantial masonry structures with vaulted chapels, altars and stairs to upper galleries. The study of the recently restored and excavated church of Saint-Maurice d’Annecy, described by Roger, is a case in point: the foundation was established in 1422 and the church consecrated in 1445 without a choir screen, which was added only in the early sixteenth century. In the church as a whole, the vaults and lateral chapels were added by individual donors or guilds whose gifts were celebrated by coats of arms sculpted on the vaults. Patrons included not only private individuals, but also professional associations, such as those of the tailors and shoe makers. Thus change in the location and character of choirs, relocated, redecorated, or expanded on various occasions and often in rapid succession, along with the concomitant reshuffling of altars and tombs, seems to have been a constant feature of many religious houses, and deeply contingent on pious donations and changes in taste. However, as Morvan’s chapter reminds us, these changes were sometimes lamented by the friars themselves; we are fortunate that in some rare instances the modifications and the lost works of art were described by members of the community.

  • 16 An excellent example is Greyfriars in Oxford, the foundations of which were discovered in extensiv (...)

20Krasnodębska-D’Aughton and Lafaye note that in Ireland change occurred when an original small church was expanded to the west by a new nave, or to the east by an expanded presbytery. The long chancels of the early Franciscan convents in Ireland that are described by these two scholars may have once been the full extent of the first church at a site, initially a chapel intended for both religious and lay communities, as at Greyfriar’s in Oxford. Here a nave, aisle, western tower, and eventually a massive north transept were added piece by piece to the original small structure that remained in place and became the choir of the expanded building16. As Krasnodębska-D’Aughton and Lafaye observe in the ruins of Irish churches, an intermediate tower was often added between the original structure, which became the sanctuary and choir, and the westward extensions (nave, transept, or aisles); corbels adjacent to the west end of the choirs also suggest two-storied choir screens in those locations that could have supported a massive Crucifix, as was often the case in continental Europe as well.

21Although the essays in this volume demonstrate that choir screens and choir stalls could have been remodeled or moved prior to their ultimate destruction, almost all were demolished by the second half of the sixteenth century, at the least in Italy. This process is usually associated with the religious reforms instigated by the Council of Trent. However, as several of the authors in this volume demonstrate, there were many reasons for changes to choir screens and stalls prior to and after the Council of Trent. Sometimes these were aesthetic (the desire for a unified interior volume), sometimes liturgical, and sometimes driven by a patron’s desire for modernization and renewal. There are therefore many challenges for the study of choirs divisions. Occasional documents on the transfer or removal of altars, paintings and tombs, or the renewal of pavements, can sometimes provide clues. The authors of this volume have used many different types of evidence: for example, Volti once again reflects a remarkable ability to reconstruct a lost patrimony in her detailed study of the entirely destroyed church of the Cordelières of Lourcine through archival sources. Morvan’s chapter on Dominican choirs is the result of careful study of many types of documents in the Dominican archive at Santa Sabina in Rome, which include descriptions by members of the religious communities of the choirs that were modified, moved, or removed in the Early Modern period, including occasional drawings of the locations of specific altars, paintings, and tombs (with at times their inscriptions) and even the groundplans of entire convents. As several essays demonstrate, lists of burials, sepultuari, are important documents for identifying the locations of tombs in relation to architectural features of a church or choir screen no longer in existence.

  • 17 Bruzelius et al. 2018.

22In addition, and in combination with documentary sources, archaeology can provide essential evidence, as in the Irish convents and at Annecy. Close examination of choir stalls, in combination with historical documents, allowed Michael Gromotka to propose a sequence of locations for the stalls of the church of San Pietro in Perugia. Other technologies, old and new, can also offer evidence : recent work in the convent church of Santa Chiara in Naples utilized ground-penetrating radar to search for the stone foundations of what emerged as a massive choir screen, which, along with the evidence of the laser scans of the building that provide far more precise measurements than available hitherto, permitted the development of hypothetical models of a screen that not only contained altars below, but also functioned above as a bridge between the two side galleries of the church17.

23High altar, choir, and choir screen were prime locations for prestigious burials. Donors’ requests for burial in a strategic location near an important altar often had implications for the plans of churches and the disposition of choirs and choir screens. A burial could tie generations of a family to the tombs of their ancestors in a religious foundation: a chapel was a locus of family representation for which the most prestigious artists could be employed (Giotto in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels at Santa Croce in Florence). As Krasnodębska-D’Aughton and Lafaye note, a widow at Adare requested the extension of the apse in order to accommodate her tomb. Prestigious tombs, such as those of noble or royal founders, might be placed on raised pedestals with effigies in the center of the choir, as in the Clarissan church of Coimbra. Yet the desires of such a patron (Queen Isabel) might change over time: donors and patrons could be fickle and their circumstances might evolve, as Rossi Vairo demonstrates in the example of Santa Clara at Coimbra. Shifts in spirituality, the desire for prestige, prominence, or greater or lesser seclusion, might influence the location, size, or visibility of a tomb and the character of a choir and might require, as in Coimbra, substantial changes to a church even during the process of construction.

  • 18 See recently Steer 2018.

24Tombs and burials engage the intractable topic of personal history and, indeed, the psychology of patrons, as with Queen Isabel of Portugal and other donors powerful enough to impose change in the disposition of a church or choir. On another level, however, tombs and burials also highlight the complexity of mendicant economic practice, for which, unfortunately, there is very little documentation. Morvan’s essay points to attempts in the Dominican order to record and document monuments that were moved or replaced by new pavements or choir screens, but this type of source is rare indeed. A new pavement, or simply the wear and tear over time of the feet of the faithful, obliterate inscriptions and render the study of the relationship between burial and choirs difficult to pursue in great depth. Sepultuaries, or lists of tombs, even when they lack the date of death, have therefore become vital records for understanding what we might describe as a sociology of burial practice18.

  • 19 At the Franciscan church of San Lorenzo in Naples, for example, the floor levels and locations of (...)

25Often differences in the ground level (steps) or, if they survive, pavement types, are the only surviving indications of the internal zoning between the altar area, choir, and nave. But almost always both have been changed over time as the result of restoration or changes in style19. Other indicators of the location of the presbytery might be doors to sacristies, a piscina (basin where liturgical vessels were washed), or sedilia (seats reserved for the officiating clergy). In Irish choirs, wooden stalls were often placed along the side walls of the long chancel and tombs positioned in the center of the choir, in medio chori. Such a privileged location for a tomb enabled the soul of the departed to be eternally accompanied by the chorus of prayers of a religious community: at Santa Chiara in Naples, for example, the prayer of the nuns and friars on either side of the dividing wall would have wafted the soul of King Robert the Wise through the travails of Purgatory and to Heaven.

26Women’s communities were the result of what Paul Binski has delightfully called the “feminine surge” of the thirteenth century. That surge included not only the middle class, but also large numbers of royal women of power and wealth who founded new convents. Many of these wealthy patrons eventually joined the communities they founded, and therefore paid particular attention to matters of planning and the organization of space. As Rossi Vairo points out, ideas sometimes changed between the moment of foundation and the decision to enter the community, as was also the case of Queen Sancia of Mallorca in Naples, who established the enormous convent of Corpus Domini (Santa Chiara) in Naples, but at the end of her life retired to her other and smaller foundation, Santa Croce.

  • 20 Bruzelius 1992.

27Within the female communities of the mendicant families, however, the location of a choir might vary greatly. As summarized in the essay of Pérez Vidal in this volume, the regulations for strict enclosure of religious women were imposed by the early 1220s. As we have seen, whereas choir screens in the male orders were penetrated by at least one door and sometimes also by one or more windows, so that movement and vision, albeit restricted, between the internal and external church was possible, women religious were usually separated by absolute and immutable segregation. Indeed the “invisibility” of the religious community was double-sided: they could neither see nor be seen. This meant that the altar and the elevation of the Host were often not visible to many religious women20. Furthermore, this segregation was tripartite: between women and the clergy, between women and the laity, and between women and the altar. The legislation on enclosure led to a range of architectural solutions, many of them mentioned by Pérez Vidal in her essay; as she writes, Dominican regulations issued by Humbert of Romans in the middle of the thirteenth century permitted large grated openings (aptetur aliqua fenestra ferrea competentis magnitudini in qua fiant sermones) that included a hinged opening through which the consecrated host could be passed to the inner choir. Other, usually smaller, openings existed for confession (et in aliquo loco apto due fenestre parvule ferrate ad confessiones audiendas); these often took the form of minuscule chapels with a very small aperture between two benches on either side of a wall (there is a surviving example of such a structure at Donnaregina in Naples).

28The essays in this volume that concern women’s communities engage many types of sources for evidence on how enclosure was defined in different communities and at different moments. Pérez Vidal based her research on the archives of individual convents, such as wills, chronicles, liturgical books, illuminated manuscripts, and internal regulations. As she notes, there is notable variation in the arrangements of choirs, as well as in the enforcement of strict enclosure. Much depended on the wishes of founders and on local ecclesiastical authorities. In the case of Spain, geographical distance from Rome may have mitigated rigorous application of the regulations, as might also the internal culture within a convent. Royal women, such as Isabella of France and Queen Isabel of Portugal composed their own versions of the Rule, at times stipulating greater visual access to the consecrated host or the main altar.

29In some churches, the divisions consisted of a sequence of ground-level spaces, whereas in others, choirs were elevated to create an invisible “bird’s nest” for women religious. At San Sisto in Rome, for example, a description suggests that the friars associated with the convent were in the presbytery, followed by the women’s choir, in turn separated by another wall from the space devoted to the lay public: who saw whom and who saw what remains uncertain. In other cases (Pedralbes, Coimbra, Donnaregina in Naples and many other examples) choirs were two-storied spaces at the west end of the nave: this was often the arrangement of the more prestigious and well-funded convents, many of which were founded and constructed ex novo. In other cases, a choir added to an older church might be a “box” attached to one side or the other of an apse or transept (as at San Damiano at Assisi), or in an upper gallery inserted over the nave, or even as a second story above a lateral aisle, an arrangement achieved by raising the roof to create a choir over the aisle vaults, as at San Pietro in Vineis in Anagni: in this particular example, the women in their choir could hear the Mass through what had once been the clerestory windows to the interior.

30In the houses of both Dominican nuns and Poor Clares, the circumstances of foundation were primary factors in the location and arrangement of choirs, and arrangements for the Poor Clares were especially variable. Perhaps this was because the poverty of many communities limited the architectural options. Sant’Angelo di Panzo (as described by Danesi) and San Damiano at Assisi were both settled at small existing churches that had been parishes or previously used by other religious orders.


  • 21 There is a large bibliography on the five senses in the Middle Ages. See for example: Bouchet – Kl (...)

31The choir as sacred and social space embodies the fluctuating complexities of spirituality in the Middle Ages. The shape, location, and character of choirs reflected notions of gender, status, sacrality, and separation: the privilege of seeing but not being seen; the burden of neither seeing nor being seen: the perpetual “yes and no” of medieval sacred space as it evolved and continued to evolve around the mystery of the consecrated host on the altar. While the screen itself was often a locus of lay devotion, and its altars might commemorate the most important saints of an order, beyond its wall and through the door, there was more, more that could only be sensed and heard. In discussing choirs and choir screens, we engage with complex and intimate matters of the body and the five senses as they were filtered through Christian theology and as they were differentiated in their application to men or to women21. For example, the hymn Adoro Te attributed to Thomas Aquinas exalts the spirituality of not seeing:

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur;
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur.
Credo quidquid dixit Dei filius.
Nil hoc verbo Veritatis verius.

32And yet, of course, for the (usually male) communities that could choose and which were not restricted by ecclesiastical legislation on strict enclosure, the choice of the location of a choir was usually close in proximity to the high altar and the consecrated host. With their choirs either in front of or behind the altar this proximity existed for friars, and we have seen in some of the essays in this volume how important vision of the reserved host would have been for those communities. The exhortation of Adoro Te, however, is to believe without seeing miracle of the Transubstantiation in the Mass, purely through the ephemeral and intangible qualities of the sense of hearing, a use of the senses that was imposed particularly upon women’s communities. For us today, for those who are fortunate enough to have been able to experience Mass in a church for women in enclosure, the hidden voices and dark shapes dimly perceived behind grates and grills might be our only access to the role the senses of sight and sound conditioned the experience of the sacred in the Middle Ages.


33How did it happen that the new religious orders of the thirteenth century, orders that focused their mission and energy on reaching out to the public, came to seclude themselves behind the walls and barriers of choir screens within their churches? And how did it come about that the strictest regulations on the enclosure of women religious were imposed precisely upon the female affiliations of these new orders? The essays of this volume form some parts of answers that are complex and various, depending on location and historical moment. And surely, for friars, one component of a response to the question is that the magnetism and success of their public mission meant that, as with Francis’ retreat to La Verna, they needed to withdraw to secluded and separated spaces for focused and uninterrupted prayer and meditation. On the other hand, for religious women (Dominican nuns and Poor Clares, many of whom were noble) strict active enclosure separated them forever from the world outside. Nowhere did this tension play out more directly than in the life of Saint Clare of Assisi.


1 There were, of course, considerable differences between the two orders; only the features that specifically relate to the organization of liturgical choirs are mentioned here. The preference for urban environments was explicitly stated by both Humbert of Romans and in the Determinis quaestionum attributed to Saint Bonaventure. See Bruzelius 2014, p. 112.

2 Blaauw 1994; Recht 1999; Jung 2013.

3 Chiffoleau 1987.

4 See on this topic the many studies of Sible de Blaauw.

5 On this topic Jung 2013.

6 Barclay Lloyd 2004, p. 242-243.

7 Meersseman 1946, p. 152; Odetto 1940, p. 326.

8 Alce 1972, p. 154; see also Gelichi – Merlo – Nepoti 1987, p. 109.

9 Bruzelius 2014, p. 30-36.

10 The phases of construction and property acquisition are outlined by Vicaire 1974, p. 210 and Prin 1974.

11 Sundt 1987, p. 398-400.

12 There are many studies of this phenomenon. See for example Manselli 1974; Merlo 2003, p. 135-187. By 1239, the clericalization of the order was essentially complete.

13 Hall 1974b.

14 Cooper 2001.

15 Bruzelius 2014, p. 89-105.

16 An excellent example is Greyfriars in Oxford, the foundations of which were discovered in extensive excavations. See Hassall et al. 1989.

17 Bruzelius et al. 2018.

18 See recently Steer 2018.

19 At the Franciscan church of San Lorenzo in Naples, for example, the floor levels and locations of steps were changed during 20th century restorations.

20 Bruzelius 1992.

21 There is a large bibliography on the five senses in the Middle Ages. See for example: Bouchet – Klinger-Dollé 2015; Duhl – Fritz 2016; and the essays by Martin Roch and Catherine Gauthier in Méhu 2008.

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