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Spaces for friars and nuns

Haude Morvan


Haude Morvan

Note de l’auteur

Many thanks to Donal Cooper for reading and improving this conclusion.

Texte intégral

1This book results from a workshop held in November 2016 at the École française in Rome. The purpose of the meeting was a collective reflection on the sources and methods that can be used to reconstruct choir locations in mendicant churches. Several case studies were discussed, either focused on a single monument, a geographic area or a specific category of sources. We considered a field that has aroused a growing interest amongst scholars over the last two decades, namely the study of church interiors, from a methodological perspective – a viewpoint which provides this volume with a guiding thread. Several years have passed since we gathered at Piazza Navona for the workshop. This time was necessary for the authors to write up their material, sometimes after returning to the archives to consult new documents for their papers; just as importantly, it has also allowed for mutual consultation and dialogue. At a time when scholars (and above all young scholars) are prompted to publish quickly, it is not always easy to take such time for reflection, a time that is inevitably stretched when dealing with a collective work. My warmest thanks go to the authors for playing the longer game. I believe that we have achieved our ambition to create a book that is not merely a collation of essays, but one which displays a genuine depth of common reflection.

  • 1 Cf. for example Stabenow 2006 and Frommel  Lecomte 2012.

2Research on the location of choir stalls forms part of the broader analysis of spatial uses and functions that has considerably enhanced scholarship on places of worship over the last two decades1. We believe firmly that the problems of interior layout and furnishing should always be kept in mind when studying churches where the singing of friars and nuns resounded.

  • 2 Among the principal studies dedicated to the architecture of the mendicant orders, those that enga (...)

3It is still too early to attempt a synthesis of the medieval and early modern interior layouts of the churches belonging to the new orders born during the thirteenth century and later called “mendicant”, not even one limited to Italian houses, which have been until now the most studied from this point of view2. This volume is one step on a path leading towards a more comprehensive overview that would take into account, on a European scale, all male and female “mendicant” communities. It focuses on the centre of gravity for any conventual church, namely the sanctuary and the community’s choir, around which the other spaces were articulated (principally the nave for the laity, the convent structures that communicated directly with the choir, the private chapels, and the fore-choir, typical of nuns’ churches).

  • 3 Andrews 2006.

4This book deals mainly with the Friars Preachers, the Friars Minor, the Poor Clares and the Dominican nuns, and more briefly with the Carmelites and Augustinian friars. Anne-Julie Lafaye and Małgorzata Krasnodębska-D’Aughton reference an Augustinian friary to highlight some common features with the churches of the Friars Preachers and Minor. Joanne Allen dedicates a section to the interior configuration of a Carmelite church in Florence, Santa Maria del Carmine, while Donal Cooper extends his analysis to high altarpieces painted for Augustinian churches in central Italy that – like analogous Franciscan commissions – provide clues about choir arrangements. We hope that this volume will offer new prospects for further research on choir arrangements in the churches of “the other friars”, to use Frances Andrews’ by-now well-known formula3. The case of a Benedictine church, San Pietro in Perugia, has been exceptionally included in this volume, since it offers a glaring example of the influence of Umbrian Franciscan interior layout on non mendicant buildings.

5This volume presents unpublished data alongside broader methodological discussion. Several conclusions can already be drawn regarding the chronological frame and the typology of sources. The essays also open new questions for future investigation.

Space and time

6It is clear that research on the interior layout of mendicant churches cannot fit within traditional chronological divisions. Our questions necessarily have to be addressed on an extended scale comparable to what Jacques Le Goff has called the “long middle ages”. In our case, that means a period stretching from the thirteenth until the eighteenth century (or until the sixteenth century in the countries where the Reformation was implemented). While the Council of Trent (1545-1563) constitutes an important turning point in the transformation process of church interiors, it certainly does not represent a sharp caesura between a “medieval” layout and a “modern” one.

7Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that the evolution of church interiors did not always run parallel to the stylistic evolution of art: a church could be furnished with new, up-to-date ornamentation during the Renaissance or even the Baroque period, while still maintaining a rood screen and choir stalls located in front of the main altar.

  • 4 See, for example, the inspiring project on Santa Chiara’s rood screen (Naples), carried out by Car (...)

8Furthermore, the essays within this volume show that in many churches, especially larger foundations, rearrangements occurred more or less constantly, and were caused by multiple factors, not only liturgical. As Michael Gromotka’s essay demonstrates with regard to the Benedictine abbey church of San Pietro in Perugia, it is a mistake to aim at recovering a “medieval” state, which could be considered as “original”, or a subsequent “early modern” state. Rather we should expect a rich sequence of interventions and phases that could be multiple and chronologically close or even overlapping. In many cases studied in this volume, all the data meticulously collected allows us to mentally visualize such a succession of layouts. To this end, the recourse to digital humanities, and more specifically to 3D modelling, should be expanded4.

A typology of sources

9Our capacity to trace and comprehend such long-term changes is dependent on the available sources. The essays in this volume shed light on their range and variety.

10In the first place, we can rely on material sources, including preserved buildings of course, but also the foundations of rood screens brought to light by excavations or by ground-penetrating radar (cf. Roger’s essay), altarpieces (cf. Cooper’s essay), choir stalls, sometimes bearing the physical traces of their relocation (cf. Gromotka’s essay), etc. Even when we are lucky enough to work on surviving buildings and artefacts, many issues of interpretation remain. For example, changes in a building’s use may weaken the traces of its former layout (cf. the case of Sant’Angelo di Panzo, here discussed by Valeria Danesi). Even when extant, ecclesiastical furnishings (altarpieces, choir stalls, tabernacles, etc.) are seldom in their initial locations, but have often been relocated according to the evolution of taste and liturgical practices, and, later, due to concerns for cultural heritage conservation. Most of the altarpieces discussed here are thus now located in museums.

11Secondly, the essays in this volume use a significant and varied amount of written documentation: notarial acts (such as testaments), church fabric accounts, necrologies, chronicles, early modern antiquarian notes and books, French revolutionary records… The interpretation of such texts presents complex issues. For example, while we chose to use in this book the word sanctuary or its equivalents to refer strictly to the space around the main altar, and choir to refer to the stalls of the religious community, the historic texts are far from consistent in their terminology.

12The numerous and often unpublished archival documents carefully collected by the contributors to this volume shed light on the actors behind the rearrangements of church interiors. Changes were decided upon by both religious communities and external patrons. When shaping their space, religious communities took into account many factors, such as the order’s norms, liturgy and local specificities (for example the presence of a saint’s tomb, or a miraculous painting). In return for subsidizing building works or new furniture for choirs and sanctuaries, external benefactors, either individual or collective (families, confraternities, etc.), were given the right to have their arms prominently displayed on the stalls, the east window, or the main apse’s walls, and sometimes even to secure burials in the ecclesia fratrum. External benefactors could also play a direct role in shaping the broader church interior, for example Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici at Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella in Florence (cf. Allen’s essay), Queen Isabel (Elizabeth) of Portugal at the church of Poor Clares in Coimbra (cf. Rossi Vairo’s essay) and Louis IX’s daughter Blanche of France at the church of Poor Clares in Paris (cf. Volti’s essay).

13Finally, we can rely on a third category of evidence, namely iconographic sources, such as the famous “Greccio miracle” painted by Giotto in the Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, which shows a Franciscan choir precinct from the inside, or the beautiful illuminated page from a manuscript of the Cantigas of Alfonso X, here published by Mercedes Pérez Vidal, which shows an Iberian nuns’ choir (fig. 1 in Pérez Vidal’s essay).

14The availability of material, textual or iconographic sources depends mainly on the later historical trajectory of each country. In regions affected by the Reformation, mendicant houses are rarely preserved. The Irish case, discussed in the volume by Anne-Julie Lafaye and Małgorzata Krasnodębska-D’Aughton, is an exception: since many mendicant convents in Ireland were located in rural areas, and some were reused as cemeteries or even as secular buildings after the Reformation, many are preserved, albeit in ruined states. In revolutionary France, the sale of church property and the dissolution of all religious orders decreed by the National Assembly dealt a fatal blow to friars’ and nuns’ houses and their furnishings. The same happened in Spain during the desamortización. However, these state-sponsored dissolutions paradoxically also generated precise documentation on the buildings they were condemning to destruction: it is thus mainly thanks to the revolutionary records that Panayota Volti was able to reconstruct the layout of the Poor Clares’ church in the Rue de Lourcine, Paris.

  • 5 During the workshop held in Rome, Joanne Allen and Michael Gromotka presented such a project: the (...)

15The written and iconographic documentation compensates for the losses of buildings and physical fabric: these sources have to be taken into account to achieve a more accurate overview of mendicant architecture that relies not only on surviving buildings and furniture, but also on lost or deeply modified examples. The need to make this colossal and mostly unpublished documentation available to all scholars makes desirable the creation of open and collaborative databases5.

Toward future steps for research on friars’ and nuns’ space

  • 6 As Humbert of Romans wrote in the Opera de vita regulari (Berthier 1956, II, p. 5): Sic nimirum in (...)
  • 7 Morvan 2018.

16It is necessary to analyse a significant number of churches (both preserved and lost) to draw an overview of trends and networks of influence on different scales (whether by order, province, or country). The case of central Italy, on which the second section of this volume focuses, is enlightening: it shows how complex it is to study models’ creation and dissemination, both inside and outside a single order. The question of an “identity” that would be reflected or not by the houses of an order is asked implicitly when considering, on the one hand, the openness of mendicant orders to customs found in other regular or secular churches, and, on the other, the influence of new experiments carried out by mendicant communities on other orders, such as the Benedictines (cf. Gromotka’s essay). Do the churches of the Friars Preachers, Friars Minor, Poor Clares and Dominican nuns embody a uniformity, as explicitly desired by the Dominican Master General Humbert of Romans for his own order6? Or do they reveal, on the contrary, indomitable regional tendencies? Do the relations between provinces suggest a large-scale circulation of models? To answer this last question, the case of the Friars Preachers’ church in Lyon, recently brought to light, is instructive. The fifteenth-century layout of the choir and sanctuary was the result of the patronage of the city’s community of Florentine merchants. It included the transposition of the friars’ stalls from the nave to a new precinct behind the main altar: this reconfiguration of the Dominican church in Lyon offers a clear and precocious example of the influence of Italian practice, and specifically Florentine models, on the other side of the Alps7.

  • 8 Despite the ambition to provide a summary work on mendicant architecture, the book by Wolfgang Sch (...)

17By focusing on the organization and functions of church interiors, a different light can be shed on cultural transfers, shifting the patterns we inherit from more traditional stylistic approaches. The tricky question of “mendicant architecture”, often considered only from a formal point of view, is thus made richer and more complex when considering also the evolution of churches’ internal layout. Whereas traditional approaches have highlighted regional specificities in ground plans, building materials and techniques8, these new paths of investigation bring out other local customs, such as the retrocoro in Franciscan churches in Umbria (cf. Cooper’s essay), or the specific practices of choir location amongst the Dominican nuns in Castile (cf. Pérez Vidal’s essay). The volume provides regional overviews of Ireland, central Italy and Castile. It is hoped that similar overviews will be available for other areas in the near future, allowing us to understand more accurately the role of friars and nuns in the evolution of church interiors that occurred during the late Middle Ages and early modern period. When, where and how were they pioneers? When, where and how were they permeable to innovations implemented by others?

  • 9 Charles 1999, p. 100-143.
  • 10 For further discussion on the “heraldic stalls” of the church of the Jacobins in Poitiers, see Hab (...)

18This volume focuses on the elements that divided sections of churches’ interior space, according to their function. Spatial divisions are sometimes still visible in the building, as in Irish mendicant churches where the chancel is separated from the nave by a tower, or in many nuns’ churches where the choir is either located in a room separated from the main body of the church, or raised above the nave or the sanctuary (cf. the third section of the volume). However, spatial divisions are not always visible today in the plan and elevation of buildings, because they were mostly constituted by intermediary stone walls (rood screens) which have been removed and by portable structures in wood or occasionally metal (enclosures and stalls, but also large altarpieces and tabernacles displayed on the main altar that could have the function to separate the nave from the choir). These structures frequently incorporated complex iconographic programmes, and were often given new locations and functions when removed from their original settings. Michael Gromotka charts, for example, how the paintings that initially decorated the rood screen of San Pietro in Perugia were transferred to the inner west wall of the church at the end of the sixteenth century, when the rood screen was removed. Other examples could be mentioned, such as the beautifully carved fifteenth-century stalls from the church of the Friars Minor in Geneva, commissioned by the local community of Florentine merchants: while the church was destroyed during the Reformation, the stalls were saved and relocated to another church (Saint-Gervais) that had been converted for Protestant worship9. Among the carved images displayed on these stalls, those of angels, lions and Saint John the Baptist bearing the Florentine lily were evidently not a problem for their new Protestant owners, but the face of Saint Francis was meticulously planed off, together with his knotted rope (fig. 1). The ornamentation of stalls, whether painted, carved or inlaid, is not at the core of this volume, but it deserves careful attention in relation to issues of location and audience. As shown by the Franciscan stalls in Geneva, coats of arms were one of the iconographic elements that could be found on choir stalls, especially those made for mendicant communities that had to rely on the financial support of external benefactors. The stalls of the Jacobins (Friars Preachers) in Poitiers, now destroyed but known thanks to drawings from the Gaignières collection, provide a further emblematic case study: with ninety different heraldic escutcheons, it was comparable to a roll of arms10.

Fig. 1 – Stalls from the church of the Friars Minor in Geneva, now in Saint-Gervais, 1446 ca.: sculpted back with Saint Francis (© H. Morvan)

Fig. 1 – Stalls from the church of the Friars Minor in Geneva, now in Saint-Gervais, 1446 ca.: sculpted back with Saint Francis (© H. Morvan)
  • 11 The restitution of the sensorial experience of the laity lies at the core of the pioneering book b (...)
  • 12 See the recent PhD dissertation by Hugo Perina (Perina 2018).

19Another final point deserves to be integrated within the interdisciplinary approach to church interiors: the aural dimension. As Caroline Bruzelius underscores in her introduction to this volume, our research engages with a restitution of the sensorial experiences of individuals who attended the church, whether lay men or women, friars or nuns11. Anne-Julie Lafaye and Małgorzata Krasnodębska-D’Aughton discuss the important role of bell towers in the churches of the Friars Minor in Ireland, structures which addressed both viewing and hearing. In the same way, organs were an important element for both the spatial and aural experience of church interiors. The essays refer several times to organs, which changed form and location precisely during the Renaissance period12. Joanne Allen’s essay reveals that the modernisation of Florentine churches during the sixteenth century often involved not only the relocation of choir stalls, but also commissions for new organs. Rood screens, when not removed, were often used as platforms for organs, as happened in the Dominican church in Annecy in 1554 (cf. Roger’s essay). Other structures, such as the galleries located in the ecclesia fratrum, may have been used for the same purpose (cf. Lafaye and Krasnodębska’s essay).

20Once one enters friars and nuns’ spaces, many are the paths to be walked…


1 Cf. for example Stabenow 2006 and Frommel  Lecomte 2012.

2 Among the principal studies dedicated to the architecture of the mendicant orders, those that engage with the spatial and functional aspects of church interiors are indeed mainly focused on Italy (Cannon 2013; Bruzelius 2014).

3 Andrews 2006.

4 See, for example, the inspiring project on Santa Chiara’s rood screen (Naples), carried out by Caroline Bruzlius (Bruzelius et al. 2018).

5 During the workshop held in Rome, Joanne Allen and Michael Gromotka presented such a project: the Society for the Study of the Church Interior.

6 As Humbert of Romans wrote in the Opera de vita regulari (Berthier 1956, II, p. 5): Sic nimirum invenitur apud approbatas religiones ejusdem professionis quod summam uniformitatem in exterioribus praetendant non solum in observantiis, sed etiam in habitu, et in aedificiis, et in aliis quibusdam. In quo cum gemitu quodam considerandum est quantum in hoc adhuc distamus ab illis. Habent namque ecclesias et officinas ejusdem formae, et eodem modo dispositas: nos autem fere quot domos tot varias formas et dispositiones officinarum et ecclesiarum habemus. "Thus, we can notice that established orders show the highest degree of uniformity in exterior things, not only in their observances, but also in their dress and in their buildings and suchlike things. It makes me groan to think how far from achieving this we are. For they have churches and buildings of the same design, organised in the same way, while our houses have buildings and churches of various types and arrangements" (English translation: Cannon 2013, p. 229-230).

7 Morvan 2018.

8 Despite the ambition to provide a summary work on mendicant architecture, the book by Wolfgang Schenkluhn (Schenkluhn 2000) is substantially a collection of regional syntheses based mostly on typological comparisons between churches’ groundplans and architectural styles, with little attention to their interiors (only four pages are dedicated to rood screens: p. 81-84).

9 Charles 1999, p. 100-143.

10 For further discussion on the “heraldic stalls” of the church of the Jacobins in Poitiers, see Hablot 2020.

11 The restitution of the sensorial experience of the laity lies at the core of the pioneering book by Roland Recht Le croire et le voir (Recht 1999), and of the essential guide to medieval churches written for a general public by Michele Bacci, Lo spazio dell’anima. Vita di una chiesa medievale (Bacci 2005).

12 See the recent PhD dissertation by Hugo Perina (Perina 2018).

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Stalls from the church of the Friars Minor in Geneva, now in Saint-Gervais, 1446 ca.: sculpted back with Saint Francis (© H. Morvan)
Fichier image/jpeg, 146k

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