Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre


sr act 2

An essential  part of any research project is to understand where the topic of research fits in with the wider academic context and research on the research area more widely, and understanding whether your own current work is adding a completely new angle to something, or contributing to a well-developed conversation on the topic.

With these aims in mind, last week I attended a conference entitled 'Sister Act: Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe, ca. 1250-1550'. Held in the beautiful surrounding of the Courtauld Institute for Art, in Somerset House on the Strand in London, the aim of the day was to explore female monastic art in the wider context of European Catholicism in the medieval period. The speakers ranged from heritage professionals to PhD students and seasoned academics, and all papers highlighted a unique perspective on links between the wider community of female religious in medieval Europe and the arts.

The theme of 'the Arts' was broadly interpreted as well, and many mediums were examined, such as paint, sculpture, embroidery, architecture and manuscript illumination, to name a few. Papers explored art created for the nuns; art created by the nuns; convent buildings, chapels and living quarters adapted for different communities, or purpose-built by the sisters who lived in them; art as portrayed on funerary monuments and tombs, and the role of art in commemorative services and traditions. 

Although a little earlier than the period I will be focusing on, ending nearly 100 years before the foundation of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre by Susan Hawley in 1642, the conference was extremely useful in contextualising the rich history of female monasticism in Europe that the Canonesses were a part of, as well as its manifestation in the English tradition in the pre-Reformation period.

As well as embracing the glories of medieval art and religion, the conference firmly embraced the wonders of our own times - the conference was live-tweeted throughout, using #SisterActCourtauld, and one of the speakers who was unable to join us in person presented his paper via video-link from America, even answering questions via Skype! If you are interested in what was discussed, or want to know what was being said about it, follow the link above. The conference web page also includes abstracts for all the papers given and a full programme of the events of the 2 days, and the Courtauld Institute have published their own thorough summary of the papers and themes of the conference on their research blog