Angelic Choirs in Naples: Seventeenth-Century Convent Churches

by Helen Hills, appearing in Volume 38

A wall in the convent church of S. Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore in Milan separates the nuns’ inner church from the main nave. This view is from the nuns’ side, with an opening to receive Communion on the lower left side of the wall. Photo: dell’Orto

Gabriele Zarri formulated the term recinti sacri or “sacred enclosures” to describe how convents represented sacred spaces that assumed a decidedly female character. For her, this female character remained steadfastly social in nature. It is my contention that we should think of convents in physical and architectural terms as representing the virginal aristrocratic body within urban space, a connection that became vital after the Council of Trent insisted on identifying women’s chastity with the physical enclosure of convents.

Even though the monastery church was considered to be the province of the clergy and laity, not of the nuns, it was arranged to privilege the nuns as invisible, elevated observers. Nuns’ churches did not arrange sinners equally under God’s roof. They set nuns apart, as consecrated virgins, elevated and closer to God than the community gathered below them.

While medieval convent churches were usually aisleless rectangles without side chapels, early modern southern Italian nuns’ churches, also aisleless rectangles, frequently had side chapels. After Trent, the Eucharist had become markedly more important, especially to women. The accommodation of lateral altars, allowing the performance of many Masses throughout the day, and even simultaneously, was crucial in this regard.

But after Trent, nuns were not allowed inside convent churches; they were relegated to the clerestory level of the church, from where they could look down through grilled openings (gelosie) at the performance of the Mass down below. Nuns’ bodily presence in conventual churches was greatly diminished after Trent; they became observers, participating in the services from within their own restricted spaces, suspended on high. The absence of aisles in post-Tridentine churches was, therefore, determined less by lack of demand for separate Masses than by the importance to nuns of watching the Mass from up above, unimpeded by columns and aisles.

To See Without Being Seen

Conventual churches also functioned like an inverse version of Foucault’s famous panopticon. Those who could see without being seen (like Bentham’s supervisor) were the nuns, elevated and hidden behind screens. They were closer to God, closer to the officiating priest, and had privileged access to hidden spaces, denied to lesser mortals. But those whom they could see—the congregation, who could not see them, and who were barred from the convent’s interior—enjoyed freedom denied to the nuns.

The question of what nuns should be allowed to see was hotly discussed and contested both before and after Trent. Carlo Borromeo’s Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae (1577) sought to codify and formalize the relationship between the nuns in their choir and the performance of the Mass. Borromeo prescribed that an opening or grille as long as the altar should be set into the wall above the altar, so that the nuns in the inner church could see and hear Mass, but he insisted that the opening should not provide views of anything else, such as glimpses of the street when the entrance door was open. Control of sight was organized in terms not only of the building but of the nuns’ bodies themselves. Thus two systems—body and building—functioned in parallel.

Rules governing convent nuns’ sight lines in conventual churches were more restrictive than practice, at least in southern Italian convents. These rules relegated nuns to spaces in the back of the church or upper corridors behind grated and curtained openings, which deprived them of a clear view of the church or even the Mass celebrated in it. Ecclesiastical authorities sought to obviate the unimpeded free gaze of nuns across the church and into the congregation, as corrupting both to nuns and members of the congregation. Priests were ordered not to look into the faces of the women they confessed, because of the fear of a woman’s eyes.

Greater Visual Access

Nuns’ deep-held concern with what they could see (and who could see them) emerges sharply in their lawsuits defending and expanding their urbanistic visual dominance. A similar determination to achieve dominance in terms of seeing within their churches emerges, too. In their letter asking Cardinal Buoncompagno’s permission to make certain changes at their convent of S. Francesco dell’Osservanza in 1629, the abbess and nuns made clear that they wanted enhanced viewing into their church. They requested that the side chapels of the church be made as deep as the walls of the church, that they should decorated, and that above them gelosie should be distributed in such a way that from the corridor it should be possible to see the Mass from all around the church.

The nuns made a concerted effort to reduce their bodily presence within the main church while opening it up to greater visual access. Such changes emphasize the conception and presentation of the church as a theater for the performance of the Mass, and of the nuns as the most important audience of that performance.

Importance of the Nuns’ Choir

It was, however, above all in the nuns’ choir that the issues of nuns’ looking, their visibility, and their visual control of the space of the church were most signally explored. The nuns’ choir was that part of the church which signified spatially the special position of professed nuns, a place of privilege and honor. It represented the nuns architecturally in relation to the public space of the church.

It was here that choir nuns participated in church services, here where they gathered en masse, recited the Divine Office and rosary, and engaged in meditative prayer. Here, too, in most cases, they could be seen as a group, albeit indistinctly, from the public church. The nuns’ choir was, therefore, a most important space liturgically and symbolically in the church, second only to the main altar. After Trent, nuns were prohibited to play music in their external church. Their choirs safeguarded both their musical creativity and their communal social position.

When Sister Maria Aurelia Cecilia of the Augustinian nuns of S. Giuseppe in Martina near Naples demonstrated her sense of her own unworthiness, she did so by sitting not in the choir with the other nuns, but on the ground; when invited to join them, she replied that she was “not worthy of sitting where sit the brides of Jesus Christ.”

Placement in the Church

Nuns’ choirs were traditionally found at the west end of churches, above the entrance. Raised above the entrance loggia, they marked the transitional space of entry and allowed nuns a clear view of the main altar when mass was performed. Nuns faced strictly the way as the rest of the congregation, making eye contact impossible during the service.

The propriety and efficiency of the west-end choir renders curious a significant change that occurred in seventeenth-century Naples. In several interesting cases the Neapolitan nuns’ choir was built not at the west end but at the east. It was placed high up behind the altar, and the arch over the altar was opened so that the congregants could see right through into the space beyond. To understand this phenomenon it helps to consider the nature of conventual churches and their choirs more broadly.

Female convents usually contained two churches, an inner one accessible only to nuns in the east and an outer one accessible to the laity in the west. During this period in Naples a significant number of convent churches built a second nuns’ choir, raised at the east end, which functioned as an inner church. In other words, at this date the nuns’ choir and the inner church were fused in significant ways. However, the space occupied during the mass was smaller, was raised to the upper order of the church, and is more appropriately termed a choir.

In spite of the commonplace view that female convents adopted double churches as a result of post-Tridentine prescription, they stem in fact from a form used by medieval orders of strict enclosure. The practice of building them dates back to Benedictine practices during the tenth and eleventh centuries. This model was taken up and adapted in many Cistercian convents well before the sixteenth century and by the Mendicant “Second” orders in Italy, including the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. Double churches existed in over forty fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian convents.

S. Maurizio, Milan

It was in Milan, home of many early double churches, that double churches of high architectural quality emerged in the sixteenth century. The splendid double church at the Benedictine convent of S. Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, in particular, is worth examining in some detail, especially for its treatment of the nuns’ choir probably carried out during the first decade of the sixteenth century. There are two separate churches at S. Maurizio: a larger inner church for nuns, and a smaller outer one for laity. The division between the two churches consists of a screen with the arch open above, as in the Neapolitan examples, but in this case the nuns’ church is at ground level. A grille, as wide as and immediately above the altar, provides the visual link between the nuns and the outer church. An open walkway or choir platform at first-floor level on the nuns’ side of the dividing wall also allows nuns access to a higher level. The platform is screened from the main church by the solid transverse wall dividing the churches. Both outer and inner churches have lateral chapels, and in both the bays of the upper order are defined by serlian arches. But the nuns’ church is two bays larger than the outer church, firmly indicating that the center of gravity is on the nuns’ side of the dividing wall.

Nuns’ Growing Ambition

Carlo Borromeo, who came to Milan as archbishop in 1565, would have known S. Maurizio and the other double churches there. His visitations included frequent instructions to alter the relationship between nuns’ churches and that of the laity in conformity with this type. The appeal of this type of church in the years after Trent can be readily understood from the remarks of Alessandro de’ Medici, archbishop of Florence. In his Trattato sopra il governo de’ monasteri, written in 1601, he declares that choirs are “rather high, most of them made at great expense and with disegno, for which reason they require a lot of space, but they occupy half or a third of the church, which does not happen in those that are made behind the altar with the grate above, as some are and which all the same I prefer. And if, in my time, some new ones were to be made or ones that are already built were to be restored, it would be good to arrange them in this way, so that the nuns cannot see laypeople, and have no occasion to let their minds wander from the excitement of Divine Praises.”

It is important to emphasize that although the arrangement of these churches generally corresponds to that advocated by Borromeo in his Instructiones Fabricae, their organization was not necessarily created in response either to criticisms of laxity within convents or to desire for reform. Indeed, the differences between the sixteenth-century Milanese examples and the models Carlo Borromeo advocates indicate that the Milanese nuns were driven, at least in part, by a growing sense of their own social and spiritual significance. S. Maurizio’s nuns’ church boasts lateral chapels, while Borromeo’s Instructiones insist that there should be no chapels (and therefore no need for priestly presence) in this part of the institution. These early sixteenth-century Milanese developments indicate not so much early signs of a reforming impulse as nuns’ growing ambition, emphatic manifestations of their desire for separate churches to grant them architectural splendor, dignity, and liturgical privilege.

Milan and Naples

Nonetheless, Borromeo had a marked impact on conventual church design. After his elevation to the archbishopric of Milan in 1565 and the publication of the Instructiones in 1577, several Milanese convents followed his prescriptions, apparently to the letter, in building new double churches, including Sta. Caterina alla Chiusa (an Augustinian convent, founded in 1570), S. Vincenzino, and Sta. Barbara (an Augustinian convent built from around 1580).

After Borromeo’s death, the distinctions between the outer and inner churches became more marked. Rather than a continuous volume divided by a cross wall, the two churches were handled very differently (the outer church was given round, elliptical, oval, octagonal, or cruciform plans, while the inner one was treated severely), and nuns focused expenditure on the public rather than the private church. This development is marked by the use of the term coro delle monache (nuns’ choir) to designate this space, rather than the term “inner church,” most usually adopted when churches were conceived as double.

In Milan, as nuns’ choirs shrank and became more austere, they remained on ground-floor level. In Naples, by contrast, nuns’ choirs were emphatically elevated and the continuous space between outer church and inner nuns’ choir was made visible. Not only were Neapolitan nuns’ choirs often proudly elevated at the east end, but they were usually distinctively decorated. Their plans were uninventive (rectangular and generally small), but they were decorated with considerable care, designed to enhance the status of the choir nuns through the adornment of their designated space.

S. Gregorio Armeno in Naples has a raised nuns’ choir above the main altar. The decorative grille of this choir can be seen in the frieze and arch above the altarpiece. Photo: Guida

La Sapienza, Naples

The earliest instance of a nuns’ choir being raised to clerestory level at the east end behind the altar occurred in Naples at the Dominican convent church of La Sapienza begun in 1613 and opened and blessed in May 1641; but it was followed in a spate of other Neapolitan female convent churches, such as S. Gregorio Armeno and S. Maria Regina Coeli. It was probably the Theatine architect G. B. Grimaldi who established this pattern at the Sapienza before his death in 1613.

The basic design of S. Maria della Sapienza is straightforward, with a single nave leading to a domed sanctuary. Behind the main altar is an oratory where the present-day nuns continue to celebrate religious functions. The effect of spatial coherence in enhanced by allowing the nuns’ choir to dominate the whole church. The use of a domed sanctuary, derived from Neapolitan sixteenth-century models, such as S. Giacomo degli Spagnoli by F. Manlio and S. Gregorio Armeno by G. B. Cavagna, rather than the more usual solution of a domed transept, further enhances the nuns’ choir, rendering it, like the presbytery beyond a domed crossing, the spiritual center of the church.

The aristocratic nun, Sister Eufrosina da Silva, cofounder of the Franciscan convent of SS. Trinità in via di Costantinopoli, may have prompted the building of the raised east-end choir there. She first requested that the church, as God’s house, should be “much more beautiful, more commodious, and richer” than the nuns’ quarters. It is significant that this ambitious aristocratic woman selected the Theatine Francesco Grimaldi as architect and instructed him to make “the most beautiful and most delightful” church design he had ever produced.

Whatever its origins, this daring approach was pushed still further at the Sapienza by the decision to pierce, or leave open, the wall above the choir. This has paradoxical effect. On the one hand, being able to see into the space of the nuns’ choir draws that space into that of the rest of the church; on the other, the limitations of this sight line emphasize the separation of the nuns’ area from that of the rest of the church. This paradox is enhanced further by the separate decoration afforded this space.

The practice of opening up the wall between the nuns’ choir and the exterior church recalls Palladio’s S. Giorgio for the Benedictine monks in Venice, where a screen of Corinthian columns marks a caesura between the presbytery and the monks’ choir, which is raised, though only slightly, above the presbytery; and where above the screen, the arch was originally open.

Given the large number of new commissions for convents, convent churches, and alterations to earlier buildings, unusual opportunities arose for architects to develop expertise in this field and to experiment in design. By the 1680s at S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi (founded in 1669, with the addition of the choir in 1681-82), the architect Dionisio Lazzari followed Grimaldi in opening the arch, but he elegantly fused the grilles with the architectural order by setting them in place of the frieze in the entablature at the east end.

It has been suggested that nuns’ choirs were built at the east end simply to satisfy the requirements of enclosure. This fails to explain why this pattern was not adopted universally by female convents after Trent. In the few instances where conventual documents refer to the east-end choirs, they justify them in purely practical terms.Yet practical arguments are insufficient to account for this development and certainly do not explain its success, which depends on representing the relationship between nuns and priest, and nuns and congregation.

A second nuns’ choir in S. Gregorio Armeno in Naples is located at the west end above the entrance door, and a third is located in the attic with openings in the oval coffer. Photo: visto nina volare

Above the Altar

The remarkable thing about moving nuns’ choirs from above the entrance door at the west of the church to a position east of the main altar is that it changes directly the relationship of the nuns to the Eucharist during Mass. At the east, not only are they much closer to the sacred host, but they see the Mass performed from the side opposite to that of the lay population in the church. Therefore, the actions of the clergy during the administration of the sacrament become visible to them as never before.

At the Sapienza and the other seventeenth-century churches in Naples where the nuns’ choirs were raised above the main altar, their relationship to the host was, if anything, intensified beyond anything achieved at the Milanese double churches. Not only did the nuns face the Eucharist directly, but when the priest elevated the chalice, he did so in their direction (in conformity with San Carlo Borromeo’s Instructiones). Borromeo’s insistence that the nuns’ grille should not provide sight of anything other than the Mass, such as glimpses of the street when the entrance door is open was flagrantly disregarded in Naples. In the convent churches in Naples, the nuns’ view down through the entire church toward the west end was opened up magnificently as a result of raising their east-end choir. They not only towered above the altar itself, but from their new crow’s nests they commanded views of the church, congregation, and even out into the street when the entrance doors were open. Their position, therefore, was enormously enhanced both physically and symbolically by the decision to raise their choir above the principal altar.

Crucially, the nuns enjoyed a privileged view of the host at the moment of its elevation, when the officiating priest would turn towards the altar, his back towards the congregation in the nave. Therefore, at the very moment of the consecration of the host, the greatest difference emerges between the two audiences; or, to put it another way, the relationships between the nuns and the host, and the congregation and the host are deliberately marked as different at the climax of the service.

A longitudinal section of S. Gregorio Armeno in Naples shows the three choirs for the nuns. Image: Gennaro Piezzo

Christ Their Bridegroom

Virginity and the Eucharist were bound more tightly together in late-sixteenth and seventeenth century thought. The remarkable physical and symbolic elevation of the nuns above the main altar at the east end of their churches was promoted and made possible by increased veneration not just of the Eucharist, but of virginity and virgins also. Arguably it resulted from an intensification in the identification of those two terms after Trent. The transubstantative nature of the Eucharist had, of course, been reaffirmed at Trent. The belief that God was present in the Eucharist more literally than in any other sacrament enhanced the importance of attending Mass and the cult of the Eucharistic host gained renewed vigor. Moreover, women’s veneration of the Eucharist was more pronounced than men’s. Christ was their Bridegroom; with the Mass their bodies became as one, a sweet foretaste of the ecstasies of heavenly union. Late medieval saints, especially women, frequently received from confessors, or from the pope, the privilege of daily communion as an almost official recognition of their reputations for sanctity. That star of Neapolitan female devotion, Sister Orsola Benincasa (1547-1618), “was swept into ecstasy each time that she received the bread of life.”

The nuns’ position, therefore, was enormously enhanced both physically and symbolically by the decision to raise their choir above the principal altar, resonating as this move did with theological, ecclesiastical, and social currents. Indeed, nuns in their choirs were regarded as something superhuman, heavenly, even angelic. Describing the exacting religious observance of the convent of S. Maria di Gerusalemme, Celano says, “In short they can be said to be so many seraphim, and their life more angelic than human.”

Privileged Positions

Conventual architecture marshaled and separated. Layfolk were kept separate from nuns, and male visitors separate from female visitors. It is an architecture particularly articulate in the arts of hierarchy and separation, a quality which extended to organizing the divisions within the monachical body also.

We have seen how choir nuns enjoyed greater status through greater elevation (and more space) architecturally within their churches, even as they were losing autonomy within their conventual lodgings. And we have seen that they gained visual command of their churches, even as they were barred from entering them physically, thereby shifting the emphasis within convent churches from performance to visuality, from acting to seeing and being seen. In others words, religiosity is marked ever less by specific actions that by specific positions, bodies of privilege in places of privilege.

Aerial view of S. Gregorio Armeno in Naples. Photo: Google Earth


This article is adapted from Helen Hills’ book Invisible City: The Architecture of Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Neapolitan Convents.