Meditationes vitae Christi , Italian

[Venice: Nicolaus Jenson?, c. 1478?]

This Italian adaptation of [Pseudo-]Bonaventure’s Meditations on the life of Christ is one of many vernacular translations of texts of Christian spirituality that flourished in the late fifteenth century. Translating the texts into Italian opened them to audiences unfamiliar with Latin, and many such works were aimed specifically at a female readership. This copy was owned and annotated by two Renaissance nuns in Northern Italy, Sister Alexia and Sister Teofila. Their annotations provide a rare insight into the world of female devotion behind convent walls.

Inc.5.B.3.2[4321], fol. [a1] recto

The Meditations on the life of Christ, composed in the thirteenth century, were once attributed to St Bonaventure: all that is known for sure is that the author was a Franciscan. Originally written in Latin, the text was rapidly translated into many European languages. The book presents a series of guided meditative exercises, based on a vivid narration of Christ’s Passion which encourages the reader to cultivate the practice of ‘reliving’ these episodes in the imagination, embracing the human experiences of the protagonists, Christ, Mary and the apostles. The text is dedicated by its author to a member of the Poor Clares, the Franciscan sister-order: the dedicatee is instructed to ‘feel yourself present in those places as if the things were done in your presence’, and to meditate frequently ‘so that these meditations become familiar to you’.
Two nuns, Sister Teofila and Sister Alexia, have identified themselves as owners of this book, and have used it well. Scattered across the pages are manicules and brief notes to remind the user of the important passages as she reads. A small image of Christ as Man of Sorrows on the opening page provides a visual reminder of the physical suffering upon which the reader of this text will be taught to meditate.

Sister Alexia, the most prolific annotator, tells us she received the book from her uncle, a Dominican friar, perhaps as a gift when she entered the convent: a fitting present for a new nun. She added two hymns and a prayer in Latin, in the clear, italic hand of a well-educated girl. A ‘Hymn to the Holy Virgin’ includes praise for the many female saints who gave their lives to Christ in perpetual virginity, providing a useful gallery of role models for a young nun. At the back of the book another Latin hymn tells of Alexia’s own dedication to Christ, describing her as high born and a member of the order of St Ursula. Dedicatory verses of this kind, praising the choice of a spiritual life by individual nuns, were often used together with musical settings at the ceremonies to mark a nun’s entry into the convent. This little book allows us privileged access to a private world of female devotion, enclosed behind the high convent walls where many aristocratic women passed their days.

Essay by Dr Abigail Brundin

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