Nuns, Images, and the Ideals of Women’s Monasticism: Two Paintings from the Cistercian Convent of Flines

The Le Cellier TriptychNuns, Images, and the Ideals of Women’s Monasticism: Two Paintings from the Cistercian Convent of Flines

By Andrea G. Pearson

Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 4, Part 2. (2001)

Abstract: This study explores the dynamics between visual images and expectations for feminine monasticism in northern Europe via two paintings from the Cistercian convent of Flines. It argues that abbess Jeanne de Boubais commissioned the images for clerics who had promoted reform of Flines, in order to suggest compliance with the mandates of the program and the integral place of the convent within Cistercian monasticism. In the wake of the dissolution of several convents that had resisted reform, conveying a desire to yield to the Order must have seemed crucial for the community’s survival.

Introduction: Even as recent studies on religious women of medieval and renaissance Europe have done much to broaden our knowledge of convent life, a considerable amount of work remains to be done. Such is the case with the arts. One area that needs further attention is the relationship between visual images and clerical expectations for nuns’ lives.

This subject is the focus of the present investigation of two panel paintings commissioned by Jeanne de Boubais, abbess of the Cistercian convent of Flines, located near Douai in the French-speaking, Burgundian controlled south Netherlandish province of Hainault. From its foundation in 1234 and reaching into the seventeenth century, Flines was one of the best-known and most highly regarded communities for religious women in the Low Countires.  A periodically thriving economy, especially strong during Jeanne de Boubais’ prelature from 1507 to 1533, allowed the nuns to commission a remarkably large body of images.

The two paintings discussed here, both by Jean Bellegambe, date to a period in the convent’s history in which relationships between the nuns and their male superiors were undergoing vigorous redefinition through reform. The works were not, it seems, intended for the nuns of the community, but rather for two clerics who had initiated and enforced the program at Flines. Despite a call for a shift in power away from the abbess to the clerics, the imagery of the paintings suggests compliance with the program’s directives and, by extension, implies an integral position for Flines within Cistercian monasticism generally. Given prior resistance to reform on the part of numerous other women’s houses, and the permanent dissolution of some convents that had not cooperated, conveying such a message must have seemed vital to the very survival of the community.

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