Poverty and richly decorated garments : a re-evaluation of their significance in the Vita Christi of Isabel de Villena

Poverty and richly decorated garments : a re-evaluation of their significance in the Vita Christi of Isabel de Villena

By Lesley K. Twomey

Medieval clothing and textiles Volume 3, edited by R. Netherton and G. Owen-Crocker (Boydell, 2007)

Introduction: Isabel de Villena (1430-1490) was the illegitimate daughter of Enrique de Villena, a wealthy nobleman of the kingdom of Aragon, and granddaughter of Pedro of Aragon. She joined the Poor Clares in Gandia in 1445 and became abbess of the Poor Clare convent of the Holy Trinity in Valencia at the age of thirty-three. The Vita Christi (Life of Christ) was her only attributed work. Its immediate popularity is shown by the variety of editions which survive from the period. Written in the vernacular for he nuns in Villena’s charge, it is a long, unfinished piece, which envisages a life of Christ that includes Mary’s life, too, beginning with the moment of her conception and ending with scenes from her assumption. After Villena’s death, at the instigation of Isabelle of Castile, the Vita Chirsta was prepared for publication by Villena’s successor, Aldonca de Monstsoriu. The resulting text is one of the first books published in Spain, establishing its author as the only important female writer in Catalan in the Middle Ages.

Gifts of jewels and clothing are a particular feature of the scenes described by Villena following the Annunciation by the ambassador-angel Gabriel in chapters 20-27 of the Vita Christi. In chapters 39-48, the archangel Michael presents the Virgin with a series of royal gifts. The chapters immediately after the ritual gifting are dedicated to the reception by the Virgin of the hierarchy of heaven and of the Virgin’s forebears, Adam, Eve, and Abel. Villena returns to the Gospel events only in chapter 61. The gifting scenes are intercalated between the Annunciation and Visitation and consist of a series of court rituals in which the presentation of items of clothing to the Virgin is a central element. This analysis examines aspects of clothing in the Vita Christi in order to re-evaluate the synergy between earthly and heavenly queenship, as well as between poverty and riches.

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