As they slowly emerge, artworks by nuns have been summarized by a derisive umbrella term: Nonnenarbeiten (German for “nuns’ works”). “We would never assign a Sacra conversatione [a type of devotional painting depicting the Virgin and Child] by Fra Angelico and a portrait by Fra Filippo Lippi to the same genre simply because both happen to have been painted by friars,” art historian Jeffrey F. Hamburger writes in his book Nuns as Artists (1997). “Far from providing an apt, let alone productive, characterization of the images it seeks to define, Nonnenarbeit stands by definition for deficiency: a lack of both skill and sophistication.” The term also neglects that these devotional images were, in their time, considered intellectual arts. Convents have always supported themselves with a number of craft enterprises, the real moneymakers being embroidery and textile work. Pursuing the finer arts—like painting and sculpture—would have been a sophisticated choice for any nun.
Recently, a group of scholars has argued that these works deserve a closer look. As Sheila Barker, an art historian affiliated with the Medici Archive Project, has written
, it’s time “to liberate the nun-artist from Art History’s Procrustean bed.” Self-taught nun artists may not fit into the mold of the creative male genius, but their work served many important functions: It allowed nuns to exercise their talents, support the financial needs of their religious houses, and generate cultural prestige that attracted educated women to their convents.