Humbrina’s Artistic and Spiritual Project: Medieval Nuns-Artists in the Monastery of Santa Maria at Pontetetto (Lucca)

Loretta Vandi, Istituto Statale d’Arte – Scuola del Libro, Urbino ,

This study concerns an artistic-religious project, devised and brought to completion between the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, by Humbrina (ca. 1056 - 1124), abbess and founder of the Monastery of Santa Maria at Pontetetto near Lucca, describing how an authoritative order - established under the Benedictine rule - was transformed into a creative spiritual development. During Humbrina’s lifetime, the Pontetetto nuns-artists produced a series of illuminated manuscripts - a collective enterprise including a Missal, a Commentary on the Song of Songs, and two Antiphonaries (now respectively in Florence, Pistoia, and Lucca) - whose liturgical function could have hardly exhausted their textual meaning. They provide documentary evidence of a painfully-reached awareness of what a genuine uplift of the soul might be. Once she understood that in her community liturgical sacred words played too objective a role, Humbrina began to revise the entire project. She suggested at first the use of images destined to mediate between the reader and the written prayers and, afterwards, the abbess proposed to substitute monologues and dialogues of female martyrs for the traditional narratives that had been employed up to that point. It was only with the latter step that the soul, through the heightening of emotional involvement, was finally brought much closer to the body than authority would ever have allowed.