Orsola Maddalena Caccia: “Picturing Mary” as a Renaissance Nun

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea focuses on themes of femininity, motherhood, and ideal women expressed through the image of the Virgin Mary. The lives of women artists whose work is on view, including the Ursuline nun Orsola Maddalena Caccia, illuminate women’s varied roles in their culture.

St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (San Luca Evangelista nello Studio), ca. 1625; Oil on canvas, 109 × 74 3/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (San Luca Evangelista nello Studio), ca. 1625; Oil on canvas, 109 × 74 3/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Some of the earliest known female painters of the Italian Renaissance were nuns. Religious orders often encouraged nuns to create art as a means of devotion, as well as a means of financial support for their institution. Caccia is an example of a successful nun-as-painter.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia (Moncalvo, Italy, 1596–1676),was born Theodora. Like the more familiar Artemisia Gentileschi, who was trained as a painter by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, Caccia was trained by her father, Guglielmo Caccia, who created large-scale religious works. She was renamed Orsola when she took her vows and entered an Ursuline convent in 1620. Five years later, she joined the Ursuline convent in Moncalvo, which was founded by her father. Although five of her sisters joined her in the convent, only Orsola and her sister Francesca became painters. None of her sister’s work remains, but viewers can still find many of Orsola’s artworks in the spaces for which they were commissioned.

Caccia’s father’s influence on her career persisted even after his death: Guglielmo left artistic tools and drawings for his daughters at the convent for their use after his death. Despite the steady business of painting at the convent, his will stipulated that these tools be returned to his male heirs after all six of his daughters had passed away.

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna col Bambino e Sant’Anna), ca. 1630s; Oil on canvas, 113 × 72 7/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna col Bambino e Sant’Anna), ca. 1630s; Oil on canvas, 113 × 72 7/8 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

Despite this dynamic, Orsola’s paintings provide evidence of female agency in art. Painting was encouraged in the Ursuline order, as it provided a means of support for the religious institutions. She became abbess and organized a painting studio within the convent. She created flower paintings during this time, as well as large-scale religious works and altarpieces, many of which feature carefully detailed renderings of still-life objects. These act as small reminders of the daily lives of the painting’s subjects; for example, a painting of the birth of John the Baptist is made all the more real by the delicately painted stoneware that litters the foreground, and Caccia also included details showing the exact foods served to women who had just gone through labor.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s work provides important examples of paintings created for patrons who sought artwork made by a female religious artist. Her careful consideration of the details of place and scene gave her a unique voice among the heavily male-driven art world of Renaissance Italy.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Click here to learn more and plan your visit to Picturing Mary, open through April 12, 2015.

Beyond Iconography: Food in The Birth of St. John the Baptist

Orsola Maddalena Caccia’s lavishly detailed painting The Birth of St. John the Baptist (1635), currently on view in Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, features still-life arrangements nestled into the sacred narrative. A hallmark of Caccia’s oeuvre, these small renderings of food and flowers are imbued with symbolic significance. However, Caccia’s still-life embellishments are not only emblematic of the sacred story, but relate to a female viewer’s life experiences.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

This scene is derived from popular narratives of Mary’s life. The nativities of the Holy Family were often commissioned by and for women, and often depicted true-to-life rituals and objects that would have accompanied a woman as she prepared to give birth. Here, St. Elizabeth is sitting upright in bed after successfully, and safely, delivering her son. The baby, St. John the Baptist, is held near the painting’s center. His eyes meet those of the Virgin Mary, as fluted rays of light from the painting’s top left corner form a delicate halo. Almost every corner of the canvas is filled, advancing the narrative and alluding to Biblical themes.

The piled bunches of grapes foretell Christ’s sacrifice and the sacramental wine of the Eucharist. Other small fruits are depicted as well: pears, for the sweetness of Virtue, and a quince, which had been associated with both immortality and fertility since Antiquity. The eggs held by Elizabeth’s attendants were symbols of birth and resurrection; their pale luster also resembles pearls, one of Mary’s attributes as well as a symbol of purity and virginity.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista) (details), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, (Nascita di San Giovanni Battista) (details), ca. 1635; Oil on canvas, 112 1/4 × 77 1/2 in.; Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti

The two attendants and their tray of eggs would also have reminded a female viewer of her own experiences within such a room. Childbirth in the Renaissance was a particularly dangerous experience, often accompanied by complications during and after the birth. The health of mother and child was an overwhelming concern. Renaissance medical texts were very specific about the necessary nutrition that a new mother required immediately after giving birth. Sweetmeats and nuts were brought to new mothers almost immediately after a baby was born. Poultry and eggs had long been especially recommended for women immediately after their labor. Even an exemplary figure such as Elizabeth required this sustenance; by including these staples, Caccia emphasizes the humanity of Elizabeth and John.

Food is one of many theological symbols reminding viewers of the sacred nature of the scene. When shown alongside attributes of Christ and the Virgin, the nativity of St. John the Baptist acts as a precursor for the miraculous birth of Christ. Viewers at the time could also see Caccia’s painted details as a means of connection, meant to foster a bond between this sacred story and their everyday lives.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Visit NMWA to see Picturing Mary, on view through April 12, 2015. Click here to learn more!