Exhibition Review: Portraits in Piety

Portraits in Piety: Women Saints and Women Religious from the John Thatcher Collection at Howard W. Gunlocke Rare Book and Special Collections Room of the Georgetown University Library (7 September-22 October 2010) is a fascinating exhibition of books in the vernacular concerning female Catholic piety. Acquired in 2009 by the library, the Thatcher Collection consists of nearly 1,500 books  dating from the sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century and includes many rare volumes, some of which are held by no other American libraries. A large number of the the  books in the exhibtion are“Lives” (Vite in Italian, Vides in Spanish and Vies in French), spiritual histories of notable religious women often written by their confessors or spiritual advisers and sometimes published in order to advance their case for sainthood (or beatification) or to promote their family, hometown or the order of which they were a member. Most of these Vite include at least one image in which the subject of the life was depicted in the act of devotion. In the exhibition most of the volumes were displayed so that these images were visible, allowing the visitor to consider the iconography of such female devotion. Two particularly striking images were an engraving from the life of Suor Veronica Giuliani, published in Rome in 1763, in which the illustration of her being visited by an angel was loosely modeled on Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa and an engraving from the life of one Suor Maria Columba Scaglione, published in Naples in 1756, that depicted her adoring a crucifix with printed images of the Immaculata and St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata pinned to the wall behind her. As a group, these fascinating images, together with the texts that they illustrate, allow the viewer (together with  scholars who can study the material in greater depth) to better understand the construction, promotion, and reception of female Catholic  piety.


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