A religious iconographer reflects on God every Sunday

The preaching nun

 La suora  che predica   DCM-004
01 April 2023

In the ancient heart of Rome, on Sundays, you can hear a nun preaching. It happens at the end of the ten o’clock Mass inside a tiny and cosy 18th-century church named Madonna del Divino Amore in Campo Marzio. From there you can see the famous Spanish Steps in Trinità dei Monti on the way out.

In this place, which seems removed from time, the rector blesses the faithful at the end of the liturgy and as if he were one of them he sits in the pews, listening. This is the moment when Sister Maria Giuseppina Di Salvatore enters the altar space and illustrates one of the icons chosen from among those she has created and which she keeps in the lodging created inside the bell tower. They are iconographic panels that have the power to immediately attract the eye and the spirit and, like all icons, they do not only bring beauty but also serve for prayer.

Today, the nun has chosen a portrait of a full-length Christ bathed in golden light and set in a heavenly space. The gold of the icons, explains Sr. Giuseppina who is standing comfortably beside the image, is the gratitude we feel for the gift of eternal life, for the new Torah that Christ brought to earth. Those ten lights surrounding him are the ten renewed commandments, while the sandals on his feet signify the speed of the missionaries who are always ready to set out to carry the good news. The rainbow on which he is sitting is God’s covenant with men and women.  Sr. Giuseppina’s preaching is always a visual and theological exploration of the Gospel passage read during Mass and commented on in the homily. Today it is the Gospel according to Matthew, from which she cites “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. You, therefore, be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). As she continues, she quotes St Teresa of Avila, “We lack words to describe the mystery of God’s love”. Where words are lacking, gold arrives and it is left to symbols to unveil the mystery.

The sermon lasts a few minutes. A nun adding her own reflection to the word of God is an enrichment desired by Fr. Federico Corrubolo himself, the rector of the church, who first admired the nun's ability to “write” - and not paint - the iconographic panels. “It is strange to see a priest dressed in vestments listening to me,” says Sister Giuseppina referring to Father Simone Caleffi who replaced Father Federico for this Sunday, “and yet I feel a dough rising, laity and presbyters together without gates or fences; and isn’t this the word given to women that Pope Francis hopes for?”.

This is not a distortion of the liturgy. Sister Giuseppina’s iconographic reflection takes place after Mass and serves to spark a greater understanding of the mystery that has just been celebrated. In the West, icons, which had disappeared for most of the 20th century, made a comeback in the 1980s with the same function as in the past, namely to provide the faithful with an explanation of the Holy Scriptures. “That a woman does it doesn’t change much”, explains the nun later at lunchtime as she prepares a risotto in her spartan, milk-white kitchen. To explain further she uses a similitude with embroidery, “Whether I use cross stitch or a flat stitch to embroider a rose is not important; isn't my goal to embroider a rose? One way or another, embroidering the rose of God's love is what counts”.

Sister Maria Giuseppina Di Salvatore was born in Bergamo. She was nineteen years old when, while visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love a few kilometres away from Rome, she recognised the signs of her vocation. After years of teaching the Catholic religion in schools, in 2010 she arrived in this house of the Daughters of Our Lady of Divine Love in the historic centre of the capital, also known as the office, because it was here that Fr Umberto Terenzi made space for his study before founding the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of Divine Love in 1942, which today has seven houses in Rome and 150 religious sisters worldwide. Fr. Terenzi’s study is intact and impressive in the chancel where, in addition to the small organ, the desk, the kneeler he used and his simple green lamp are still in place. Looking at the altar and especially the painting of the Virgin and Child above the tabernacle, Fr. Terenzi wrote and dictated many notes, meditations and spiritual thoughts.

At first, the bewildered Sr. Giuseppina examined this new silent life all encompassed in a church the size of a room and a Romanesque bell tower with a narrow staircase leading to windowless rooms with amazement. Her love for icons had been established long before, -quite by chance- thanks to a book of fine paper, now open on the work table among the colors and tools for the iconographic panels.

Icons have a very special language whose symbols must be studied and handled without falling into the error of considering them normal sacred images like Giotto's frescoes. “There are theological and scriptural reasons behind the icons”, explains Sr. Giuseppina when, at the end of her sermon, we go upstairs where her works are displayed on the walls. The first, she recalls, was sent to a small church in Pakistan. On the back is an acronym that replaces her signature, since traditionally iconographers never sign what they produce. Sister Giuseppina  recounts that before entering the world of icons, she found these images at times excessively bare and harsh. Then she realised, “In icons there is no depth or perspective, only light, because God does not produce shadows; these are prayers made with colour”. Like the vocation, the passion for this art pierced her days. “As Isaiah says, I felt that God has pricked his arrow and placed it in his quiver through a project of silence, colors and the Gospel”. In the room with the kitchen where not a single ray of sunshine ever enters, the real light comes first into Sr. Giuseppina’s heart and then into her hands. When she prepares an icon, she repeats a ritual that has been unchanged for centuries; the panel is always composed of layers of plaster, glue and canvas. There are eight colors, including gold leaf. Material elements that go from the visible to the invisible, from the material to the spiritual.

A recurring theme, besides the Annunciation, is Our Lady of Divine Love. Here she hangs above the desk, a Virgin holding the baby Jesus in her arms and everywhere white drapes recalling passages from the Old and New Testaments including the Gospel of John (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”) the tent where Moses found prayer during the Exodus and the “open sanctuary of heaven” mentioned in Revelation. Our Lady in this icon has the blue veil of divine maternity and the red dress that symbolizes her belonging to the human, and so Jesus’ cloth is also of the same shade to symbolize a God who became man. Green buildings recur everywhere in Sister Giuseppina’s icons, for this was traditionally the color of purity before white became so, and so green is the cloth that gathers the Virgin's remains when she dies and is received by her son Jesus.

The room that hosts the icons is the same one from which Sr. Giuseppina gives online lectures on Marian theology. She does this on Thursday evenings, a regular event that began ten years ago when she was training seminarians. This mission is an integral part of her fourth vow of love for Mary, which drives her to “make the holy Mother of God known and loved, whatever it takes”, as her founder wanted.

“I do a lot of things, it’s true”, she smiles, showing the volume in which the life of her inspirational saint, Hildegard von Bingen, a Doctor of the Church since 2012, a nun and mystic from the 11th century and an eclectic woman as she was also a naturalist, passionate about botany and medicine, a philosopher, a cosmologist and a linguist, is narrated. In addition, within Hildegard’s pages there are also references to the kitchen to which Sr. Giuseppina devotes time and intellect. “When a woman cooks it is an extension of the liturgy, it is a service of love,” she says, as she is lighting the stove under the meatballs in tomato sauce and preparing the saffron to add to the rice. During the week, the narrow linoleum table is occupied by the two nuns who live in the house, while on Sundays a plate is added for Fr. Federico.

When the parish priest takes his leave, it is the perfect time for Sister Giuseppina to start writing her icons again. Sister Alice returns to her room, the little church is closed, and a rare silence resonates throughout the bell tower that has become her home. The nun picks up her paintbrushes, puts on the visor that amplifies the vision of details, and in the apparent emptiness begins to create. “Because silence is the engine that generates and only those who love are able to create”.