· Vatican City ·


The nuns’ photographic archives are a mine of news

There is treasure
in the convents

 C’è un tesoro  nei conventi  DCM-006
03 June 2023

The shot is precise, denoting the steady hand of a professional photographer. The subject may appear humble, in this one there are two nuns in the garden of their convent, in Eboli, southern Italy, busy with a little gardening. One sister moves a pot with a succulent plant; the other accompanies her. A soft light penetrates through the vines. There is no date; it could be the 1950s or 1960s. The nuns portrayed here do not have a name or surname; they are neither young nor old. They are a symbol. The photo exudes serenity, and inner peace. For the people of Eboli, however, that photo has meaning and value, it fixes the memory of those who were part of the community, and now the two nuns in the convent garden are part of Eboli’s digital photo archive, abbreviated with the acronym, Ebad.

The Eboli snapshot is just one precious stone in those deposits that are the photographic archives of religious orders. In particular, those of women's orders. Too many of their gems have not yet come to light.

This is what happened, for example, with the photographic archive of the Historical Archive of the General Curia of the Capuchin Sisters of Mother Rubatto. The only one that has joined a project called Censimento Fotografia Italia (Italian Census of Photography), curated by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, and which so far has as many as 1,859 collections online.

The Historical Archive of the Capuchin Sisters of Mother Rubatto is based on around 5,000 photographs accumulated over a century and a half of the order's life, concentrated mainly in the last forty years of the 20th century when the Capuchin sisters published the ‘A Lived Ideal’ magazine as a link between the various communities scattered around the world.

There was one Mother General in particular, called Romana Villa, a photographer herself, who understood the importance of documenting mission visits and the life of the missions. However, there is a particularly valuable niche on their site. “In 1937”, says the archivist curator Laura Caroselli, “At the end of the war of occupation of Ethiopia, the Capuchins asked Propaganda Fidae for the help of the Capuchin Sisters to carry on the service in the leprosarium of Harar. The Fathers were already there, for the Sisters Africa was a complete novelty. Several photo albums arrived in Rome to show the sisters the reality where they were going to work. They are very small photos, probably taken by the brothers themselves. You can see the tukul, scenes of life. And then the sick. An exceptional socio-cultural documentation”.

This was followed by other photos, now taken by the sisters themselves, at work caring for lepers, which ended up in an official album. The “African” documentation, however, covers only a few years. In 1942, under the rages of the Second World War, the Italians having been defeated in East Africa, the nuns were repatriated by the British and there are no more photos from that continent in the archive for those twenty years.

And more besides. The Combonian Sisters, Missionary Pious Mothers of Negritude, have just exhibited a selection of photos from their archives in an exhibition in the Mother House in Verona coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Institute. They are beautiful and dramatic shots that speak of the faith, life, difficulties, hopes and optimism of their mission.

This is also the case for the mighty archive of the Salesian Sisters. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the institute, the Study Centre of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians in collaboration with the General Archives, Photographic and Audiovisual Documentation Office, has produced a rich photographic volume. In the past, at least until the 1960s, the Salesian sisters also produced albums of professional photos, with an institutional stamp, to highlight the characteristics of the mission, as well as photographs of the communities and buildings, at particular times. Their archive, with photos from 106 countries on five continents, is an invaluable mine. The curator of the archive, Sr. Angela Marzorati, prepared the volume together with Sr. Grazia Loparco (the historian who is also on the steering committee of Women Church World) and explains, “Indicatively, we can speak of 150,000 images, deposited on different media: 86,000 photographs on paper, 300 albums, 28,000 slides, and 1,200 precious images on glass. The photos go back as far as the end of the 19th century, because our communities around the world sent pictures to the centre to document what was being done”.

The book, which photographically documents one hundred and fifty years of Salesian activity, is divided into three sections. Sister Angela says, “On the origins up to 1888, the year of our founder's death, we do not have much documentation. Then there is the middle period, that of consolidation, up to the 1960s, which is already much richer. And then the third phase, of continuity, up to the present, which is very rich in images. “We have not always found the precise date, but at least we can determine the decade”. Sister Grazia Loparco comments, “The volume is intended to be a form of historical justice for so many sisters who have lived through 150 years of activity, in contact with many hundreds of thousands of children, girls, young people”. 

Let us analyse these photos. In spite of the distances in time and place, in spite of the differences between different orders, there is one unmistakable common sign, which is the shots must document the work of the nuns, not the nuns themselves. That is, unlike private photos that serve to fix moments in a family history, those of the orders leave out names and dates, at most they give a place because they must first and foremost convey the sense of the work done for others and make distant places and environments known to others.

In short, the photographic documentation of good works underway was a common need (also) of the female religious orders. This started very early, when the camera first appeared, in the mid-19th century, because in Rome the popes instantly understood the power of this new instrument. Ilaria Schiaffini teaches History of Photography at La Sapienza University in Rome. She recounts, “There is a very significant detail of how the Church immediately grasped the importance of what was then a fledgling invention: in the Gallery of Candelabra in the Vatican, which was entirely frescoed after 1878 under Pope Leo XIII, in the section dedicated to painting, between tapestry and engraving, considered minor arts, a camera can be seen, which is a tribute to the brand new art”.

Pope Pius IX realised the value of photography. There is a famous shot from 1863, a daguerreotype that immortalizes him at Velletri station as he looks out of the train window. Moreover, his successor Leo XIII, who commissioned the frescoes in the Candelabra Gallery, particularly loved photography, as Edoardo Maggi, art historian and doctoral student at the Sapienza University, reconstructs, “As a cardinal, he published a hymn in Latin, Ars Photographica, in which he defined the invention as a marvelous product of genius.

Maggi recently spoke about this at a conference in Leipzig, with the title Photography and the Making of Religion, with contributions from Germany, Italy, Belgium and Ireland. “The tradition of the photographic albums sent to Rome from the missions around the world,” he explains, “goes back as far as the imprisonment of Pius IX, immediately after the Breach of Porta Pia, when thousands of photographs of so many religious men and women, and simple faithful, joined him in self-imposed exile. Today, of that collection, known as the Papal Addresses, preserved in the Vatican Photographic Archive, we have the monumental volume edited by the American historian Sandra Philips”.

The photo of Pius IX on the papal train can also be seen on ChiesaVintage, Simone Varisco’s blog. He is a digital explorer who knows his way around online photo archives. “Unfortunately,” says Varisco, “very few photo archives of women's religious orders have been digitized. We see something on the occasion of special celebrations, such as a centenary, the canonisation of a foundress, a special anniversary. However, most often, we start from the 1930s and notice that the photos of the women's orders are often group photos, documenting missions, sometimes clashing with our current sensibility, for example when we see children in the orphanages. We can say that they reflect an outdated pastoral approach, a sort of “exposition” of what was being done, with a somewhat paternalistic tone, but the fact remains that they are very interesting documents that document the times and also the culture of the moment”.

Let us think back to the two Eboli nuns, then. To the framing. To the soft natural light. To that vase carefully moved to the convent's garden. We can read in it the optimistic spirit of a recent past; and we smile with them, with the garden nuns.

A journalist with the Italian national newspaper “La Stampa”