A seventeenth-century view of the cloister of St. Elisabeth, Bressanone from Martin Zeiller's Topographia provinciarum austriacarum (Frankfurt am Mayn, 1649).
The Clarissan cloister of St. Elisabeth is located outside of Bressanone in Northern Italy.
The Poor Clares-a cloistered order, which strove for absolute poverty, both personal and corporate-has been described as the most successful monastic enterprise for women during the Middle Ages
The community of Poor Clare nuns outside of Bressanone developed almost two decades before the death of the order's founder, Clare of Assisi. Construction on the monastic buildings began in 1235
At the cloister's founding, the Virgin Mary and Francis of Assisi held the place of honour as patron saints, not Elisabeth. Elisabeth, landgravine of Thuringia (1205-31), was the daughter of Andrew II of Hungary; her mother was a descendant of the local counts of Meran-Andechs. Pope Gregory Xl canonized Elisabeth in 1235.In documents dating from 1238,she appears for the first time with the other saints. Shortly thereafter, Elisabeth had overtaken the two original patrons, becoming the sole dedicatee of the Bressanone cloister, as reflected in official documents.
The Poor Sisters, without sponsorship or economic resources, established St. Elisabeth's, collecting alms in mountain and valley.
In 1238 Pope Gregory IX-who required the cloister to follow the Rule of St. Damian and in so doing conferred ecclesiastical legitimacy addressed an indulgence to the "prioress and sisters of the cloister of Saints Francis and Elisabeth, the order of Saint Damian."
In 1239 Pope Gregory IX took the cloister and its properties under the protection of the Apostolic See, in accordance with the general trend toward monastic freedom during this time. This removed the community from diocesan jurisdiction.
In 1256, citing the fact that the impoverished sisters could not pay for the completion of their cloister and were lacking the basic necessities of survival, Bishop Bruno of Bressanone granted indulgences to those visiting the monastic church on specified feast days, donating much-needed money. This extraordinary series of episcopal and curial actions in support of the cloister peaked during the spring of 1257 with a flurry of letters from Pope Alexander IV. The pope confirmed all privileges, exemptions, and indulgences granted by his predecessors. The pontiff also reaffirmed the privilege of protection and ownership of the institution.
St. Elisabeth's was consecrated on 27 May 1257, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the canonisation of its patron, Elisabeth of Hungary, and the solemnity of Pentecost.
By the late thirteenth century, the monastery was showing signs of growth and prosperity: in March 1272, at their request, Pope Gregory X granted the nuns permission to receive more than thirty members. In 1297 Pope Boniface VIII reconfirmed all privileges given to the institution by his predecessors.
By the opening of the fifteenth century, ecclesiastical councils, calls for change, and efforts at top-down reform dominated the religious landscape of Europe. Additionally, city councils, territorial rulers, religious orders, and lay people were active in reform efforts. The continued and efficacious performance of prayers, vigils, and religious offices was a matter of common concern.
This tumultuous atmosphere affected the Bressanone community.
In 1455,at the invitation of the newly named bishop of Bressanone,Nicholas of Cusa, Dorthea Kohler ("a woman of manly spirit") led a party from Nuremberg to reform the Bressanone community.
The cloister of St. Elisabeth housed an impressive collection of art, with works dating from the thirteenth century. Much of the library of the Poor Sisters at Bressanone survived at the house into the twentieth century before parts were sold off before and during the Second World War.
It was a fairly large sized library. Primarily it was a collection of books in Latin. Works by John Chrysostom, Isidore of Seville, Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Nider, Robert de Lico, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, Augustinus de Acona, Bernard of Siena, Boniface VIII, Paulus de Sancta Maria, Petrus de Palude, Johannes Gerson, Gratian, Mammotrectus, Peter Lombard, Leonardus de Utino, and Astesanus de Ast have been identified as having been in the possession of the sisters.
The works were from many areas: law, theology, devotional literature and sermon collections, and history.
Sermon collections were well represented in the library including the enormously popular Sermons of Johannes Herolt as well as those of Hugo de Prato Florid and the Rosarium of Bernardinus de Bustis. Other sermon collections included the sermons of Bernard, Albertus Magnus, Leonardus de Utino, Paratus, Bonaventure, Petrus de Palade, and Jacob the Carthusian
Works of devotion to the Virgin Mary were many. Written by Temesvari Pelbart, the Stellarium coronae benedictae Mariae virginis is a collection of text in praise of the Virgin Mary.The sisters also possessed copies of Conrad of Brunopoli's Mirror of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Speculum beatae Mariae virginis) and Nicolaus Cisterciensis' Image of the Blessed Virgin (Imago beatae virginis); both of these works were printed in Augsburg in 1477.
Works of history were also represented in the Bressanone library. The sisters had an early copy of the Fasciculus temporum, composed by Werner Rolevinck, a Carthusian monk from Cologne. Rolevinck's work was the most popular chronicle of the fifteenth century, going through thirty-three printings in five languages during the last quarter of the century. The work presents a universal history from the Creation to 1474, the year the work was first printed. The copy of the Fasciculus owned by the Poor Clares at Bressanone was annotated in places, containing additions oflocal and universal history (such as the inclusion of Pope Joan, the elections of emperors, the founding of institutions, etc.).
Books played an important role in the life of the Clarissan cloister in Bressanone.
The books in their library-just as the prayers offered in the chapel-were ultimately used to mediate the distance between humanity and God. These books were understood as a distillation of the holy.
Books were not merely for didactic use, but also for spiritual edification and growth. Rather than simply promoting intellectual or analytical inquiry into the mysteries of the Christian faith, the magnificence of the nuns' library served to stimulate the senses. This, in turn, inspired the emotions.
As a nun in 1490 from the Clarissian monastery at Ebstorf wrote:
"Oh what sweetness is in the divine service to hear and to read the sacred texts, the words of the Holy Gospel, [and] the words of the sacred teachers from both the Old and the New Testaments. . . . Conversely, how disagreeable it is to stand in the choir, to read and to sing and not to understand.... whenever in cloisters the acquisition of learning goes into decline, the result most assuredly is the destruction of the religious life as well."