"Infinite riches in a little room," wrote poet John Donne at about the turn of the 17th century. Many meanings -- primarily, in the poem he wrote, about the beauty of his mistress and how it filled the bedroom they were in together. But with his sensibility about how all things work together ("no man is an island"), he had in mind other ways of packing experience into a single room, a place where we might not expect it.
We walk through Ferrara on a sunny morning, through lanes of old, old houses, brick and stone and tile roofs. Some are inside watching TV (we catch snatches through the shuttered windows next to the sidewalk -- if there is one); many must be off at work or doing the shopping. It's a very quiet morning. Only an occasional bike, and a very occasional car rumbles along these one-lane cobbled streets.
Then a gate near the edge of town, and a small garden of grass and an old tree and some red rose bushes growing the way I'd love to have mine grow at home-- tall and full of blooms. An old portico, and some monuments, and a door that creaks open, opened by a small woman in a nun's habit. She's a Benedictine nun, we know, only because we have read the guidebook about the Monasterio di San Antonio. In Italian, without a pause, she greets us and starts in: we're here to visit, yes? to see the frescoes? follow me.
We walk through a hallway into a chapel. It's not a large room by Italian church standards, and simple. The main ornament are some plaster elements suspended from the ceiling. But there's none of the baroque curlicues, stucco decorations, enormous crucifixion paintings we're used to by now. Mainly white walls, bare floor, and some wooden stalls where the nuns worship. And a dulcimer: one of the nuns must be into new age Catholic music.
The frescoes are in three chapels at the east end of the chapel. The nun shows them to us, narrating them in a quiet voice, almost like a prayer. She tells us of Jesus on the cross, and Saints Benedict and Catherine watching; of the flight to Egypt, with Joseph carrying the baby on his shoulders, and Jesus reaching back to his mother who rides on the donkey; of martyrdoms, St. Stephen patiently being stoned to death, and of the innocents in Bethlehem silently massacred by two fierce Herodian thugs. And with just a little inflection in her almost unwavering recitation, she proudly shows us the wonderful crucifixion where Jesus climbs brave and strong up the ladder set on the cross, a hero rather than a victim.
All I think about convents is overturned here, in this room. This quiet nun, away from the world, is also part of the world. The place itself, unadorned in so many ways, functional for these religious women who pray for the world, is also part of the world. The frescoes make it so: a brutal, tragic, difficult life for people like Joseph, Stephen, Mary, Jesus, exists here too. It is so humanely rendered -- with little touches of humanity and ordinariness -- that the heroism of these stories is more accessible in these small and unassuming chapels than in the grand cathedrals.
I think for a moment of Shakespeare's great play about life in and out of a cloister -- Measure for Measure -- with its intrusion of hypocrisy, lust, and betrayal on a novice who at the start of the play just wants to leave the world behind. (Here in William Holman Hunt's 19th-century painting of Isabella, the novice, with her brother, whose imminent execution is what pulls her out of her isolation). This being (in a strange way) a comedy, it turns out to be a good thing for her that she abandons her incipient vows and moves towards an apparently richer life (she marries the duke). But we know all the way through the play, that in the convent, too, is infinite beauty in a little room.