Enclosed life – 5 July 2021

Here are nuns in a cloister. The pictorial space is divided into a restricted range of horizontal, vertical, and angled motifs softened by a few curving lines: the nuns’ veils, the three arcades, and a blind doorway. This geometric design has the effect of suggesting permanence, an impression reinforced by the sober colours. The blank walls of the buildings, the bricked-up openings, and the absence of a horizon add a sense of enclosure, increasing the effect of settled permanence. The nuns are shown in their garden, the only place they were allowed to go outside the walls of the convent.

The viewer’s reaction to this painting will be influenced by pre-assumptions about the value of an enclosed and contemplative life. Is the life depicted here full or restricted? What value is placed on exterior life (for example action) and how much the interior life (for example prayer). The viewer should note, that as the nuns are regarded and judged, they also look out doing the same.

The painting is The Ursuline Nuns (Les Ursulines), 1951 by Jean Paul Lemieux, in Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Quebec City. The Ursulines, who came from Tours and Dieppe in the seventeenth century to devote themselves to the education of Native and French settlers’ children, remained a cloistered order until 1967. The Ursuline convent in Quebec City is the oldest educational institution for women in North America


You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.

Song of Solomon 4:12

The world without was hidden quite from view,
Its din and strife scarce found an echo here,
Yet these dark cloisters faced no prospect drear,
But opened on a close where roses grew;
Where trees and plants and skies of blue
Such beauty gave the sanctuary dear,
The nuns in calm retreat felt Heaven near,
And found the peace of God, vouchsafed to few.

O soul aspire; but never dwell apart,
Build altars, too, yet live the life of men,
But keep some chamber sacred in thy heart–
Some cloister curtained from the common ken,
To see as through stained glass when sunbeems dart
A world of beauty rise with light again.

Washington Van Dusen The Cloisters