Performance depicts 16th-century nuns
Bethlehem Chapel is routinely utilized as a place of worship for Catholic community members. Perhaps the religious hymns that issued from the sacred space on Saturday evening seemed in keeping with the theme of the location to passersby who neglected to take a closer look.
Yet as if the songs possessed some kind time-bending magic, guests of the chapel that night were privileged with a unique experience that transported them to a different era.
On April 26, the Chapel hosted an event titled "Illuminations" a performance-installation piece depicting a 16th-century convent of nuns of the Cistercian Abbey of Salzinnes, Belgium. The event was featured as a part of the Festival of the Arts, showcasing a musical performance from the professional music ensemble called Capella Clausura.
The goal of the ensemble is not only to academically assess the historical and musical dimensions of music but to bring it to life, performing music dating back to the eighth century up to the modern day.
Musical theorist Amelia LeClair, a visiting scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, founded Cappella Clausura in 2004 and was the artistic director of "Illuminations," along with WSRC scholar Alexandra Borrie. The installation is a testament to the recently discovered Salzinnes Antiphonal, which remained largely ignored by the academic community until art historian Judy Dietz decided to take the manuscript for her master's thesis at Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia.
Dressed in full period costume, "nuns" sat among audience members as they chanted the liturgical hours.
The audience sat beside them in rapt attention as the chorus of sopranos and altos chanted with impeccable unison and pitch. Frequent intermissions occurred during which the performers stopped singing but remained in character; they did not speak, and guests were discouraged from interacting with them.
Intermissions were announced with a bell, signifying to the audience that it was appropriate to speak in hushed tones as they perused other parts of the event. In addition to the ensemble, the event also allowed a peek into other aspects of medieval culture. Food included barley bread with grainy mustard and Gouda cheese served with stewed pears and preserved cabbage.
The display also features pigments replicated from the "Illuminations," accurately placed inside mussel shells, which were typically used by medieval artists to hold such pigments.
LeClair collaborated with a team of close friends over the course of two years to create the finished piece. The idea came through a frustration with traditional museums.
LeClair frequents many museums and art galleries, but as an "oral person," is often disappointed by the lack of focus on the auditory aspects of displays. "I want to create a gallery where the music is as important as the visual," she said. Given the rich musical quality of the antiphonal, as well as the stunning Illustrations, she felt it was the perfect text to bring to life with equal parts music and visual art.
Just as the performance provides a unique perspective on the Belgian convent, the antiphonal, dating back to 1554, has shed light on unique lives in the particular Belgian convent it deals with. The document contains full-page illustrations, or "illuminations" of biblical figures and scenes such as the Magi, the Virgin Mary and Christ's baptism along the Jordan River.
The illuminations were imposed onto fabric banners that prominently hung from the ceiling of the chapel.
However notably and uniquely, the "Illuminations" also illustrate the lives of the 34 nuns who lived in the abbey. They have also signed their names at the bottom of the pages to create an interesting contrast.
According to LeClair, "The church even today espouses anonymity. You're not supposed to have any vanity about yourself and naming yourself in a way is a prideful thing to do," she said.
The songs and antiphons as well as canticles sung by the nuns mimic the daily liturgical recitations that Cistercian nuns were tasked with.
Many nuns and monks today continue to carry out the task of reciting 150 songs in a week's time, which amounts to five hours of chanting per day.
Attendees were not required to stay the entire time but could instead come and go as they pleased, fostering a casual, natural dynamic between the performers and themselves.
"The first name of it was 'immersion' because I thought that was exactly what I was doing," said LeClair. Indeed, the event provided an intimate and experiential look into certain lives of the nuns.