Neapolitan Creche Figure of a Nun, late 18th century, with finely-sculpted terra-cotta head, pale complexion and glass eyes turned upwards as though in prayer or contemplation, center-parted hair cropped short behind exposed ears and hidden by her white cotton headdress and hood, hessian-covered body with swivel-jointed carved and painted wooden lower arms and legs, her feet in sandals, wearing original brown wool habit with rope girdle and rosary, ht. 18 in., (small paint losses on limbs, costume very fragile).
The order of Poor Clares was founded by St. Clare of Assisi, born in 1193. A follower of St. Francis of Assisi, she rebeled against an arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, escaping from her parents house aided by St. Francis' disciples, who led to their convent by torchlight. An abbess at twenty-one, she founded her own Franciscan order in 1212, which became known for its strict rules and piety; the nuns lived only on alms, ate no meat, wore no shoes and spent their time in prayers and silence. This final attribute became an important element in the fictionalizing of the order in the late 18th century, the figure of the nun taking on almost preternatural dimensions in the Gothic tales and ghost stories that grasped the public imagination at the time that these creche figures were produced. There is a direct reference to the order of St. Clare in Matthew Lewis' lurid novel , The Monk (1796), in which the character Agnes is kept silent prisoner by the nuns in a cell concealed beneath a statue of St. Clare in a convent of the same name.