Nuns in the Certosa Cloister, overlooking a Moonlit Sea towards the Faraglioni, Capri
(Franz Ludwig Catel)


The subject of a watercolor probably done on Capri (Rome, Pio Istituto Catel), this is one of three other versions of the composition executed in oils, but the only one in which nuns, rather than monks, can be seen in the cloister. The dating is uncertain – Catel first visited Naples and the excavations at Pompei in 1813, which might have occasioned a trip to Capri; it must pre-date 1824, the year the Duchess of Devonshire, who commissioned this work, died in Rome. It is set in the cloister of the Carthusian Monastery of Saint James on Capri, built between 1363 and 1371, but which, following the suppression of religious orders by the Murat regime in 1808, was no longer occupied by monks. In re-introducing the professed religious to this famous cloister, Catel has restored a vision of a lost era – one which would not have changed for centuries. The original foundation was a male institution, however, and indeed women could not even enter the main church of the monastery; the artist almost certainly changed his original conception to substitute nuns at the behest of his patroness.

From the window at right, the viewer looks past the Punta Tragara towards the Faraglioni, two towering outcrops of rock, each surrounded by sea, on the south-west of the island. It is night, but the scene is illuminated by a full moon, whose reflection passes between the Faraglioni to below the Certosa window, casting a cold light that contrasts with the warmer glow coming from the open dorrway at left. At the end of the cloister a stone staircase rises to another doorway, through which the soft, low light of a wall-mounted lantern can be glimpsed. Two of the nuns pass solemnly through the cloister, a third is seated in quiet contemplation. In portraying the tranquil world of spiritual contemplation, early 19th century artists such as Catel and Granet concentrate their attention of the practice of religion, rather than religious imagery itself. The gothic cloister, in much of Europe the most visible remnant of the medieval period, was particularly beloved of romantic writers, composers and painters of historical scenes. Here the scene has a hint of melancholy, a sentiment that was notably present also in the work of Friedrich. Such works were intended to evoke feelings of piety and spirituality; the moon, a symbol of Christ and the Resurrection, shines in the narrow gap between the two rocks of the Faraglioni, reminding the viewer that the path to Redemption is often a difficult one.

Catel was fortunate in enjoying the generous patronage of Elizabeth, widow of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who, two years after his death in 1811, retired to live in Rome. There she established a literary and artistic salon, financed the publication of classical texts and undertook archeological excavations. She also formed a close friendship with Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Pius VII’s anglophile Secretary of State (whose portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence hangs at Windsor) and was a friend to visiting poets and magnates alike. She was born in 1759, the daughter of the notorious 4th Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry, who built the magnificent palace of Ickworth, which he filled with splendid works of art that he had brought back from his own years in Italy. Surrounded by monuments of antiquity in her youth, it is hardly surprising that Rome should have exercised such a pull upon her when, twice widowed (she had first married, more modestly, to John Foster, Esquire), she found herself able to dispose of the considerable fortune she had inherited from the 5th Duke. After her death in 1824, Artaud, the French secretary of the Embassy in Rome, wrote: ‘Elle entra promptement dans le goût des arts, attira chez elle les plus célèbres artistes, Canova, Camuccini, Thorwaldsen, Granet, Catel, Boguet, Wogt, Chauvin, Agricola, ect. C’est une justice de les nommes tous, car elle était entourée de leurs ouvrages.’

There are also two related works, both showing the cloister from a different angle and with a monk (Hamburg, Altonaer Museum, Jenisch Haus) and nun (Schweinfurt, George Schäfer Collection), kneeling in prayer at an opening on the right.

28 ¾ x 38 5/8 ins. 73 x 98 cm.
Oil on canvas

Elizabeth, Duchess of Devonshire, Rome; by family descent to Lt. Colonel and Mrs. A.C. May, Glyde Court, Co. Louth, Ireland.


Related works: Sketch for the Painting, watercolor, Rome, Pio Istituto Catel; Version (with monks), Munich, art trade (same dimensions as watercolor); Version (with monks), Oil on Canvas: 90 x 110 cm, 35 ½ b 43 ¼ inches, Munich, Private Collection. Version (with monks), Oil on Canvas: 73 x 99 cm, 28 ¾ x 39 inches, Munich, Neumeister, Sale 1977


Matthiesen Gallery & Stair Sainty Matthiesen, ‘Spring Catalogue’, 2001

Where is It?
Acquired by a University museum 2002
Historical Period
Romanticism - 1810-1870
German - Austrian
2001-European Paintings-From 1600-1917.
Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, Realism, Futurism.

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Price band
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