Friday, February 18, 2011

The Iconography of Nuns

As I mentioned in my previous post on priests, I have been fascinated by religious icons since I was a child.

I was introduced to priests earlier in my youth, but I did not come into contact with real, live nuns until I was in highschool. I attended an all-girls Catholic school that was founded by an order. Many of the Sisters were involved with the school on different levels, some of them being teachers there.

Until that time, my entire education on the mysterious world of nuns came from various movies, and it was through the images I saw projected on the silver screen that I began to form my feelings about these people encapsulated in black and white.

The first one was actually a Mother, not a Sister. Mother Superior in the 1966 film The Trouble with Angels, portrayed by Rosalind Russell, is undoubtedly my all-time favorite fictional nun. Her stern exterior is the epitome of an old-school educator, and she reminds me of some of the teachers I encountered in my beloved highschool (and not all of them were nuns, either). But of course, she always has the best interests of her students at heart, namely their education and moral development.

I must add that this film is one of my all-time favorites. It reminds me in many ways of my alma mater, Nazareth Academy, which unfortunately closed its doors last spring.

Another significant contribution to my perception of these prayerful people is Ingrid Bergman’s portrayal of Sister Mary Benedict in the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s.* Her soft accent and delicate facial features gave her an air of divinity, and her sensible demeanor made her seem the most accessible and approachable authority figure. My favorite scene is the one in which she instructs one of her students in boxing lessons, and gets socked in the nose. (Not because I like seeing nuns get beat up, just because the entire scene is so humorous.)

Another modern Mother is Maggie Smith’s Mother Superior in 1992’s ‘bad habit’ comedy Sister Act (pardon the pun, I couldn’t help myself). Whoopi Goldberg is at the comedic center of the story, but Smith gets a few clever quips of her own, like when she tells the other sisters to “try and blend in” in a casino. The Sister Act movies mark another important actress: the unmistakable Mary Wickes.

Mary Wickes’ wisecracking comedic style, not unlike that of Lucille Ball her neighbor and friend, brought her fame in the 1940’s, and she first joined Rosalind Russell in The Trouble with Angels as Sister Clarissa before putting her habit on again as cranky Sister Mary Lazarus in the Sister Act movies.**

The last, but certainly not the least, nun I feel compelled to mention is the most contemporary. Sister Aloysius Beauvier, flawlessly realized by Meryl Streep in 2008’s Doubt gave me chills. Just her presence in a scene made me sit up straighter in my seat. She rules her school with an iron fist, making students scurry and scatter at the mere sight of her. She confiscates all contraband, and under her tutelage the novice nun, Sister James (wide-eyed Amy Adams) learns some tools of the trade, like how to make it seem to her students that she has eyes in the back of her head. This is the stuff legends are made of.

These images all contributed to my fascination with the cloistered community. Every time I learn something new about what it means to be a nun, my insides feel like that part in The Trouble with Angels when the girls sneak into the Sister’s living quarters. But I certainly don’t mean that my experience with real nuns is negative; on the contrary, the few that I’ve met in person have a very special place in my heart. My odd interest in them leads me to acquire funny novelty items bearing their likenesses, like wine charms, dolls and a little wind-up toy nun that holds a ruler and spits sparks. Even the items that poke fun are, to me, a tribute to them, and what they’ve come to represent.

*This movie was the first sequel to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.

** Wickes also portrayed the ballet instructor Madame Le Mond in my favorite episode of I Love Lucy (1952, “The Ballet”), and one of her last roles was playing the cantankerous Aunt March in the 1994 incarnation of Little Women.

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