Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child (1906), by Vernon Lee

Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child[i]

Some sixty years ago, and shortly before its total extinction, the illustrious Venetian family of Loredan began taking steps towards the beatification of one of its members, a nun, who had died at Cividale in the year 1740.

The inhabitants of Cividale had indeed waited for no official confirmation of the blessedness of Sister Benvenuta Loredan; and a regular cultus, as well as an appropriate legend, were well known to exist in connexion with her. Indeed, it would appear that the beatification of this young lady who, during her worldly life, had been the third daughter of Almoro IV Loredan Count of Teolo and Suave, and Fiordispina Badoer, his wife, had become advisable not only in recognition of her saintliness and miracles, but also to direct popular piety into authorized channels, and to prune away sundry fanciful beliefs and practices which had grown up unnoticed. For tactfully conducted ecclesiastical enquiries established that the Beata Benvenuta, as she was prematurely designated, had become the chief object of devotion to young children and their fond mothers in the town of Cividale.

In this capacity she had usurped the credit, and even part of the legend, of some of the oldest and best accredited saints in the Calendar. Thus it was proved beyond doubt that the children of Cividale had ceased considering the three holy kings –Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar—as the purveyors of their yearly gifts, and laid out their shoes and stockings for the Beata Benvenuta to fill.

What was even graver, there had come to be attributed to her some of those venerable familiarities with the Infant Christ which are known  for a certainty of St Catherine, St Anthony of Padua, and (according to certain worshipful hagiographers) of the seraphic St Francis himself. While, on the other hand, she was credited with personal encounters with the Great Enemy of Mankind, such as are authoritatively ascertained only of St Antony, St Nicholas of Bari, St Dunstan, St Theodora, St Anaximander, St Rodwald, St Nilus, and a small number of well-known celestial champions flourishing in more remote periods of history. To this manifest disorder must be added that the yearly procession in honour of the Beata Benvenuta, so called, was conducted by children, mainly little girls, without any ecclesiastical guidance, and consisted in parading the town in wreaths and fanciful dresses of tinsel and variegated bits of stuff, singing childish songs and, it is even rumoured, taking hands and dancing, and eating certain small dough nuts made for the occasion. A similar kind of hard cake, stuck with toasted almonds, was sold throughout the streets of Cividale on May 15th, the anniversary of the so-called Beata Benvenuta’s birth; which cakes were supposed to have the shape of the Infant Saviour in the arms of the young nun above-mentioned. And this day was also celebrated by an unusual display of puppet shows, whose owners claimed the Beata Benvenuta as their heavenly advocate, a statement requiring to be taken with the greatest circumspection. But the circumstance most characteristic of the whole questionable business, and surely sufficient to warrant the introduction of supreme ecclesiastical authority, was that (as no one in Cividale could deny) the children were wont to employ in their games a rhyme for the purpose of counting, of which the first line contained the name of the Beata Benvenuta Loredan, and the last that of the Devil.

Such were some of the reasons, besides the uncontested holiness of her life, and a respectable number of well-ascertained miraculous cures and deliverances, which rendered it urgent that steps should be taken towards the beatification of Sister Benvenuta Loredan of Cividale.

His Holiness Pope Gregory XVI lent a favourable ear to these reasons and to the commendable desires both of the noble house of Loredan (who defrayed all expenses) and of the few remaining nuns of the Convent of St Mary of the Rosebush, both legitimately proud of so glorious a member respectively of their temporal and spiritual families.

But after some years of diligent enquiry, and much research into public and private archives, the matter of the beatification of Sister Benvenuta Loredan was allowed to drop, nor ever taken up subsequently. The perusal of the diary of Sister Benvenuta Loredan, contained amongst the documents of the case, may perhaps shed some light both on her real claims to beatification and on the reason why these claims were not officially admitted.

Convent of St Mary of the Rosebush of Cividale in Friuli

Day of the Holy Name of Jesus

January, 1740

I have been thinking and thinking how dreadfully dull it must be for our dear little Child Christ, always locked up in that Sacristy cupboard, which smells so of old wood and stale incense whenever it is opened. Except from Christmas Eve till Epiphany, when He lies in the manger under the High Altar, between the Ox and the Ass, and one or two great feasts when He is carried in procession, He is always in that press between the bits of saints’ bones in cotton-wool, the spare vestments and packets of waxlights; and the Sister Sacristan is always so careful to close everything! Once, soon after Corpus Christi, she had omitted to lock the press, and I seized the opportunity to put a big bunch of damask roses in for the dear Bambino; I watched her take it out some weeks later, hold it at arm’s length with a sniff, and throw it into the dust-pan. And then I was glad I had not also put in one of those little round cakes, of fine flour and vinsanto, which Sister Rosalba, who is so proud of her uncle the Doge, baked for that holiday, according to a recipe of His Serenity’s household.

If only I could get appointed Sacristan! But I am too young, and being lame prevents my getting on to the step-ladders. For all these reasons I have resolved that, being unable to talk freely to the dear Great Little One, I would write down the things which may divert Him, and put the sheets in the big hollow silver arm containing a finger-bone of St Pantaleo, Bishop of Baalbek, whenever I have an opportunity of getting to that cupboard.

St Agnes’ day

 I have considered very earnestly, dear little Child Christ, whether it may not be carnal pride to suppose that I can amuse you at all, and whether I ought not to confess it. But our Confessor is a learned man; he has written a big treatise on the language spoken in Paradise before Adam’s disobedience (it seems it was a dialect of Turkish), and makes fine sonnets whenever there is a new nun, all printed on yellow silk, and handed round with the ices; our Confessor already thinks me such a silly person, and would only take snuff impatiently and cry, “Tut, tut! Pray for a little wisdom, Sister Benvenuta.” And then it is not vaingloriousness, nor a sin, for I do not in the least think I shall tell these things amusingly, with nobility of style, as the Mother Abbess would, or wittily, like old Sister Grimana Emo, who always makes me blush. It is simply that, however dull I am (and I was always a dunce) it will be less dull for the dear Little Great One than living always alone in that cupboard, with no company but the worms in the wood and these holy bits of bone in cotton-wool under glass bells.

4th Sunday after Epiphany

 It cannot really be sinful vaingloriousness; for Heaven would not have sent me so very soon something quite wonderfully interesting to tell my dear Great Little One. Oh, it’s really wonderfully exciting! There is going to be a great entertainment on Shrove Tuesday. All the nobility of the town are invited, and there is to be a puppet show in the parlour! We have to pretend not to know it until the Mother Superior tells us in Chapter. But we are talking of nothing else. And so I must tell the Great Little Child Christ.

St Dorothy’s Day

The showman had a long audience from the Mother Abbess the day before yesterday. They say he asked an extortionate price because this convent is so famous, and the sisters all required to have sixteen quarterings and at least a thousand ducats of dowry. But the Mother Abbess, who is a widow of the house of Morosini, beat him down with great dignity. I caught a glimpse of the showman: he is an ill-favoured person, with a Bolognese accent, a cast in his eye, a red wig, and his stockings badly drawn. But Sister Rosalba, who has much worldly wisdom, says he is not excommunicate, though he looks as if he were. We discussed whether the puppets of an excommunicated person would therefore be excommunicated puppets, and might or might not be introduced into a convent. The Sister Sacristan said that, at any rate, the Mother Superior had treated him with consummate dignity, and had warned him to try no tricks upon her.

St Scholastica’s Day

 Oh, dearest Bambino, if only I could show you the puppets! The man has brought them, against the performance next week, in order to give time for any changes, in case the Mother Abbess or our reverend Father Confessor should discover something sinful about any of them. The Mother Superior had them all in her private parlour to examine through a magnifying glass. Sister Grimana says our Confessor took exception to some of the ladies showing so much of their bosom; but our Mother Superior, who is a woman of the world, answered that she was astonished that His Reverence did not know that a Venetian lady is allowed by the laws of the Serene Republic to show exactly one-half of her bosom and no more, there being no immodesty in this proceeding. I do not understand much about such things; but it appears the Mother Abbess pointed out that it would be an unwarrantable criticism on the wisdom of the Republic and also on the noble ladies invited to the representation, if the puppets representing the parts of queens, princesses, and heroines had pieces of tissue paper arranged round their shoulders as the Reverend Father suggested. I do not know about the bodices of the ladies; I only know how beautiful they are, and how I should like to show them to my dear Little Great One.

For, after the examination in the Abbess’s private parlour, the puppets were all brought back and hung on sorts of towel-horses in the corridor of St Mary Magdalen, and all we sisters were allowed to look at them. Oh, dearest Bambino, if only I could bring you one or two! They have wires through their heads and strings to their hands and feet, ending in a big bobbin by which they are hung up. And when you pull the strings their little wooden hands move like forks, and their chins go down and their mouths open; and their arms and legs fling out and they clatter. That is not the proper way of using them, of course, but I can’t do anything else. Sister Rosalba and old Sister Grimana hold them in the right way, with their heels, which are leaded (and some have lovely shoes with rosettes and some embroidered slippers like Turks), firmly against the floor, so that they are erect, and move along hitting the ground, and making wonderful movements with their arms, sometimes even across their back, which cannot be quite right, but, of course, I do not know. Some of them, a terrible Sclavonian, with a sash full of knives, big horsehair whiskers, and a servant wench, particularly, got their strings entangled, and always would spin round and turn their backs to each other. But there was a Shepherdess and a Hero with a blonde wig and a Roman dress, who were quite easy to manage, and the two sisters made them dance a minuet, Sister Grimana singing in a cracked voice, until Atalanta Badoer, a novice and my cousin, fetched a lute which had remained over from Sunday’s musical Mass, and began to play a furlana beautifully. I thought, “Does my Bambino hear the music in His cupboard?” But some of the elder sisters reprimanded her and took the lute away. How I should like to bring the Shepherdess to show my dear Great Little One! I do not really like the puppets representing ladies, though they have lovely skirts of flowered cloth of silver and andriennes making their hips stick out, and bodices full of seed pearl, and patches on their cheeks and red paint, just like the real ladies who used to come and drink chocolate with my mother and my aunts. And some of them have light cloaks and big hats tied with black kerchiefs and white masks like snouts, just like the ladies I used to see during carnival on the big staircase at Venice, with their servant cavaliers; and those white snouts and black kerchiefs, and the way they swayed in their great hoops covered with dominoes, used to frighten me and make me cry. I would not show you any of those, dearest Little Great One; nor the wicked Sclavonians and Turks, nor the Ogre, nor the horrid old Doctor with the long red nose, nor the Harlequin striped like a villainous snake, not even the Spaniard, Don Matamoros, in black slashed clothes and boots, with whiskers on end and a mouth that would swallow you. But I would show you the kind, gentle, Blackamoor King, and the Beautiful Hero in Roman costume and a blonde wig, who looks as if he were singing “Mio Ben!” and “Amor Mio,” like the famous soprano I was carried to hear at the opera just before I took the veil. But above all, I would show my Bambino that lovely, modest Shepherdess, and try to make her dance for him! Oh, I shall commit a sin some day, and steal the cupboard key, and creep out to show that Shepherdess to my Bambino!

St Juliana’s Day

February 16th

 I am a great simpleton. When we were looking again at the puppets today (for we contrive, at least a few of us, to look at them on their towel-horses every day) there was one which made me burst out laughing, till I nearly cried; and it was very foolish and wrong, as Sister Grimana told me, for I knew the whole time that puppet represented the Devil. I have never been afraid of the Devil, I who am afraid of so many things (for instance, of those people in dominoes and hats tied with black kerchiefs and white snouty masks, who used to come and play cards and drink Samos wine at my father’s house). I know it is wrong, and I have often prayed that I might learn to fear the Evil One, but I never could, and all the pictures of him, and the things they tell (and which we read in the Spicilegium Sanctorum) have always made me laugh. And so from foolishness and a bad heart, I burst out laughing at this Puppet-Devil; and it was very wicked. But oh, dear Bambino, you would have laughed also!

 St Cunegunda’s Day

 The Mother Abbess said there must be less fooling about with puppets in the Convent of St Mary of the Rosebush; so we have all become very busy, and I have barely time to write to my dearest Bambino. This convent is so noble, only patricians of the Serene Republic and Princes and Counts of the Holy Roman Empire being able to propose their daughters, that we are allowed to do no useful work, there being lay sisters for that purpose. I am often sorry (for I have not a noble mind befitting my birth, as my nurses often complained) it should be so. I should like to shell peas and wash rice and slice tomatoes in the kitchen. I have often envied the lay sisters turning up the garden mould, which smells so good, and pruning and planting while we walk round the cloisters: and I feel that my unskilful fingers would be happier sewing woollen shifts of winters for the poor women and children, than embroidering, which I do so badly! But I suppose this is all mere wicked spirit of indiscipline and grumbling (the sin of Accidia which our Confessor talks about), and I pray hard to have a more humble and thankful heart. Be this as it may, we sisters have all been very busy; some making candied peel and rosolios in the Mother Abbess’s silver saucepans; others sewing altar cloths, embroidering, making lace, and making all manner of ingenious and pious ornaments and devices out of plaited straws, strips of coloured and gilt paper and variegated beads. I have been among those who have the honour of manufacturing the pleated and crinkled and gauffred linen for His Eminence the Patriarch’s surplices. Here, again, I have committed a little sin of arrogance, thinking that His Eminence had quite surplices enough to spare, and wishing I could give some of this folded lawn, looking like sea foam or the blossoms of our almond trees, to my dear Little Great One, so chilly in that Sacristy cupboard, with only a hard purple and gold sash tickling His poor little middle.

St Frances’ Day

 I really must tell you, dear Little Great One, about the puppet representing the Devil, because if I can make you smile I shall feel it is not mere wickedness always to want to laugh whenever I see or even think of that puppet. He is labelled Beelzebubb Satanasso, Prince of all Devils, and is hung up, by the hook in the bobbin above his head, on the clothes-horse in the Corridor of St Eusebius, under a picture of Sebastian Ricci, representing the martyrdom of St Agatha; the puppets on either side of him are labelled “Pulcinella” and “Sophonisba.” But actually next to him, so as to look as if they were all of one piece, is a very terrible monster labelled “Basilisk.” The Devil wears a black dressing-gown fastened with a pale blue scarf; he has an ebony wand in his hand, and his legs, where the robe ends, are of ebony also, like those of a horse, with beautiful carved hoofs. He has also got long ears and little scarlet horns. He seems to have the other hand on the Basilisk, and ought to be very frightening—or, rather, I ought to be very frightened of him! For it is dreadful to have hoofs and horns like that, and a hand on a dragon, and be labelled “Beelzebubb Satanasso, Prince of all Devils.” But he makes me laugh, dearest Bambino, laugh and only laugh; and I am sure you would laugh also, although you are the Verb incarnate and all the great things we learned in the Catechism. How I wish you could see him, or I could tell you! He has a wide face, bearded like a Capuchin, with black goggle eyes; and the eyes seem starting out to understand something he can’t; and the mouth with the beard round it is gaping also to understand what he can’t, and his whole face is puckered trying to make out what’s wanted. He reminds me of my brother’s tutor, into whose bed (he was a priest of the Oratory) the bad boys used to put hedgehogs, and he would prick himself, and cry out all in Latin. Only I was sorry for the tutor; and I am not a bit sorry for the Devil, but only amused at his being all stiff and agape with his responsibilities—his responsibilities of being the Devil. Oh, dearest Bambino, what fun it would be if you and I could only play him a good enough trick! It wouldn’t be unkind like the hedgehogs in the Reverend’s bed, because you see he has hoofs and horns, and he is the Devil. How I wish I had a better memory and were less of a dunce! I should like to remember some of the tricks which the Holy Fathers in the Desert, and the other glorious ones in the Golden Legend, played upon him—not on the puppet, of course, I mean.

 Ash Wednesday

 The performance is over. It was the story of Judith; how she slew Holophernes and delivered her people, written in Alexandrine verses by our Reverend Father Confessor, called Corydon Melpomeneus among the Arcadian Shepherds. The head of Holophernes really came off, and quantities of red Berlin wool out of it, most naturally and terribly. There was a Triumph of Judith, dressed like the Parisian fashion doll near the Clock Tower in Venice; with a gold car, a transparency, and Time appearing with his scythe and Religion out of clouds, to sing a compliment to our Reverend Mother Abbess and the illustrious house of Morosini (including Morosini Peloponnesiacus of undying memory), and there was a dance of Turks, very elegant, and a most diverting scene after Holophernes’s death between the servant wench of Judith and Harlequin his valet. The puppets were like alive, hitting the floor with their feet, snapping through the middle when they bowed, and striking out their arms and letting down their jaws with a click in the most life-like way, and talking in wonderful voices like bagpipes and Jews’ harps. And there was an immense company of noble ladies and cavaliers, and prelates and monks, and officers, and his Excellency the Proveditor of the Republic, and the Head Spy, and ices and sherbet and chocolate, and card-tables set out later for the nobility, and at least one thousand waxlights in the Murano chandeliers, usually kept for the sepulchres on Maunday Thursday. And when it was over there was a free fight between the chair-carriers of the Patriarch’s niece and the Bravoes of His Excellency the Count of Gradisca, and a man was left for dead, and the police put a cobbler on the rack next day in order to obtain information and do justice.

We sisters were all behind a gilded grating, and, as the youngest, I sat with the novices, and was unable to constrain them to a religious demeanour or to prevent their pelting their brothers and cousins with maccaroons. I ought to have enjoyed it, and I did nothing but reproach myself bitterly for my ingratitude towards Providence and our Mother Superior, who allowed me to be present at so noble and delicious an entertainment, whereas I was filled only with bitterness and a wish to put a jug of water on the top of the Sister Sacristan’s door, so that she should be cruelly soused and frightened, and made to shriek ridiculously when she went back to her cell. For I had laid a plot, which was certainly no sin (nor shall I confess it on any account), to steel the key of that cupboard and take out my dear little Child Christ, and hide Him in a cardboard vase with artificial roses just opposite the stage, so that He might enjoy the performance. And the Sister Sacristan double-locked the cupboard after Matins, and counted the keys, and hung the bunch at her waist with a most defiant look at me. And I hate her, and feel sure she will never go to Heaven, because of her arrogance and her unkindness to my dear Holy Bambino.

St Praxed’s Day

 I fear I am letting myself go to the deadly sin of hatred and uncharitableness; but how is it possible not to hate the Sister Sacristan and think she looks like a cock, when she loses no opportunity of being unkind to my dear little Child Christ, who, after all, is the King of Heaven, and deserving of consideration even from a Venetian noble. The way of it is this: our Mother Abbess, fearing that the novices and younger sisters should have become a little worldly over that puppet show and all the ladies and cavaliers who were present, has ordered that the entire convent should give four hours daily, between Matins and Vespers, to pious work, fit to nourish religious thoughts and conversation full of compunction. All the reliquaries are to be furbished with plate powder and the holy relics to have their cotton-wool and little ribbons renewed before Christmas. It is a long piece of work, for the bits of bone are brittle and so small that they get lost among the heaps of wadding and the bobbins of ribbon on the work-table. Also, such sisters as are skilful workwomen are to mend the dresses of the various sacred images and put aside such of their lace and embroidery as will take careful repairs. All the various Madonnas have been taken down and their wardrobes examined; the Mother Abbess has been very angry at finding so much moth; moreover, the number of shoes and stockings and lace pocket-handkerchiefs were found by no means complete, and some of the men who work in the garden gravely suspected and handed over to the Holy Office. My cousin Badoer, the most unruly of the novices, says that it’s the continuation of the puppet show in the Mother Abbess’s head; whereupon I have exhorted her to greater piety of thought, but could not, like the sinful dunce I am, refrain from laughing. Of course my thought leapt at once to my dear Great Little One, in that damp, musty cupboard, with nothing but a prickly crimson and gold sash round his middle. Knowing our Mother Abbess favourably inclined to me (partly on account of my lameness, and partly on account of our family reaching to the beginnings of the Serene Republic, and issuing originally from Lars Parsenna, King of Rome), I ventured to suggest the fittingness of preparing for Him a little coat of soft silk over fine linen against the moment of His exposure at Christmas in that draughty manger. Our Mother Abbess looked at me long, smiled, and even pinched my cheek, saying, “Truly our Sister Benvenuta Loredan was made to be the nursery-maid of Heaven.” But at that moment, just as she was going to give permission, who should come in but (oh, hatred is sinful, but I do hate her!) the Sister Sacristan, who immediately poured cold water on my proposal; said that it should be taking time and money from re-dressing the skeleton of St Prodoscimus, which was a most creditable relic, with real diamond hoops in his eye-holes, and ought really to be made fit to exhibit to pious veneration. And added that the Bambino never had had any clothes on, that the sash even was a concession to modesty, but that no one had ever heard of His wanting to be dressed; the proposal being new-fangled and (did it not come from a sister notoriously prayed for as a simpleton) almost such as to suggest dangerous heresies. So the Abbess turned to me, wagging her ringed finger and saying, “Fie, fie, Sister Benvenuta, the Sacred Bambino is not your Cavalier Servant that you should wish to cover Him with velvet and gold lace;” and turned to inquire how many fat carp had been taken to the kitchen for the dinner offered to Monsignor the Eleemosynary of Saint Patrick.

St Mary of the Snows.

5th August

 But my dearest Bambino shall have His little coat; and one softer, warmer, and more gallant than any which the Sister Sacristan can stick upon the skeleton, with the diamond hoops for eyes, of her St Prodoscimus! I have been sorely assailed by bitterness and despair these last weeks. I have bribed the lay sister to buy me silk and gold thread, and fine lawn; and every night I have sat upon my bed in my little white cell, and tried to make my dear Little Great One’s coat. But whenever I begin, the horrid eyes, the look of a cock of the Sister Sacristan, seem to be upon me. The scissors tremble in my hand; I cut and chop at random into the stuff; the back and front never, never have anything to say to one another, and as to the sleeves—! Then I borrowed a little shift of one of the gardener’s children, and cut against that. No matter how awkward the shape. My Bambino will forgive that, even if it look more fit for a little bear than for Him. For it shall be covered with scrolleries and devices like the Saints’ dresses in the old pictures on gold ground in our chapel, all telling the glory of the Bambino in verse and in symbols—fishes and suns and moons, and little daisies and rabbits running, and birds pecking. And every fold will be stitched with a little throb of my loving heart.

St Ursula’s Day

 Oh foolish and vainglorious little Sister Benvenuta! How is thy pride fallen! My fingers, in these chilly autumn nights, are numb. The needle goes into the stuff crooked and comes out where least expected; the stitches are sometimes wide, like matting, and sometimes all climbing over each other. And the thread gets into knots, and then the needle unthreads, and I crane over my candle, holding the stiffened thread against my eye; and it is in the eye, and I push; and behold, it runs alongside the needle and will have nothing to do with it. And why did people ever invent thimbles? Oh Holy Martha, patroness of all good housewives, why was I taught to dance minuets, and curtsey, and sing madrigals to the spinet, and say,” Oui, Monsieur,” “Votre servante, Madame,” and never, never taught to sew?

St Crescens, Virgin and Martyr

 I shall not put these sheets into the silver arm in the Sacristy cupboard. My dearest Little One shall read them, but only later, when He shall have got His coat, that He may rejoice at it and at the price I have paid for it. Yes, beloved Bambino, a greater price than silver florins and gold ducats, the sequins and doubloons which have ever paid for the silk and satin, and lace and embroidery of any Madonna or Saint in Christendom. The only price worthy of being paid to please Him: the price of a soul, very foolish and simple no doubt, but full as a grape is of sweetness, or a rose of perfume, of unmixed love and devotion.

1st Sunday in Advent

 They must have mislaid that one after the puppet show, and it has remained behind, forgotten in some corner. Or else… I was forgetting that there are words always heard, at whatsoever distance, and which the Evil One answers almost before they are spoken. Anyhow, I felt a sudden draught, there was an odd little noise against the flags of my cell, a clatter, a series of short, sharp thumps, as when the Mother Abbess crosses the cloisters leaning on her Malacca cane: something that made my heart leap and stop, and my forehead become moist and cold. And when I turned from my praying stool, there he was, in the mixed light, bright and yet sickly, of my taper and of the full moon. He seemed, somehow, bigger—as big as myself; but otherwise just the same. The same black dressing-gown, girt round with a pale blue scarf, with the thin, straight horse’s legs and neat ebony hoofs where it ended; the same Capuchin’s beard, and long ears and little red horns, and just the same expression, rigid, goggle, agape, and very anxious to understand what it was all about and do whatever was expected. He bent his body in two with a bow, touching the floor with his hand like a fork (the other on his breast); he let his articulated underjaw down with an uncertain jerk, leaving a great round mouth with a tongue in it, and prepared to speak. I remember noticing the time that passed between the dropping of the jaw and his speech; also saying to myself, “I would have arranged his eyes to roll from side to side,” but I cannot tell whether or not he had any wires and strings about him. I laughed; but as I did so I felt my breath quite cold, and my cut hair, under my cap, prick and grow stiff. It seemed endless till he spoke, and when he did, with a Jew’s harp voice like a mask’s, and called me by my name, I felt suddenly relieved, my heart released and quite calm. He asked me whether I knew who he was, and pointed to a label over his shoulder, with written on it: “Beelzebubb Satanasso, Prince of all Devils.” He seemed rather hard of understanding and given to unnecessary explanations and provisos, but uncommon civil spoken, and used a number of very long words, of which he declared the meaning as he went along. He wanted to know the exact measurements, according to the new principles of cutting out mentioned in the Lady’s Encyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge; and was very particular whether the saint in the picture who had on the model of the coat was the second or third saint on the right-hand corner counting from the middle, although I had said he was red-haired and wore green boots (which he wouldn’t take heed of), and then whether the picture was on the left of the altar, although I repeated it represented the Magi. Also fumbled a long time to find the place where I was to sign my name on the parchment, and worried lest I should begin it too large and cramp the last syllable; he apologized for making me prick my finger, as if one had never pricked one’s finger before, and said, when it was done, “My dear young lady,” and forgot the rest. He pulled up his jaw with a snap, bent his body again in two, clattered his arms, and as he vanished with a series of little knocks, there was again a cold draught. This morning Sister Rosalba, coming to my cell, asked why I had dropped sulfur into my hand brazier, whether against moth. I never crossed myself nor ejaculated any form of exorcism, because, you see, I had told him to come, and it was a piece of business.

Christmas Eve, 1740

 For the first time so far as I can recollect, I have been thinking about my own life, living through bits of it all at once, as the old lay sister says she did when she fell into the river Natisone and thought to be drowned. And since I have not written for so long to my dear Great Little One (though I scarce know why) I will tell Him what manner of little girl I was, and how I came to love Him more than anything.

Of course I was going to be a nun from the first, because our family possesses a benefice in this noble convent; and of us three sisters I was the youngest, and a little lame. Our parents were very wise and virtuous, and ordered it so; just as they settled that one of my brothers was to marry and carry our illustrious name, and the others to be a Monsignor and a Knight of Malta. When we were taken to the great villa by the Brenta, I was put to lie by myself in a big room, all hung round with coloured prints of nuns of various orders, and with an alcove representing the grotto of a holy anchorite, full of owls, and death’s heads, and allegorical figures, most beautifully made of cardboard among plaster rocks. When I was little it used sometimes to frighten me to see those pious figures at dawn, and to know that behind my bed was a window, with a curtain one could draw, looking down into the chapel where many of my ancestors lie buried. I often cried and sobbed from fear, but the servant wenches said it would give me a vocation. And no doubt they were right, for I was an uncommon worldly little girl, greatly addicted to playing about in the gardens, and rolling on the grass, and smelling flowers; and loved to see the barges sailing in front of the terrace, and peacocks strutting and pigeons cooing; and my mother’s beautiful dresses, and the paint and patches on her face, when her maid led two or three of us to her of a forenoon, while she was having her hair powdered and curled, with a black page bringing her chocolate, and her serving cavalier snuff alongside of her mirror; and merchants and Jews bringing her embroideries and jewels to buy; and a monkey perched on her shoulder, which frightened me, for it screamed and snatched at me.

And when I was three or four years old, I was consecrated to the Mother of God; and I had a little dress like a nun’s, black and white, with a rosary and cap to my size; and there was one for every day and one for Sundays, and a new one for every Ascension Feast and every Christmas to do honour to our illustrious family. But my sisters wore ragged lace night-clothes of my mother’s, cut to their size, except when they were shown to company; and then they had beautifully embroidered bodices and farthingales over hoops, and pearls and artificial flowers. I used to see my father once a week, and was much frightened of him, because he was so noble and just. And when he received me he had a handkerchief like a turban round his head, and horn spectacles on his nose, and a black chin, and he was usually making gold with an astrologer, and putting devils in retorts, though I do not believe that was true. For when he went out in his gondola he had a black domino and a half-mask like every-one else; and when there was gala in our palace at Venice, he stood at the head of the stairs in silk robes like a peony, and a big white peruke, and he smiled.

I was taught with my sisters to dance and play the spinet a little, and talk French; and I taught myself to read—beyond mere spelling like the others—because I wanted to read the beautiful legends and prayers on the back of the pictures of saints which the wandering Capuchins, and the priest who said Mass in our chapel, used to give to us children. And there were blue hills beyond the tree-tops by the Brenta; and a strip of sea shining, with yellow sails moving between towers and cupolas, from the place where they dried the linen on our roof at Venice. And I was a very happy little girl, and thanked Heaven for such wise, good parents. But what made me happiest was the picture over the altar of our chapel; and whensoever my serving wench wanted to talk to the gondoliers (which our housekeeper had forgiven) she used to take me into the chapel, help me to climb on the altar, and leave me there for hours, knowing I should be quite quiet and want no dinner. The picture was the most beautiful picture in the world. It was divided by columns, with garlands of fruit about them; and in the middle, on a ground of gold, all divided into rows and all variegated with russet and orange, like the sunset, was the Madonna’s throne, with the Madonna on it, a beautiful lady, though not so beautifully dressed as my mother, and with no paint on her face, and not showing her teeth in a smile. And on the steps of her throne were little angels crowned with flowers, some playing pipes and lutes, some bringing fruit and flowers, and a little bullfinch with red feathers, just like those my brothers snared with lime. And on the Virgin’s knee who should be lying, asleep, fast asleep, but You—You, my dearest Great Little One—quite small and naked, with fat little limbs and red little mouth, drowsy from sucking. The Virgin bent over you, praying; the angels brought You apples and sang You lullabies; the little bird held a cherry in its beak ready to carry to You when You opened your eye-peeps. The whole of Paradise waited for you to awake and smile; and I sat and waited also, perched on the altar, till it was too dark to see anything save the glimmering gold.

I did not know what I waited for; nor did I know when I was in the convent, a novice; nor even after I had taken the veil. I did not know what I waited for, for years and years, and yet the waiting made me as happy as the angels and the little bird. I did not know what it was I was waiting for till that terrible last week. But now I know; and am happy once more in my waiting. I am waiting for You to awake, my Little Great One, and stretch out Your arms, and step upon my knees, and put Your little mouth to my cheek, and fill my embrace and my soul with unspeakable glory.

Postscript by Sister Atalanta Badoer, of the Convent of St Mary of the Rosebush at Cividale in Friuli

 May 15th, 1785

 It was I who saved from destruction the diary of my cousin and dear sister in Christ, Sister Benvenuta Loredan. I had watched her putting papers in the silver reliquary, shaped like an arm, and removed them from that place and hid them in my cell, lest they should fall into the hands of the Sister Sacristan. In accordance with my vow of obedience I later showed some of these papers to the Mother Abbess, who, after a few glances, bade me take and destroy them, as showing (what indeed she had always thought) that Sister Benvenuta had been half-witted, and no credit either to our illustrious convent or to the noble family of Loredan, although there was no denying that she had died in seeming odour of sanctity. But finding myself unable to share the view of our mother, although only a novice and fifteen years of age, I kept the aforesaid papers, feeling sure that they would one day redound to the glory of God and of that blessed one my cousin. And as this expectation has indeed come true, and the holiness and miracles of Sister Benvenuta have filled the city of Cividale and the world with pious wonder even in this our impious century, I have carefully put together those papers of her writing, and desire, before following her into happier realm, to add a few words of what I witnessed now forty-five years ago, at the demise of Sister Benvenuta Loredan, on Christmas Eve of the year of grace seventeen hundred and forty, the noble Giustina Morosini Valmarana being Abbess of our convent.

I was at the time fifteen years of age, and in the first year of my noviciate. My cousin was five years my elder, and had been four years a nun. Despite her illustrious birth and her many virtues, she was but little esteemed in our convent, being accounted a simpleton and little better than a child. But among us novices there prevailed a different opinion, owing to her great gentleness and loving kindness towards us in moments of home-sickness and youthful melancholy; and her pleasant humours and fancies, in which indeed she resembled a child, greatly loving music and such tales as nurses repeat, and flowers and small animals, even to the point of taming lizards and mice. And particularly did we love her for her especial devotion to the Child Christ, although she spoke but little thereof, being persuaded that she was a simpleton, and having no inkling of her own grace and holiness. It so happened that my vocation was but tardy in showing itself, and that being but fifteen years old I was often unhappy at the thought of abandoning the world, and very lonely in the sense of my rebellion and unworthiness. Then it was that my cousin, the Blessed Benvenuta, would take and console me with loving kindness and discourses of the love of God; and hers were the consolations my rebellious heart could endure. And a familiarity grew up between us, or, at least, on my part, for my cousin never spoke of herself, and gave rather than took kindness.

This being the case, it so happened that on Christmas Eve of the year of grace 1740, when we had all descended into the chapel room to proceed to the Mass of Midnight, the Mother Abbess, perceiving that Sister Benvenuta Loredan was missing from amongst the sisters, despatched me, as her cousin and the youngest novice, to seek her in her cell, lest any sudden ailment should overcome her. For it had been a matter of common talk that, for the last weeks, this sister had grown thin, pale, and her eyes taken a very strange look, whereupon it was supposed (and our Abbess had even remonstrated with her) that she had undertaken some special penance, although she always denied it. While, therefore, the whole convent, headed by our Abbess in Pontificalibus (for she was mitred and a Princess of the Empire), proceeded in solemn procession to the illuminated chapel, I ran upstairs to the cell of Sister Benvenuta Loredan. It was at the end of a long corridor; and as I advanced, I noticed a very brilliant light streaming from under the door. It seemed to me also that I heard voices and sounds, which filled me with astonishment. I stopped and knocked, calling on Sister Benvenuta, but getting no answer. Meanwhile, those sounds were quite clear and unmistakable, and were, in fact, such as mothers and nurses make while rocking and embracing young children, and broken with loving exclamations and kissings. I bethought me that our Mother Abbess had always said that Sister Benvenuta was a simpleton and mad; but somehow these sounds did not move me to ridicule or anger, but, on the contrary, filled me with a loving awe such as I have never felt and find no words to describe, so that with difficulty I resisted the impulse to prostrate myself before the door, streaming in every chink with light, as before some holy mystery. However, bethinking myself to my duty, I knocked again and in vain; and then very gently lifted the latch and opened the door. But I immediately fell on my knees on the threshold, unable to stir or even to utter a sound for the wonder and glory of what met my poor sinner’s eyes. The cell was streaming with light, as of hundred of tapers; and in the midst of it, the centre of this fountain of radiance, was seated Sister Benvenuta, and on her knees, erect, stood no other but the Child Christ. He had a little naked foot on each of her knees, and was craning His little bare body to reach her face, and seeking to throw His little arms round her neck, and raise His little mouth to hers. And the Blessed Benvenuta clasped Him most gently, as if fearing to crush His small limbs; and they kissed and uttered sounds which were not human words, but like those of doves, and full of divine significance. Now when I saw this sight and heard these sounds, my knees were loosened; I dropped silently on the ground, my eyes blinded by glory, my lips vainly trying to pray; time seemed to come at a stand-still. Then suddenly I felt myself touched and made to rise, and understood that the Mother Abbess had sent some other sisters to inquire after Sister Benvenuta and me.

The great light had faded, and the cell was lit only by a candle on the praying desk; but there seemed to me (and to those sisters whom I inquired of) as if there lingered a faint radiance in the air, together with strange sounds as of distant lutes and viol d’amor, and a marvellous fragrance as of damask roses and big white lilies in the sun. Sister Benvenuta was seated as I had seen her, holding clasped to her the waxen image of the Little Saviour from out of the Sacristy; and a beautiful garment, of threads of gold and silver interwoven, had slipped to her feet and lay there. And Sister Benvenuta’s mouth and eyes were open with rapture. And she was stone dead and already cold. What no one could understand was that near the cell’s window, on the floor, lay one of the puppets of a puppet show that had performed in our convent some months before, a bearded and horned figure, with hoofs, labelled “Beelzebubb Satanasso.” And its wires were wrenched and twisted, its articulated jaw crushed to bits, and its garments singed all round it.

[End of the Postscript by Sister Atalanta Badoer, at that time a novice in the Convent of St Mary of the Rosebush, and cousin of the Blessed Bevenuta Loredan.]




[i] Lee, Vernon. Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child: an Eighteenth Century Legend. London: Grant Richards, 1906. New York: M. Kennerly, ca. 1906.

One Response to Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child (1906), by Vernon Lee

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