By Chloe Wilson

In Palermo, I came across a portrait of a rather unhappy-looking nun. The image was cluttered with accoutrements demonstrating her piety: a spindly bunch of white flowers, a crucifix, a crown of thorns. For all that, her expression was sullen, or bored; she sat slouched with her eyes half-closed and her mouth half-open.

The sitter in the portrait was Isabella Tomasi di Lampedusa, or as she was later known, Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione. She had entered the convent in Palma di Montechiaro at age fifteen, after a childhood spent giving long orations, voluntarily undertaking difficult manual labour and wearing hair shirts[1].

Once inside the convent, her devotion and piousness became legendary, as did her regular nocturnal fights with the devil. Sister Maria was often heard screaming through the night. The devil’s presence in the convent also explained the mysterious knocking on doors, the sudden clang of bells, and once, a black stone being thrown.

Sister Maria’s most famous dalliance involved waking up one morning either sprawled out face-down in ink or with ink smeared all over her face (accounts vary): at some point during the night, she had produced a letter containing a mixture of symbols and characters from a range of ancient languages. No-one could decipher the letter, but Sister Maria explained that it was the work of the devil, who seized her hands and forced her to write it.

Her resistance was prolonged and heroic, and demonstrated by the signature on the letter. The devil demanded she sign her name (as devils are wont to do): to spite him, she wrote ‘Ohimè’  instead.

I first heard this story in the home of the Duchess of Palma, who teaches cooking in the palazzo she shares with the current Duke (the adopted heir of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of ‘The Leopard’). The portrait of the nun hangs in their entrance hall, and if you spend a day ‘Cooking with the Duchess’, the story of Isabella/Sister Maria and the ‘Lettera del Diavolo’ is the last thing you hear before being ushered back onto the street and into the blistering Palermo sunshine[2].

The story stayed with me, in particular the word that the nun signed instead of her name. I sought a translation. A number of possibilities emerged: ‘Oh me,’ ‘Oh dear,’ ‘Alas!’ and ‘Oops!’ among them. Several grammar guides indicate that it is an interjection used to express physical or psychological pain, along with the equivalents ‘Ahi’ or ‘Ahimè’; ‘Ahimè! è finito il vino!’ means ‘Oh no! The wine is finished!’[3]

‘Ohimè’ struck me as an odd way to sign the letter. There is something ambiguous or vague about it; why, exactly, was Sister Maria expressing dismay after successfully resisting Satan?

I searched for information about Isabella Tomasi di Lampedusa/Sister Maria soon after visiting the Duchess’s palazzo, making notes on what I could find. This was August. I searched again when I returned to Australia in late September, and was amazed to find that in the ensuing weeks, the centuries-old ‘Lettera del Diavolo’ had been translated by code-breaking software sourced from the dark web.

The software had been primed with several alphabets, including Greek, Latin, Arabic and runic. The entire translation of the fifteen-line letter is yet to be released, but several lines from it have been made public. Its sentiments are strident; the letter includes statements that ‘God thinks he can free mortals’, that the Holy Trinity are ‘dead weights’, and that ‘Perhaps now, Styx is certain.’[4]

‘I personally believe that the nun had a good command of languages, which allowed her to invent the code, and may have suffered from a condition like schizophrenia, which made her imagine dialogues with the Devil,’ Daniele Abate, director of the Ludum science museum (who conducted the analysis), told The Times[5].

It is certainly possible that Sister Maria had a condition which affected her mental state. This is from Silvia Evangelisti’s Nuns: A History of Convent Life:

                        During these periods of trance – lasting well over a week – she regressed to a childlike state which left her completely paralysed, with empty eyes, pale skin, and grey lips. ‘She could not speak, nor move, she looked at everybody without recognising anyone’, narrated one of the sisters of her convent. She sometimes briefly recovered from this torpor, and would laugh and weep as if a child, unable to take food in her mouth, and ‘the nun who fed her had to open her mouth and pretend to chew, and she would look at her with great attention and do exactly what the other nun was doing.’ [6]

Yet whether or not Sister Maria was unwell when the letter was written, to pen such iconoclastic words, encode them in a private language and then sign them in a way that denies authorship is a subversive act. It allows a text that could have condemned the woman who wrote it to become the source of her veneration (Sister Maria was declared venerable by Pope Pius VI in 1787). It deflects any potential recrimination, which would have been a very real threat at the time in which Sister Maria lived. It allows heretical statements not only to exist in the world, but to be actively preserved by the institution they target.

This act of defiance (perhaps conscious, perhaps not), along with the gaps in what is known about the letter, were what rose to the surface when I came to write a poem about Sister Maria and her confrontation with the devil. I wanted to consider the uncertainty of the letter’s origins, as well as the ambiguity of the signature attached to it. The difficulty in writing about the letter lay in ensuring that its ambivalence was maintained, rather than resolved; that a response entered into its questions rather than attempting to answer them.

Meanwhile, Sister Maria’s letter is a fascinating document whose mysteries are still being unspooled. I look forward to knowing what else the letter says; what else Sister Maria wrote while she was the devil’s amanuensis.

 

 

[1] Evangelisti, Silvia. Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700. 2008: OUP Oxford. p.60 (ebook)

[2] After telling the story, the Duchess pointed out that in the portrait, Sister Maria is in fact dead; she has been set up in a chair with props placed in her hands. This perhaps explains the slackness in her face and her general air of vacancy.

[3] Proudfoot, Anna and Francesco Cardo. Modern Italian Grammar: A Practical Guide. 2013: Routledge. p.221

[4] Lorenzi, Rossella. “Satain’s Enigma: ‘Possessed’ Nun’s 17th-Century Letter Deciphered”. Live Science. 18 September 2017. https://www.livescience.com/60442-possessed-nun-letter-deciphered.html

[5] Kington, Tom. “Nun’s letters from Lucifer decoded via the dark web”. The Times. 7 September 2017.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/nun-sister-maria-crocifissa-della-concezione-letters-from-lucifer-decoded-via-the-dar-web-d5jwx5mwk

[6] Evangelisti, Silvia. Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700. 2008: OUP Oxford. p.60 (ebook)

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