Last week, Ursuline nun Cristina Scuccia bopped across the set of Italy’s The Voice—her black habit flying and her rather large cross looking a bit like bling—and belted out a pretty convincing rendition of Alicia Keys’ “No One.” Her performance garnered a couple million hits on YouTube and has probably been e-mailed to you by your very nice, Hail-Mary-ing, Internet-capable great-aunt by now. But if not, here you go:
Anyone who has ever watched reality singing shows should have recognized the Susan Boylesque aesthetic. First, we had the close up of Scuccia’s sensible black sneakers (how unlike a pop star!); then a shot of three other nuns waiting in the wings (more nuns!); and finally the tattooed judge turning around, his mouth agape at the shock of seeing a bride of Christ shimming to the devil’s music.
The Voice would have us believe that Scuccia is an unlikely pop sensation, that nuns and pop music are an odd couple, but let’s be honest: We really fucking love singing nuns. From Julie Andrews’ Maria to Carrie Underwood’s pale imitation, Sister Act (and sequel!), and the unfortunate musical Nunsense, we can’t get enough of religious women belting out a catchy tune. What is it about singing nuns that has kept us enthralled for so long?
Nuns have, of course, been singing since Saint Peter was given the keys. In the earliest days of the Catholic Church, nuns sang the same liturgical chants as their brethren monks—usually single-line, unaccompanied verse that went on for hour after tortuous hour. By the early Renaissance, nuns were apparently bored with ceaseless Gregorian chanting and decided to do something saucy: they started harmonizing. Their new vocals raised the ire of Papal authorities; convent voices were meant to be heard by God alone and not by entertained locals, and the pleasures both given and gained became a heated issue among displeased bishops. Pleasing song attracted the profane, and caused the sisters to, according to one sixteenth-century bishop, “wander outside their hearts.”
Nope, not nearly as virginal as they seem.
Jeanne de Montbaston, Manuscript Page from the Roman de la Rose, Showing a Nun Harvesting Phalluses from a Phallus Tree and Monk and Nun Embracing, Mid-14th century, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
If bishops panicked about the seductive nature of song, then their fears weren’t entirely unfounded. A 1584 inquisition into Bologna’s convent San Lorenzo—begun after one sister had fled with a Florentine opera company—supposedly uncovered a music loving nuns who trafficked in love magic. Nuns also put aside chanting (harmonized or otherwise) and performed music with less-than-divine lyrics:
You’ve got that little trinket,
So delightful and so pleasing
Might I take my hand and sink it
‘Neath petticoat and cassock squeezing?
The bawdy music of singing nuns was perceived by powerful and powerless men alike as a site of wanton sexuality. Nuns, of course, did themselves no favors. The annals of history are filled with anecdotes of musical nuns behaving badly: cross-dressing to attend the opera, burning down convents, and, worse, making money from lavish musical performances. But the moral panic over singing sisters stemmed from idle gossip that, behind shrouded by the walls of the convent, nuns engaged in some downright dirty behavior. If popular art was any indication (see above), then the brides of Christ weren’t nearly as virginal as they claimed. In between Satanic singing, they did what any woman with time to kill would: they harvested penises and hooked up with monks. The link between the lurid nature of song and licentiousness was unambiguous.
Singing nuns waned in popularity, but by the mid-twentieth century they were back with a divine vengeance. The 1960s can really be considered America’s Golden Age of the Singing Nun.
It seems to have started with the Belgian nun Jeanne Deckers, better known by her stage name Soeur Sourire, who had an unlikely chart topper with the folksy Dominique.
Dominique was so popular that it outsold Elvis Presley and, in 1964, Deckers cemented her pop star status when she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. The next year, the perky Debbie Reynolds starred in a Soeur Sourire biopic called The Singing Nun, a movie that Deckers herself denounced as complete fiction.
That same year, the greatest movie ever made premiered in theaters. The Sound of Music is, undoubtedly, the zenith of singing nun entertainment. The film may seem like a heartwarming tale of novice nun Maria (the luminous Julie Andrews) who teaches an absent dad to love his family through song, but on closer inspection it merrily traverses through the darkest of singing nun stereotypes. Maria’s siren song is irresistible to the buttoned-down Captain von Trapp, her sexy songs about raindrops and goats lures her out of the habit and into the fashionable clothes of an Austrian housewife. Maria’s musicality is, of course, part of what makes her a problem, and the familiar narrative arc—a musical nun is necessarily a rebellious nun—recalls the much saucier nuns of the early Renaissance.
In a bleakly surreal sense, The Sound of Music mirrors the biography of Deckers. After achieving rock-star status, The Singing Nun also left her convent to pursue a music career. She recorded a few more albums, but her politically leftist songs—including “Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill,” an ode to birth control—never quite caught on like Dominique. But Maria von Trapp proved to be much happier in post-convent life; in 1985 Deckers and her longtime partner, Annie Pescher, committed suicide largely because of financial burdens that stemmed from Dominique’s recording.
Only one cinematic nun managed to escape the devilish grasp of song. In 1969, Mary Tyler Moore played a nun in Presley’s last cinematic vehicle, Change of Habit. Despite its title, Moore’s nun somehow resists the obvious charms of Elvis’ character, a doctor with a penchant for breaking out into velvety-toned songs. Here, music is presented as a seductress and viewers are, ostensibly, supposed to believe that Moore’s deep faith alone keeps her out of Elvis’ willing arms (though Moore’s clear discomfort with a drug-addled Elvis might be a better explanation).
Though the close of the 1960s was the signaled the end of the Golden Age of Singing Nuns, they still made an occasionally appearance. Sally Field sang a few songs in her zany star vehicle The Flying Nun, but the television show large stuck to the hijinks of flight. The 1990s gave us what only that particular decade could: Whoopi Goldberg revitalizing an inner-city convent with the infusion of pop and hip-hop returned for religious ears (best example: “Down with G-O-D? Yeah, you know me”). Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit came next, and it was eventually adapted into a Broadway musical.
If Sister Act represented a low in the genre of singing nun entertainment, then we might be on the verge of something of a Renaissance. American Horror Story: Asylum used Deckers’ song from Dominique to eerie appeal, plainly pairing the song with sexual intrigue and satanic ritual. And at Christmastime, Carrie Underwood gifted us a countrified version of Maria von Trapp in NBC’s quizzical production Sound of Music Live!
Perhaps Scuccia’s success on The Voice will prove to be the necessary step for nuns to reclaim their rightful place on the Billboard charts in 2014. Even if she doesn’t win, Scuccia’s character arc is sure to be of the “will she or won’t she?” variety. And despite her success, or lack thereof, Scuccia will have to face the lure of music’s own siren song, one that history and bad movies tells us is incompatible with the quiet, cloistered lives of holy women.
Stassa Edwards is a freelance writer and PhD candidate living in the Deep South. For more of her misguided opinions, you can follow her on Twitter.