Felice Lifshitz

title.none: Frings and Gerchow, Krone und Schleier (Felice Lifshitz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.009 07.04.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Felice Lifshitz, Florida International University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Frings, Jutta and Jan Gerchow, eds. Krone und Schleier: Kust aus mittelalterlichen Frauenklöstern Ruhrlandmuseum: Die frühen Klöster und Stifte: 500-1200. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Die Zeit der Orden, 1200-1500. Munich: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland and Bonn und dem Rurhlandmuseum Essen/ Hirmer Verlag, 2005. Pp. 583. $56.00 ISBN-13: 978-3-7774-2565-8, ISBN-10: 3-7774-2565-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.09

Frings, Jutta and Jan Gerchow, eds. Krone und Schleier: Kust aus mittelalterlichen Frauenklöstern Ruhrlandmuseum: Die frühen Klöster und Stifte: 500-1200. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Die Zeit der Orden, 1200-1500. Munich: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland and Bonn und dem Rurhlandmuseum Essen/ Hirmer Verlag, 2005. Pp. 583. $56.00 ISBN-13: 978-3-7774-2565-8, ISBN-10: 3-7774-2565-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Felice Lifshitz
Florida International University

To rip off Voltaire's caustic appreciation of the Holy Roman Empire, the items in this exhibition catalogue are frequently neither art, nor medieval, nor from women's monasteries. The core of the sister exhibitions, held in Bonn and Essen during 2005, which stand behind this joint catalogue, was certainly sharply focused on art from medieval women's monasteries, but as a bonus the organizers [1] also included a wide range of additional artifacts. The volume itself is a treasure trove of beautifully reproduced and meticulously introduced objects. Krone und Schleier is guaranteed to provide hours of viewing pleasure and years of scholarly substance to anyone interested in medieval women, medieval monasticism, medieval Christianity, or medieval art. And, if there is anyone left who still refuses to believe that medieval religious women were wealthy, powerful, learned, and central to the creation of Christian traditions (including artistic and liturgical ones), that person may finally be converted by the 6 lbs, 7.1 oz and 580 pages of this book.

A staggering number and range (in terms of organizational forms) of female and double monasteries were represented in the sister exhibits. All the most famous houses appear, as do dozens of lesser communities. The objects displayed in Essen (Cat. nos. 1-232) derived from all over Europe, while those displayed in Bonn (Cat. nos.233-487) came overwhelmingly from German-speaking territories. Readers will find many predictable old favorites, such as miniatures from the illustrated Lucca codex of Hildegard of Bingen's Liber divinorum operum (Cat. 198) and from Herrad of Hohenburg's Hortus deliciarum (Cat. 203a-d). But there are dozens of breathtaking yet little-known items as well, such as a Roman onyx "Alabastron" from Nottuln, 9 cm high, which contained the blood of the Canaanite woman healed by Jesus (Cat. 133), a nearly 5 meter long cord of intertwined gold and silk threads, probably originally used c. 680 by Queen St. Balthild of Chelles as a hair accessory, into which is woven a short lock of the saint's own hair (Cat. 170), and the pattern book for weavers put together by one of the Poor Clares in Nürnburg (whose textile-working expertise had brought them the commission to restore the imperial coronation robes in 1424), Anna Neuperer, in 1517 (Cat. 471). It is a worthy indication of the planning and effort that went into this project that the organizers were able to bring together, from 12 separate repositories on two continents, and for the first time since secularization of the house, numerous surviving objects from St. Katharinental (Cat. 303-319). Finally, numerous objects are pictured in the volume as illustrations for the introductory essays, even thought they did not appear in the exhibitions, which somewhat compensates for the fact that, as is common, not every object in the exhibitions appears in the catalogue.

On balance, one could hardly ask for more than what is on offer in Krone und Schleier, which includes every possible type of object, but is especially rich in manuscripts of all types, many of them illuminated; there are sacramentaries, breviaries, memorial books, graduals, missals, penitentials, psalters, canon law collections, homilies, patristic texts, biographies of saints, purple gospel books, song books, and much more. There are also documents (marriage contracts, property lists, letters, wills, privileges of immunity, chirographs, maps, etc.), liturgical vestments, reliquaries, furniture (chests, cabinets, lecterns, and thrones for abbesses), tableware, tapestries and embroideries, retables and antependia, murals and monstrances, candlesticks and chalices, easel paintings and statues, baby Jesus dolls and crucifixes, whips and staffs, sarcophagi and grave markers, writing implements and needles, combs and jewelry, seals and pilgrim badges, rood screens and baptismal fonts, coins, and much more. Just about the only things missing are examples of the objects which gave their names to the volume, namely, the veils (for brides of Christ) and (from the tenth century) crowns (likewise bridal) which were used for nuns' consecration rites (p. 44). [2]

Despite the wealth of its contents, there is much to quibble with concerning the organization of the volume (and of the exhibitions which the catalogue reflects). Readers should not attach too much importance to the categories into which the displayed objects have been placed, particularly in the part of the catalogue devoted to the Bonn exhibit. A good percentage of the items currently assigned to the "outer church" (open to the laity), the sacristy, the nuns' choir, the cloister, the cells, the chapter hall and refectory, or the guesthouse could easily be reassigned. For instance, three Paradiesgärtlein that were located on a wall of the nuns' choir in the Benedictine house of Ebstorf (Cat. 335a-c), are placed in the section on "clausura" rather than in the one on the "Nonnenchor," the abbesses' throne from the Cistercian house at Bersenbrueck (Cat. 438), which sat in the chapter hall, is placed in the section of "Gaestehaus und Abtei" rather than in the one on "Kapitelsaal und Refektorium," and an altar hanging from Königsfelden (Cat. 446 a-h) which would only have been used in a church is likewise placed in the "Guesthouse" section. The section on nuns' private cells unaccountably includes both manuscripts used for instruction of children in the cloister school (Cat. 362) and a processional-cum-ritual used for liturgical purposes (Cat. 363), while convent seals appear both in the section on the nuns' choir (Cat. 303) and in the section on guest houses (Cat. 428). In general, it is hard to see why some liturgical books, vestments, and implements (containers for the host, chalice and paten sets, processionals, graduals, processional crosses and the like) are confined to the sacristy, while others are permitted out into the performance spaces in which they were used.

Problems with the distribution of the items, however, do not invalidate the discussions which introduce each catalogue division; they, like the individual catalogue entries, are uniformly insightful and helpful statements by leading experts in each relevant sub-field. A total of 118 specialists were matched to the 487 individual entries; the coordinators clearly expended terrific effort to find the individuals best able to write each entry. In fact, the entries (and section introductions) are so good that even someone who is completely ignorant of the field can come away from this volume with a profound understanding of virtually all aspects of medieval monasticism and the place of women's communities within it, not only because of those contributions, but also because of the ten introductory essays written by Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Robert Suckale, Gisela Muschiol, Klaus Schreiner, Hedwig Röckelein, Werner Rösener, Carola Jäggi, Uwe Lobbedy, Barbara Newman, Caroline Walker Bynum, Gabriela Signori, Jan Gerchow, and Susan Marti. These syntheses (along with the massive bibliography on pp. 537-570) [3] will be invaluable for readers who are not familiar with recent scholarship on medieval religious women (particularly that produced by the authors themselves, some of whom rely extremely heavily on their own previous publications) but will offer few surprises to those who are. However, a few of the essays do begin to break new ground (although to a limited extent, given space constraints), and I discuss them in some detail here.

Hedwig Röckelein's contribution on the patrons (both human and saintly) of women's houses (pp. 66-77) adumbrates important work in progress. A selection of her preliminary conclusions includes the following points. Of over 2500 women's communities studied, most selected Mary as their main patron, frequently in combination with two or three other saints, while Peter (in the early Middle Ages) and the Johns Baptist and Evangelist (in the later Middle Ages) were the next most popular patrons of women's houses. Only the martyrs Agnes of Rome, Margaret of Antioch, and Katherine of Alexandria ever showed up in significant numbers as patrons of women's communities, which were much more frequently placed under the protection of military saints such as George and Maurice. Independent of their main patron, however, and independent of any theoretical enclosure, many women's houses developed into important lay pilgrimage centers, as a result of the power of their relics and cult images, a point that has also been demonstrated by Jane T. Schulenburg. [4]

Gabriela Signori, whose essay is the only one in the collection to present the fruits of new archival research, moves in a direction similar to Roeckelein and Schulenburg. Her rigorously documented study of visiting habits, epistolary practices, gift exchange and other matters illuminates the multiple ways in which residents of women's religious institutions maintained contact with the rest of the world. Whatever the official canon law prescriptions concerning enclosure may have been, "the overwhelming majority of women's monasteries were, in the later Middle Ages, not observant" (131). Signori's findings receive confirmation through one of the illustrations to the essay by Muschiol (who is also skeptical of the topos of enclosure [46]): a painting on a 1363 document from Herkenrode showing the Cistercian nuns (and other groups) participating in a Corpus Christi procession (48). Readers can contemplate how best to resolve the apparent contradiction between these findings and Hamburger's view that pictures and visions were crucial for religious women as substitutes for seeing all the things and people and spaces in the world that were denied them as a result of strict enclosure (34).

The most ambitious essay, co-written by Jan Gerchow and Susan Marti, seeks self-consciously to change the direction of future scholarship--in part simply by emphasizing how the exhibitions themselves explode common stereotypes concerning medieval nuns. Gerchow and Marti address some of the historiographical constructs which have dominated modern scholarship on medieval religious women, including "Nonnenmalereien" (implying that paintings by nuns are somehow not fully paintings) and "Versorgungsanstalten" (implying that noble religious women were superfluous persons and burdens to society in need of gentle warehousing in long term care facilities). Happily, Columbia University Press is publishing, in English translation, the essay portion of the volume (along with their illustrations), plus a new introduction by Caroline Walker Bynum. However, anyone who is really interested in the themes of Krone und Schleier--even if s/he can't read German--should consider purchasing the full German catalogue, which is more than worth its 45 EUR price. I did not find a single typographical error or incomplete bibliographical reference anywhere in the volume. The lone error appears to be the omission of the text of the catalogue entry for Sibylla of Bondorf's cycle of scenes from the life of St. Francis (Cat. 467a-i), painted in Strassburg or Freiburg in the late 15th century. Those responsible for the production of this massive tome, namely Gerchow and Marti, along with Jutta Frings and Helga Willinghöfer, deserve praise, gratitude, and hearty congratulations.

Those who wish to go beyond the book, or perhaps to combine images from the catalogue with other media in a classroom setting, will want to acquire copies of the additional materials created in conjunction with the sister exhibitions: a 30-minute film by Ulrich Best, "Nonnenleben - Alltag in der Cistercienserinnenabtei Lichtenthal" [5]; an audio CD of readings from the vernacular manuscripts in the exhibition, accompanied by a book of the printed texts ("Stimmen aus mittelalterlichen Frauenklöstern") [6]; and a musical CD ("Krone und Schleier") of songs from medieval women's houses, performed by the female voices of the renowned group Sequentia. [7]


[1] The exhibitions were conceptualized and curated by Jan Gerchow, Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Robert Suckale, Lothar Altringer, Carola Jäggi, Susan Marti, and Hedwig Röckelein.

[2] The bejeweled gold crown (Cat. 1) which does appear was a decoration for the Golden Madonna of Essen (Abb. 1 p. 66).

[3] As large as it is, there are still some significant omissions, such as the works of Constance Berman and Walter Simon, which should have been taken into account by Rösener, but were not.

[4] Jane T. Schulenburg, "Women's Monasteries and Sacred Space: The Promotion of Saints' Cults and Miracles" in Professing Genderand Christianity in Medieval Europe, eds. Lisa Bitel and Felice Lifshitz (forthcoming, University of Pennsylvania Press).

[5] Available through

[6] Available from De Gruyter, ISBN-10: 3110184249 and ISBN-13: 978-3110184242.

[7] Their entire discography (with the relevant link at the bottom of the list) is available at