The Medieval Review 10.10.01

Schleif, Corine and Volker Schier. Katerina's Windows: Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen Through the Writings of a Birgittine Nun. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2009. Pp. 624. $110 hb ISBN 978-0-271-03369-3. .

Reviewed by:

Stanley Weed
University of Michigan-Dearborn

It is a rare, but joyous, event when a scholar stumbles upon a rich, but virtually unknown cache of documents that opens a window onto the life and times of the now long forgotten. Such is the case with Katerina's Windows, which offers the reader a glimpse into the fascinating life of Katerina Lemmel (1466-1533), a Nuremberg patrician wife, widow, and Brigittine nun, who played a pivotal role in raising funds for the construction and decoration of Maria Mai, a recently founded convent at Maihingen, and her eventual home. The present study is the collaborative archival project of two scholars, Corine Schleif, an art historian, and Volker Schier, a historian of music. Through their meticulously detailed research, they "... wish to suggest that this rare case of documentation might stand for many 'undocumented' women (and men) who have remained anonymous and whose efforts and activities as donors, patrons, administrators, fund-raisers, critics, and viewers have never been legitimated" (xxvi).

Katerina's Windows is centered around the recently (re)discovered set of fifty-eight letters written by Katerina after she was widowed and became a Brigittine nun, dating from 1516 to 1522, and mostly addressed to her cousin, the Nuremberg businessmen Hans V Imhoff (fifty-four to be precise). These are augmented by the inclusion of four related family letters, and eleven business and convent documents. Because her letters were the only ones preserved, the authors were presented with the daunting task of trying to present her life story based on the equivalent of listening to one side of a phone conversation, yet trying to grasp the totality of what was discussed. The strategy that the authors employed was to present each letter and document in full translation, followed by commentary text to help the reader see the events within the larger political, economic, and religious climate of the time. This approach proves to be highly effective. Given the volatile period in Germany history during which Katerina lived, her experiences allow for a micro-historical approach to broader topics on artistic patronage, life within the enclosed convent, and events surrounding the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Peasants Revolt.

Due to the central position that Katerina Lemmel plays within the text, Schleif and Schier appropriately dedicate the first two chapters to introducing her to the reader. Katerina was born into Nuremberg's elite patrician class. Her parents were members of the Imhoff and Holzschuher families, with additional relations to the Volkamer and Tucher lines. Due to the scarcity of documents on Katerina's early life, much the first chapter examines these family ties and their contributions to Nuremberg history. Two central themes emerge, both of which would have a profound impact on shaping the character of Katerina later in life. The first is the significant role of her family's business, the Imhoff Handelsgesellschaft, one of the city's leading trading company, that was largely run by her father, and eventually by her cousin, Hans V. Although there are no direct documents related to her possible activities within the company, it is clear that she learned basic accounting and investment principles. Moreover, throughout her lifetime, she remained heavily invested in the company, providing her with the income that she would need to aid her in the convent. The second central theme is that of her family's artistic patronage, most of which was directed to the church of St. Lorenz. These commissions included numerous altarpieces, endowments for masses, a very prominent architectural gallery for the family (with a private exterior entrance), and perhaps most famously, Adam Kraft's renowned Eucharist tabernacle, 1493-96. While all of this was religiously motivated, it is also clear that the family wished to outwardly display their rising economic and political influence within the city.

The first document related to Katerina is that of her marriage to Michel Lemmel, a businessman from the neighboring city of Bamberg, in 1484. By all accounts, the two led a life commensurate with their social standing, and seem to have acquired a substantial amount of wealth. Yet the real story is not her marriage, for which not much is known anyhow, but rather the events after the death of her husband in 1513. None of her letters explain why she decided to forgo any future remarriage, and leave Nuremberg to enter the Brigittine convent of Maria Mai. The authors are likely correct in speculating a possible motive, stating that "...she may have recognized the monastery as an alternative whereby she could claim a certain amount of personal autonomy" (70). The second chapter is primarily dedicated to an analysis of the scant documents surrounding her entry, and an extensive excursus on the history of the Brigittine Order. Here the authors again provide the reader with substantial background information that helps to place Katerina's story in context to the prevailing devotional climate and living conditions that awaited her as a new nun.

The bulk of Schleif and Schier's study are the letters themselves, which comprise the largest portion of the present book, chapters three through eight. As mentioned, most of these letters were directed to her cousin, Hans V, whom we have to thank for their survival. Upon first glance, the letters are, in all honesty, rather repetitive, formulaic, and somewhat mundane. Most can be summarized as someone seeking knowledge about family events and requesting money or goods. Yet when one looks closer at the words, a wealth of information is revealed, allowing us, to use the authors' metaphor, a window into Katerina's life and experiences. The significance of these letters is substantial, for they are a rare group of primary texts written by an enclosed nun herself, without the filters or biases one usually finds in much of the convent literature, most of which was written by men.

Art historians, and historians interested in monastic economics will find the present study of greatest interest and use. For art historians, the reader is granted a rare, documented account of artistic patronage by nuns. Much of Katerina's time and finances went to the physical completion of Maria Mai, and especially the installation of the glazed, cloister windows. The letters not only show how she used her own money, but also engaged in a fundraising campaign from within the convent walls, by soliciting donations from various relatives. Most interesting are the strategies that she employed. Not only did she appeal to their egos and dynastic ambitions, through the inclusion of family emblems and arms within the glass, but also through the benefit of eternal prayer from the nuns themselves. What is also learned from the letters is the amount of artistic knowledge that Katerina had, perhaps not surprising given her patrician upbringing. At several points she demonstrates a grasp of the window's value (eg. Letter 28), the desire to hire the best artisans (in this case Veit Hirsvolgel, Nuremberg's leading glazier at the time), and offers a critical analysis of the finished product's quality (eg. Letter 36). This amount of first-hand control is all the more impressive given that it was all done via letters from an enclosed nun.

Those interested in the economics of life within a late medieval convent will find this study equally rewarding. Although there is no record that Katerina Lemmel ever held any official position as financial officer for the convent, her economic resources and mercantile background were highly valued and utilized. Her letters consistently show a vast knowledge of spice market values, as well as a constant accounting of her own diversely-vast investments, and the expected income that each would reap. Indeed, when analyzed solely in economic terms, most of her letters can be seen as business contracts, as much as personal family correspondences. One could easily argue that the only reason that they survive at all is because Hans V viewed them in these terms. After all, he was the head of the trading company, which held many of Katerina's investments, but also essentially became the banker for the convent.

No further letters from Katerina survive beyond 1522, the year of Hans V's death. Given her prolific writing, it is hard to believe that nothing else was ever penned, especially after being a witness the catastrophic events of the 1525 Peasants' War. The final chapter is dedicated to these events and how they devastated all that Katerina had worked so hard to see completed. All that is known comes from a lengthy account in the convent's chronicle. The story that we are told is one of fear and panic, as the entire social order began to collapse. In the end, the sisters were forced from their convent, and it met a fate similar to many during this era. The convent of Maria Mai was burnt to the ground, including all of the stained glass windows.

Even though the current study stands on its own, the authors have provided additional resources for both scholars and students alike. Published concurrently with the book is a website ( designed to stimulate further discussion within the classroom context. The website contains most of the images from the book, additional biographical information on the key players surrounding Katerina, and an instructional essay largely designed for educators wishing to explore the many themes brought up by the study. For the more serious scholar, the authors are planning a critical text edition, with the original German documents, and additional essays by relevant specialists. The lack of the original German texts is perhaps the one shortcoming of this present study--a gap that this proposed volume should fill.