19.06.26 Hamburger and Palmer, The Prayer Book of Ursula Begerin

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Jacqueline E. Jung

The Medieval Review 19.06.26

Hamburger, Jeffrey F. and Nigel F. Palmer, eds. The Prayer Book of Ursula Begerin. Volume 1: Art-Historical and Literary Introduction, Volume 2: Reproductions and Critical Edition. Zurich: Urs Graf Verlag, 2015. pp. 676, 203. ISBN: 978-3-85951-280-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jacqueline Jung
Yale University

At some point in the years around 1400, a pair of Alsatian painters set about producing a set of over two-hundred colored drawings, on small sheets of paper, representing narrative scenes and iconic heroes and heroines from sacred history. The lead artist, who will come to be called the Begerin Master, worked in an antiquated style, bounding his relatively large figures and props within thick black outlines and pressing them flush against the picture plane, while his companion worked more loosely, employing sketchier contours for his lighter-weight figures and letting them move within more open spaces. But both employed the lively artistic conventions favored in the area around Strasbourg, seen for example in the Elsässische "Legenda Aurea" from 1362 (now in Munich). And they possessed enough confidence in their knowledge of the Bible and theology to introduce new motifs into conventional images (as with the Baby Jesus steadying himself by grasping a Magus's hair in the scene of the Adoration, fol. 25r, or the use of an arch to lead viewers into a different thematic unit, as in the Raising of the Daughter of Jairus at fol. 40r), and even to invent entirely new iconography (as in the image of "Jesus blessed by a woman while preaching," fol. 84r). An image positioned near the sequence's end (fol. 174r), embedded within a visual litany of saints, shows an unidentified veiled woman kneeling on the grass and gazing at a floating vision of a Eucharistic host, suggestive of a female identity for the images' patron.

Some of the Begerin Master's images included cursive inscriptions in Latin, either indicating speech or making reference to relevant liturgical passages. But otherwise they communicated in a strictly pictorial language, leaving a range of interpretive pathways open to the imagination of their initial patron. I say "patron" with intention, for these pages were clearly meant for private contemplation. This mode of use is already suggested by their diminutive size, each folio measuring about 3-3/4 inches wide and 5 inches tall, and it finds further confirmation in their reception: a text added near the image of the prayerful woman speaks autobiographically of "I, a woman" (see vol. 1, 379). The text was one of 156 vernacular prayers added to the image cycle, on separate sheets of paper, sometime in the 1470s or '80s - thus some sixty or seventy years after the pictures' completion. The work of six distinct scribes, these prayers nonetheless give voice to a consistent presence--a woman who has spent many years in a monastic community, and is apt to reflect as much on her moments of grace as on her shortcomings--and are steeped in the heady language of Latin meditational texts particularly beloved in Carthusian circles, such as Ludolph of Saxony's Vita Christi and the prayers of St. Anselm and St. Bernard. Taking the images as a launching pad for the plunge into self-reflection, the prayers provide testimony not only of how biblical episodes could be rendered personally meaningful for an expert contemplative but also of how images could operate as prompts and focal points for practices of thinking and feeling.

The nun who directed the prayer cycle did not leave her name, though she did give a name to the woman pictured with the Eucharistic host-vision: although probably representing the patron of the image cycle, in her eyes the figure portrayed Mechthild of Hackeborn (d. 1298), one of the visionaries from the convent at Helfta, who was widely revered as a saint and as a model for monastic women. The only other name attached to the manuscript was that of one of its owners: Sister Ursula Begerin, a member of the Magdalens' (Reuerinnen) convent in Strasbourg, who died in 1531. It is feasible that she was the mastermind behind the addition of the prayer cycle, though impossible to know with certainty. But whatever her role in the fabrication of this object--the book continued to be supplemented with new prayers and several prints into the 1490s--it is this woman whose presence will shine bright to future generations through the publication under review, which christens the manuscript with her name: The Prayer Book of Ursula Begerin (Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 801).

Sister Ursula, the unknown patron, and the artists and scribes who contributed their skills to this modest contemplative tool would surely throw their hands to the sky and exclaim "mirabile visu!" (or the Middle High German equivalent) if they had occasion to see what had become of their book in this dazzling publication by the Urs Graf Verlag in Zurich. The result of years of scholarly investigation by the art historian Jeffrey Hamburger and Germanist Nigel Palmer, and financial support from the Swiss National Science Foundation, Harvard University, and various public and private foundations in Bern, the two-volume set will elicit scarcely less admiration from contemporary students of medieval religious and intellectual culture (and no small degree of envy, in light of the constraints imposed by so many North American academic presses!). Volume 2 offers us the next best thing to holding the manuscript in our hands: beautiful reproductions of all the book's openings, in full color and to scale, accompanied by a critical edition (transcription and notes on scribal errors or amendments) of the respective prayers. The volume is refreshingly user-friendly: with the manuscript's page openings measuring just 7-1/4 inches wide and 5-1/4 inches tall, they fit neatly into the lower half of these 8-1/2 by 12-inch pages, leaving ample room above for the respective transcription, identification of subject matter, and attribution of hands. Readers not versed in Middle High German may miss seeing translations here, but they are not out of luck: Palmer's deft translations of the texts into English are provided toward the end of the first volume.

Volume 1 presents itself modestly as an "Art-Historical and Literary Introduction" to the manuscript, a title that will provoke either giggles or grumbles in anyone who has leafed through its 676 large pages or, heaven forbid, lugged it around campus in their backpack. It is better described as a semester-long (or more) sequence of master classes in style- and iconography-based art historical analysis, in the close reading and contextualization of medieval spiritual literature, and in the material history of books, all focusing in on this one exemplar as the principal subject of investigation.

Following a brief introduction by both authors (11-14), Hamburger delves into the pictorial material that was originally the book's sole content (15-110). He situates the image-cycle within the larger landscape of narrative arts in various media; leads us through the peculiarities of technique and conception that distinguish the styles of the Begerin Master and his assistant(s); locates the formal and iconographic parallels with other manuscripts that enable a date of production to be narrowed down (in this case, to between 1380 and 1410); and places the manuscript into dialogue with other works produced in the region of Alsace around the same time, to discern characteristic spiritual interests and habits of imagination. Having woven an art historical network into which this manuscript can be fit, he then pinpoints the various elements beyond style--certain "pictorial strategies and modes of representation" (52)--that make this set of images stand out from the crowd. These include the use of an archaizing style to deepen the gravity of certain scenes; complex forms of "word illustration" (60) that render visible the subjects of speech in the many scenes of Christ and others talking together; patterns of color, particularly applied to costume, that chart connections or disruptions among characters across episodes; and so forth. Hamburger then pulls us back out to the larger context of the later fourteenth century, when the book's new owner decided to add written prayers to the images, demonstrating, through a wide variety of related books, the desirability of movement between text and image in the practice of devotion, particularly for cloistered women. The prayers, we come to see, do not limit the associative or imaginative possibilities of the images as much as it might seem. As Hamburger shows, they offer re-articulations of the themes pictured, and their commentaries help to guide and channel, rather than close off, pathways of contemplative thought that always circle back to the images.

We learn how this works in the next section (111-376), where Hamburger takes us into the iconography of each individual picture, from the Fall of the Rebel Angels (fol. 9r) to the three cephalophoric saints, Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius, particularly revered in Switzerland (fol. 176v), with two later prints (the Mass of St. Gregory and Mary Magdalene) appended at the end. In between we find several scenes from Genesis, images of the Virgin Mary's pre-maternal life, and an extended rendition of Gospel narratives, including many unusual scenes of Christ's miracles, parables, and other preaching activity. Occasionally a more symbolic or allegorical interpolation appears in the mix; of particular interest is a unique depiction of Mary, in priestly garb, standing frontally alongside Christ, as the embodiment of the Eucharist (fol. 100r). Following the bloody Passion sequence, numerous scenes of post-Resurrection appearances, and a Last Judgment, an iconic image of the Volto Santoat Lucca (fol. 157r, originally accompanied by a Man of Sorrows and another iconic picture, now both lost) led into a sequence of images of holy men and women, grouped in trios according to type, and forming a visual litany of intercessors. It is near the end of this group, sandwiched between three bishops and three female saints associated with Strasbourg, that we find the kneeling woman with her Eucharistic vision--the patron's surrogate, who we now recognize as being encompassed by saints from her locality.

It is the voice of her successor, "this woman, your chosen bride"--the voice, that is, of the praying subject who fills the textual additions from the 1470s and '80s--that launches Palmer's discussion of the German prayers in their "literary and historical context" (378-488). This section begins with consideration of the insistently female voice of the texts--its self-identification as a nun who has spent a lifetime in the convent, its commitment to unflinching self-critique, its expertise in affective forms of piety and interest in bridal mysticism--but here, as in Hamburger's discussion of the images, the assumption is that the authorship belongs to a man (see esp. 381-82). In a fascinating counterpoint to Hamburger's analysis, Palmer proceeds to analyze several images--the kneeling woman, the Denial of Peter, and depictions of saints--this time in the dialogue with the textual addenda and other written sources with which they resonate.

A major point of reference is the Gospel meditation, a genre of text cultivated in the twelfth century by Cistercian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Aelred of Rievaulx, and aimed at helping the faithful to understand the sparse scriptural narratives using techniques of "identification, compassion, imaginative engagement, and other forms of affective response" (407). Such interpretive writings were typically in Latin, as were the deeply affective prayers of Anselm of Canterbury, but they reverberated to lay communities through the German prayers they inspired in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. All of these undergirded the formation of the Begerin texts. So too did Fransciscan meditation literature such as the Lignum vitae of Bonaventure, the Meditationes vitae Christi, and the Speculum humanae salvationis--manuscripts of which, as Hamburger demonstrated, also played a key role in the development of the pictorial program. These and other late medieval meditational writings such as the Dominican Henry Suso's Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit and the Carthusian Ludolf of Saxony's Vita Christi and its many vernacular adaptations, along with the visually evocative prayers on the Passion and forms of imaginative devotion such as the recitation of the rosary, are likewise plumbed for their instrumentality in the formation of the Begerin prayer cycle.

Having guided us through the dense literary forest that encompassed and gave rise to these texts, Palmer next brings us into the practicalities of producing the manuscript itself, from the choice of paper to the formatting of the pages to the distribution of labor as the book was made and remade over the decades. He introduces us to the Carthusian community of Strasbourg, whose distinctive literature and devotional tendencies permeate the manuscript, and to the wealthy Beger family from which its eventual owner, Ursula, stemmed. So along with the networks of images and texts into which the manuscript can be placed, we can also overlay a network of social and institutional connections in late medieval Strasbourg. A short epilogue to this section, by the conservator Ulrike Bürger, traces the book's ownership between the dissolution of monasteries in 1792--the manuscript had remained with the Reuerinnen in Strasbourg until then--and 1937, when it entered the Stadtbibliothek in Bern.

The volume next proceeds to more technical material: a detailed description of the complete manuscript (by Palmer, 490-518), a report on the conservation work begun in 1998, including diagrams of the quire structure and damage before that point (by Bürger, 520-536), and finally the translation of all the texts in the manuscripts, and quotations (untranslated) from their Latin models and sources (by Palmer, 538-96). A bibliography and index follow. Apart from the riches of its contents, the book is kind to readers: it employs footnotes instead of endnotes, and full captions--including dates, libraries, and image sources--appear close to the respective pictures on each page. Volume 1 includes 562 images--mostly manuscript illuminations but some works with comparable motifs in other media--almost all in color and beautifully arrayed to allow the rhymes and resonances to sing forth clearly. Volume 2, as already noted, presents the prayerbook itself in full.

While Hamburger's and Palmer's erudite contributions nestle the manuscript within a bundle of larger contexts--visual and literary, devotional and intellectual, social and material--they also open pathways for it to flutter into other domains of inquiry. Perhaps it might make its way, as a comparandum, into discussions of medieval Japanese emaki, painted handscrolls that let private beholders witness the unfolding of Buddhist and Shinto sacred narratives, their journeys punctuated by written captions. Perhaps it might find itself examined by media theorists, to whom it will surely offer fresh insights into the communicative potentials of text and image and even sound--recall that the images themselves are filled with evocations of speech acts, which would have gained in impact if the added prayers were murmured aloud. Perhaps, too, it will land on the shoulders of gender historians, urging them to ask afresh whether only men could have made these extraordinary pictures and prayers. The widely publicized discovery of lapis lazuli in the teeth of a nun buried in the medieval convent at Dalheim has brought renewed attention to the activity of women in monastic scriptoria, and placing the Begerin manuscript into closer dialogue with known female productions (such as Hamburger explored in his 1997 book Nuns as Artists) might allow it to sing with new inflections. Whatever paths it takes, the many domains of Medieval Studies should be grateful to Hamburger and Palmer for illuminating this remarkable manuscript with their research, to Bürger and the Bern libraries for preserving and protecting it, and to the many institutions whose financial support allowed it to land, in such magnificent form, on desks the world over. Mirabile visu indeed.

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