This vast and visually rich two-part exhibition necessitated multiple visits. The early material (made before 1200) was displayed in the Ruhrlandmuseum in Essen, where the exhibition borrowed the cool industrial feel of the Ruhrgebiet, and the atmosphere felt like the marriage between a ruined monastic complex – a fragment of a portal here, part of a library there – and a post-industrial techno club, teeming with low lights and warm bodies. The later objects (created 1200-1500) were on display in the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle in Bonn, where the various zones of the exhibition corresponded to the architectural spaces (church, dormitory, scriptorium, etc.) in a late medieval female monastery, whose demarcation was suggested by eerie gossamer draperies suspended from the ceiling, upon which the shadowy silhouettes of walking nuns appeared. Such draperies, as well as the perforated metallic dividers in Bonn, emulated a semi-permeable membrane that only theoretically closed nuns off from the world, which was one of the key themes of the exhibition. Plenty of objects and structures on display (including works made in conjunction between nuns and professional artists outside the monastery walls, and manuscripts made in convents for lay patrons, to name but two categories) underscored the degree to which the visual culture of nuns demanded interaction with the outside world.
More than 150 collections lent some 600 objects, most of them with origins in German convents. Because of the nature of early conventual foundations for women, the early objects in Essen leaned toward the carefully crafted, the professionally made, and included an array of objects made of gold and gems, such as the dazzling twelfth-century gold, enamel, and walrus tooth reliquary from Elten, constructed as a miniature replica of a centrally planned church (cat. 129). In comparison with the early objects, the later works in Bonn more often came from the hands of nuns themselves. These included vast and labor-intensive textiles, many employing a tapestry structure finished with embroidered, quilted, and beaded details; manuscripts illuminated in convents, including those by Sibylla von Bondorf, a Poor Clare from Freiburg; and a besloten hofje from Mechelen, an enclosed garden encompassing a paradisiacal world made from pipe-cleaner sheep and silk-and-wire flowers. The catalogue covers both parts of the exhibition.
The organizers, who included Jeffrey Hamburger, Robert Suckale, Hedwig Röckelein, Carola Jäggi, Jan Gerchow, and Susan Marti, wrestled the huge amount of material into a meaningful structure. Their categories were thematic, but at the same time told a story about the history of female enclosure and its visual culture that unfolded roughly chronologically. The first section comprised objects related to the early medieval abbess and her rule, including the eleventh-century gem-studded golden crown from Essen (cat. 1) that became one of the emblems for the exhibition. Not all of the objects were so visually dazzling, as they also included the wax seal of a twelfth-century abbess (cat. 12), and some twelfth-century coins stamped with the images of the enthroned abbess (cat. 13).
“Enclosure and the Rule” presented copies of nuns’ rules and tracts, while “Liturgy in the Church” showcased impressive architectural fragments, including an immense tympanum from a twelfth-century church in Cologne (cat. 35), as well as a plaster cast of the baptismal font from Freckenhorst (cat. 50), one of the few reproductions on view. There were also objects selected for their aural, not visual, interest: a collection of earthenware vessels that had been set into the walls of the church of St. Walburga in Menschede to improve the acoustics during the singing of the Office (cat. 73). Another area of the Essen exhibition space was dedicated to manuscripts and book arts, where visitors could see twelfth-century manuscripts copied by nuns (cat. 108, for example), alongside the Anglo-Saxon styli used to copy them (cat. 110).
“Patrons and Treasures” highlighted cult objects, reliquaries, and nuns’ relationships with their patron saints. This was followed by a look at the visual culture resulting from the noble or royal patronage of convents. Prominent here was a selection of objects from the women’s abbey of Chelles outside Paris, founded in the seventh century by Queen Balthild. These treasures included a long silk ribbon tied around a shiny lock of the queen’s auburn hair (cat. 170).
“New Orientation in the High Middle Ages” focused on book production, this time from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Here we saw several exquisitely illuminated copies of texts by Hildegard of Bingen (cats. 198, 199), as well as manuscripts stemming from Benedictine and Augustinian Double Monasteries, which thrived in these centuries.
The second part of the exhibition, “The Era of the Orders” (in Bonn), had a much different structure, one based on the spaces of the late medieval convent and its functions. Because the rate of survival for these later objects far exceeded that of the earlier works, the organizers were able to reconstruct parts of entire convents. In particular, they assembled several magnificent objects from the Cistercian convent of Fröndenberg, including the immense painted retable with the Life of Mary (c. 1410-20, cat. 233). This reconstruction formed part of the first unit, “The ‘Outer Church’: Open for the Laity,” which showcased objects that put the public face on a convent and mediated between the nuns’ spaces and the public space. The catalogue cannot capture the diminutive size of the miniature Palmesel from the Dominican convent of St. Katharina in Wil, used for the nuns’ performance of the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (cat. 258). This section also housed a successful and engaging computer presentation featuring the Liber miraculorum from the Dominican convent of Unterlinden in Colmar, a manuscript that chronicled a miracle-working image of the Virgin and its public (cat. 241).
Moving deeper into the exhibition corresponded to transgressing into the more private spaces of the convent. The next reconstructed space was the sacristy, filled with “earthly and heavenly treasures.” Reliquary busts, a ciborium made from a coconut, patens and chalices, and other objects necessary for the performance of the Mass – all of enormously varied quality – were on view. “The Nuns’ Choir” featured an array of objects for nuns’ devotions, including the sculpture group from the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp representing St. John the Evangelist with his head resting on Christ’s breast, made by Meister Heinrich von Konstanz for St. Katharinenthal. For the first time in centuries, the thirteenth-century sculpture was paired with its pendant, representing Saint John the Baptist. A number of other sculptures from the same convent were brought together, including the Visitation group from the Metropolitan Museum, in which Mary and Elizabeth clasp hands across their crystal bellies.
Spinning off the theme of the enclosed garden, the next section thematized nuns’ enclosure, and included the small colored drawing representing the Heart as a House from St. Walburg in Eichstätt (cat. 340), with which Jeffrey Hamburger had essentially launched this entire project eight years ago in Nuns as Artists. A large selection of objects displayed in “Cells: The Quotidian, Visions, and Prayer” came from Wienhausen. The exhibition designers attempted to reproduce the feel of the cells in a convent, complete with a few of the large chests women brought with them when they entered the convent – chests too large to fit in the small cells and which therefore lined the hallways of the dormitories. Visitors might have had a more realistic experience visualizing this aspect of conventual living by visiting Wienhausen itself, which is open to the public. The exhibition then led through the chapter house and refectory, where the emphasis was on objects related to punishment, including illustrated tracts admonishing nuns to conform to prescribed behavior and scourges for self-use.
The penultimate section, “Guests’ Quarters and Abbey: The Opening to the World,” featured objects belonging to the late medieval abbess, as well as those found in the guests’ quarters that put a public face on the convent. Among the most eye-catching works was a manuscript found in the final segment of the exhibition (“The Workhouse: Readers, Writers, and Artists”). This manuscript looked as if it had been written in Morse code, all dots and dashes that correspond to the weaving pattern for constructing a gold border, as inscribed by a Poor Clare from Nuremberg (cat. 471). These final two sections presented a rich array of textiles, which, unfortunately, lose much in reproduction, especially the white weft-on-white-warp Lenten cloths.
And that’s not all: in addition to these two museums, a third venue – the treasury at the Cathedral in Essen – housed a continuation of the exhibition. The pièce de résistance there was the Golden Madonna, a tenth-century, burnished gold enthroned Virgin who gazes straight ahead with an unblinking stare (cat. 147).
The function of an exhibition catalogue is always multifold: it gathers together the expertise of a number of scholars (in this case, 118 of them), presents the state of knowledge about the objects displayed, and – in related fashion – brings the bibliography up to date. If these tasks are mastered, as they are in Krone und Schleier, the catalogue also serves as a reference for future scholarship. I should mention here that in addition to providing meaningful descriptions and interpretations of each of the objects in the exhibition and reproducing most of them in color, the catalogue also publishes meaty articles by an array of respected scholars: Jeffrey Hamburger and Robert Suckale, Gisela Muschiol, Klaus Schreiner, Hedwig Röckelein, Werner Rösener, Carola Jäggi and Uwe Lobbedey, Barbara Newman, Caroline Walker Bynum, Gabriela Signori, and Jan Gerchow and Susan Marti. The catalogue is packed with topics ripe for future research.
In conjunction with the exhibition was a colloquium, “Women – Monasticism – Art: New Research on the Cultural History of the Middle Ages” which brought together about 120 scholars and students for four days (May 13-16, 2005) at a Catholic retreat center called the “Wolfsburg” in Mülheim/Ruhr. The conference, organized by Carola Jäggi, Hedwig Röckelein, and Jan Gerchow, offered plenary lectures, smaller discussion panels (a north American concept reinvented), carefully timed coffee breaks, and excursions to the exhibitions.
Though contracted as an official reviewer, I admit to taking multiple trips to this exhibition out of pure pleasure. The organizers are to be congratulated for making clear and accessible a body of imagery that has been largely obscure and remote.
The Warburg Institute