Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: St Elizabeth of Hungary clothing a beggar
  • Creator: Rhenish Master
  • Description: Elizabeth was the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and wife of the Landgrave of Thuringia. She turned away from regal splendor to follow a life of charity and asceticism inspired by Franciscan spirituality. In this scene St. Elizabeth gives a cloak to a disabled man who walks on his knees with the help of a crutch. St. Elizabeth towers above the other figures because of her importance as a holy woman. One angel crowns the saint, while another returns the cloak, indicating that charitable acts are repaid. The figure in the lower left corner of the painting may be the donor or Elizabeth’s daughter, Gertrude (1227-1297), who entered the Premonstratensian monastery at Altenberg as an infant and became prioress at the age of 24. The figure is dressed in the clothing of a Premonstratensian nun and kneels in prayer. She wears a headdress known as a nun’s crown. Some nuns received such decorated cloth crowns when they made their profession. The crowns served as symbols of the nuns’ consecration even in the afterlife.

    The painting is part of an altarpiece made up of eight scenes representing events from the life of the Virgin Mary as well as Saints Michael and Elizabeth. The left wing presents the Annunciation, Visitation, Birth of Christ, and Adoration of the Magi, while the right wing portrays St. Michael killing the dragon, Coronation of the Virgin, St. Elizabeth clothing the beggar, and the Death of the Virgin. The reverse side of the wings presents a series of scenes from the Passion which have been largely effaced. The altarpiece originally had a central section that displayed a statue of the Madonna and child toward whom the painted Magi looked in adoration. The rest of the central section held compartments for displaying relics. The altarpiece’s painted wings, according to Donald Ehresmann, are unusual in being doubled hinged, so that they can be opened in stages. This could have allowed the nuns to concentrate on specific scenes commemorating events in the liturgical year: closed for Lent and Holy Week, half open for Marian feasts, and fully open for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

  • Source: Flickr
  • Rights: Reproduced by permission of Heidemarie Niemann, Mainz. See her photostream on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hen-magonza/
  • Subject (See Also): Altarpieces Beggars Charity Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Hagiography Nuns Premonstratensian Order
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 14
  • Date: c. 1330
  • Related Work: See the full view of both altarpiece wings in the photos of Heidemarie Niemann: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hen-magonza/5888832608/in/photolist-9YnNLG-fdUiiP/lightbox/
  • Current Location: Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, Inv. No. SG 358–361
  • Original Location: Altenberg, Premonstratensian women’s monastery, E. Germany
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Fir wood Panel; Paint
  • Donor: Female religious (?); Premonstratensian nun
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 153.5/119 (size of each wing)/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Ehresmann, Donald L., “Some Observations on the Role of Liturgy in the Early Winged Altarpieces.” Art Bulletin 64, 3 (1982): 362-364; Schlotheuber, Eva, “Best Clothes and Everyday Attire of Late Medieval Nuns,” in Fashion and Clothing in Late Medieval Europe/ Mode und Kleidung im Europa des späten Mittelalters. Edited by Regula Schorta and Rainer C. Schwinges. Abegg-Stiftung/Schwabe Verlag, 2010. Pages 139 – 154; Wolbrink, Shelley, “Noble Pursuits: Family, Power, and Gender in the Premonstratensian Monasteries of Northwestern Germany, 1120-1250.” Ph.D. dissertation. University of Cincinnati, 1998.