Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Abbess Hitda gives a codex to St. Walburga
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This image comes from the Hitda Codex, a manuscript made for Hitda, Abbess of Meschede, a women’s monastery in Westphalia with close connections to Cologne. The illumination depicts Hitda herself in a black gown and a white laced veil, presenting a costly book to a statue-like St. Walburga, the patron saint of Meschede. Their interaction takes place underneath an elaborate church architectural superstructure. Saint Walburga was an eighth century abbess of the double monastery at Heidenheim. She was venerated as a protector against hunger and plague, and her cult spread through Germany into Flanders and France.

    Meschede was a large and wealthy female monastic foundation with ties to Germany’s royal house and ruling families. Hitda belonged to an august circle of noble and royal benefactors of religious foundations for women which formed around the daughters and nieces of Ottonian rulers. These women were at Quedlinburg, Gernrode, Essen, and Gandersheim.

    The aristocratic women who ruled these institutions would have been very aware of their status, and would have been very protective of their freedoms. Consequently, they would have rejected any restrictions that might have been imposed upon them by canon law. Jeffery F. Hamburger and Robert Suckale suggest that this image from the Hitda Codex reflects the protective mindset of these female monastic rulers; the image evokes the Byzantine ivory depicting the coronation of Emperor Otto II and Empress Theophano, and thus consciously acknowledges the superior aristocratic and spiritual position the abbess held over the congregation of subordinated male clerics, canons, and the parishes belonging to the foundation, as well as the community of sisters.

    The placement of Hitda on the right of St. Walburga also increases her authority and equivalence in power to men. Traditionally, the right side of a religious figure was reserved for men and symbolized their spiritual strength in the face of passion and intrigue. In contrast, the left side was the arena of women and symbolized earthly desires and the weak souls whom God must protect. By placing herself on the right, Hitda is subverting gender norms and forging an image of spiritual strength.

    Hitda’s power is also conveyed through her presentation of the Codex to St. Walburga, an act which has been interpreted as a gift exchange by Henry Mayr-Harting. Early medieval monks and nuns believed that through gifts they could hold patron saints to their promises of protection and advance the interests of their houses. By giving the book to St. Walburga, Hitda is showing that she is the authoritative channel of access to the patroness. Also by receiving the book, St. Walburga invests Hitda with the power that a donor has over a recipient.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Abbesses Gifts Hagiography Hitda, Abbess of Meschede Manuscripts in Art Monasticism Patronage, Ecclesiastical Theophano, Wife of Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor Walburga, Saint
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 11
  • Date: 1000- 1020
  • Related Work: See other illuminated pages from the Hitda Codex in this page from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hitda-Codex?uselang=de
  • Current Location: Darmstadt, Germany, Universitats-und Landesbibliothek, Cod. 1640, fol. 6r
  • Original Location: Cologne, Germany
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 29/14.2/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Hamburger, Jeffrey F. and Robert Suckale. "Between This World and the Next: The Art of Religious Women in the Middle Ages." in Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries edited by Hamburger, Jeffery F. and Susan Marti. New York: Columbia University Press (2008). 76-78.;
    Mayr-Harting, Henry. Ottonian Book Illumination, Part Two: Books. London: Harvey Miller Publishers (1991). 98-105.
    McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kings and Culture in the Early Middle Ages. Hampshire, Great Britain: Variorum (1995). 91-96.;