Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Convent of St. Katherine’s Copy of the Chronicle of Töss
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    The Chronicle of Töss was written around 1340 by Elsbeth Stagel, the prioress of Töss, and was copied and illuminated over a hundred years later in the reformed Dominican convent of St. Katherine’s in Nuremberg. The Katharinenkloster’s copy provides a touchstone for the role of art in the reformist Dominican Observant movement. It offers a glimpse at a fifteenth-century moment when the nun’s agency and the reformer’s goals found a delicate compromise.

    During the fifteenth-century, the Observant Movement within the Dominican Order sought to strongly re-impose male authority and stamp out female deviance. Male clerics urged nuns to record in convent chronicles their foundation history and the growth of their community. Chronicles of this type had fewer vitae, accounts of the lives of individual saints, and focused instead on founding myths that emphasized piety, competence, character, fortitude, industry and a continuum in which contemporary nuns could locate themselves.

    In keeping with this reform movement, the series of vitae in the Katharinenkloster copy is concerned with the themes of faith rewarded. However, the classification of this book as an example of the reform movement is complicated because its contents occasionally run counter to some of the primary goals of the reform, such as its emphasis on community, skepticism about female mysticism, and containment of women within the rules of the Order. The exemplar of religious women depicted in the Katherinenkloster copy did not correspond to Church hierarchies, which regarded powerful women and women’s spiritual visions with a high degree of suspicion. Yet the contemporary sisters of Nuremberg painted scenes in their manuscript depicting mystical revelation and individual female empowerment.

    The illumination of Margaret Willin as a flagellant (far left) shows Margaret inflicting bodily pain upon herself as an affirmation of God’s goodness. Significantly, she is depicted alone without any figure of ecclesiastical authority to guide or approve her actions. In her article on images of spiritual reform, Jane Carroll quotes Barbara Newman who says such actions exemplified a “radical democratization of grace.” This is significant because the illumination implies that women were just as capable as men in performing important penitential acts.

    The second illumination in this series, Elsbeth Stagel writing (left of center), depicts Elsbeth as a scribe. This image was created by Johannes Meyer as part of a prologue and bibliography of Elsbeth’s writings affixed to the fifteenth-century Katherinenkloster copy. The image portrays Elsbeth as imagined in Meyer’s reformation history. Jeffery Hamburger suggests that by characterizing her as author and scribe, Meyer essentially recasts her in his own image.

    The third illumination depicted here shows Sister Elsbet von Cellikon (right of center). This is the last illumination in the nuns’ vitae of the Katherinenkloster manuscript, and it depicts a vision of sweet ecstasy. Here, Sister Elsbet is shown with her arms thrown wide open to embrace “the rapture of the Cross.” Her cruciform posture models the object of her devotion. Although the experience includes the assumption of Christ’s pain, her story stresses her welcome and humble acceptance of this burden. Elsbet’s story and illumination record an experience that emphasized constant, courageous suffering and the ultimate reward of such sacrifice. Although the singling out of an individual went against the official goals of the Dominican reformation, Elsbet’s life represented the promise of reward for the sincerely faithful, an important message for new nuns and monks. Therefore because her life and image spoke to both empowered religious women and reforming men, her image represents a compromise between the goals and values of the two groups.

    The last illumination here features Margaret von Zurich bathing the Christ Child (far right). This image depicts one of Margaret’s visions in which she was allowed to bathe the Christ Child. This image is subversive of Dominican reform because she is shown touching the body of Christ, an act forbidden to women by the Church. Being able to communicate and come into contact with God through visions was one of the ways that religious women gained power. In her essay on subversive images of spiritual reform, Jane Carrol compares Margaret’s handling of the visionary Christ Child to Christmas traditions where select nuns were given the privilege of bathing and clothing statues of the Infant Jesus. The presentation of a Christ statue by a nun was comparable to a priest elevating the host during the Eucharist. Margaret’s experience washing the visionary Christ Child is the ecstatic reenactment of the Christmas rituals. The priest-like position she holds is at odds with Dominican reform. By depicting this episode from Margaret’s life, the nuns of St. Katherine’s created an image that was precariously balanced on the edge of what was acceptable and what was unacceptable to fifteenth-century reform. The miniature combines the disparate elements of the transgressive and the humble that characterized female faith during this time.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Dominican Order Ecclesiastical Reform Monasticism Mystics Nuns Portraits Sister-books Stagel, Elsbeth, Mystic Visions Women Artists Women Scribes
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1450- 1470
  • Related Work: Carroll, Jane. "Subversive Obedience. Images of Spiritual Reform by and for Fifteenth-Century Nuns." In Reassessing the Roles of Women as 'Makers' of Medieval Art and Architecture, edited by Therese Martin, 705-737. Brill, 2012.;
    Hamburger, Jeffrey F. The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany. Zone Books, 1998. 465-466.;
    Lewis, Gertrud Jaron. By Women for Women about Women: The Sister-Books of the Fourteenth-Century Germany. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1996. 59-65, 100-105, 197-199.;
    Sauer, Christine. "Between the Monastery and the World: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine in Nuremberg." In Women - Monastery - art. New research on the cultural history of the Middle Ages. Contributions to the International Colloquium from 13 to 16 May 2005 on the Occasion of the Exhibition "Crown and Veil", ed. by Jeffrey F. Hamburger. Brepols, 2007, 113-129 (with p. 428 [Fig. 1-3], p 483-487 [Table 6-11];
  • Current Location: Stadtsbibliothek Nurnberg, Cent. V 10a
  • Original Location: Convent of St. Katherine, Nuremberg, Germany
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
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