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The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany

Medieval German women’s art and spirituality examined with too much of the gender-studies approach

“Over the past decade the stream of studies devoted to female spirituality of the later Middle Ages has swelled to the proverbial torrent”. So Professor Hamburger begins one of his chapters and reveals both the strength and the weakness of his own work.

As the commentator on “Nonnenarbeiten” (The Art Newspaper, No.75, November 1997, p.23) he is unrivalled, and this specialised field gives real sociological insight into the art of this particular period. But one cannot but think that Professor Hamburger has latched onto a theme of the moment, female spirituality, as a convenient peg on which to hang his studies.

From the evidence of these pages, I remain to be convinced that a specifically female spirituality can be differentiated, at least in Professor Hamburger’s chosen area and period, late medieval Germany, either from the general spirituality of the laity, male and female, or from specifically monastic prayer and devotion. The visual and the visionary provides evidence, in fact, of a lively popular devotion common to all the strata of society in the late Middle Ages. The Cistercian convent at Wienhausen in Saxony, for instance, produced a set of eight identical icons of the face of Christ, which the author compares it the silk-screens of the Mona Lisa produced by Andy Warhol in 1965: these were destined for general distribution, making them, as it were, the Pop Art of the fifteenth century. Professor Hamburger may want to deny the “concept of a unified culture” to replace it with “the principle of competing communities and subcultures”, but one comes away from his writing with the sense that the man “protesteth too much.”

St Gregory the Great wrote, “In the image those who do not know letters are able to read”, and what we have here are examples of an effective devotion based on the intense Incarnational devotion of the period. Nine essays are brought together in this present collection, six of them having been revised after appearances in other publications. Small nuggets of information have a contemporary ring about them. Thus, “The correspondence from Medingen reveals that the convent of Unterlinden was part of an international network of exchange, the source, as well as the recipient, of images.” Evidence of the European single market avant la lettre?

One chapter deals with the nature of physical enclosure which, while often strictly imposed, also allowed great freedoms within the convent (echoes here of current Islamic apologetic for the veiling of women). One pregnant phrase, “in theory, nuns held no private property”, goes on to reveal that the shared purse was often very full and ready to be opened in patronage.

Cloistered women became great connoisseurs of the type of devotional art that they found stimulating. Professor Hamburger’s comment that “insight comes initially through the eye” confirms the enduring attraction of the iconic in religious art. One example of what this could mean is given in an explanation of the Liber Miraculorum emanating from the Rhineland convent at Unterlinden. Although small in scale (just over four inches high) and modest in length (only forty-two folios long), the manuscript, written around 1465, records the gift of a Marian icon to the convent, the miracles which were attributed to it, and the veneration that grew up around it, extending eventually to the granting of indulgences and the onset of pilgrimages. Professor Hamburger comments the Liber is clear evidence of the image cult being used, not just as a spur to personal piety, but also as a means of commemorating the history of an institution and reinforcing its corporate identity.

Two sections are taken up with a consideration of the Dominican, Henry of Suso (1295-1366) and the influence of the Order of Preachers as spiritual directors. Professor Hamburger comments that “For the history of late medieval art, no other source provides testimony of potentially greater importance than the so-called autobiography, the first book of The Exemplar probably compose in Ulm between 1362 and 1363.” Suso’s life provides a remarkably full and detailed account of all manner of devotional practices. Images, according to Suso, “serve the purpose of allowing a religiously minded person, when he leaves the world of the sense and enters into himself, always to have something to draw him away from this false world, which pulls him down, and upward toward our beloved God.”

These are rich seams, well mined here by the author. Perhaps the most informative of the chapters, and the best illustrated, deals with the “Veronica”: the legendary woman, St Veronica, who, in wiping Christ’s face in his passion, received an imprint of his face on her towel (the metonym “veronica”—“vera”/“ikon”—making “true image”). Reproductions of this image were among the most popular devotional artefacts of the period.

Almost a quarter of the book is given over to a full and useful section of notes. This is a well produced volume, copiously illustrated with black and white photographs (but why relegate the six full colour pages to the very back as an afterthought?). Any future revision ought to include a more thorough index. The visual and the visionary is a splendid collection of insights which can stand in their own right, and has no need to shelter under the umbrella of gender studies.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Neither male nor female'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 94 July 1999