During the last three decades studies in medieval art have undergone a radical change in direction. “The delight in color and movement, and the expression of feeling that anticipates modern art,” which had been so striking in Meyer Schapiro’s studies in Romanesque sculpture, have vanished. So have other approaches become relics of a bygone culture, for example the neoconservative dream of the “medieval concept of order,” which pervades Otto von Simson’s book on the Gothic cathedral, and the neoplatonic reading of “Early Netherlandish Painting” by which Erwin Panofsky identified “disguised symbolism” in many works of art. Stirred up by historians who asked for an “autre moyen age,” as Jacques Le Goff put it, art historians no longer look back to a fictive wholeness of medieval civilization. They no longer admire late Gothic altar panels as self-sufficient cultural symbols. The study of medieval art in the more conventional sense has become as tedious as collecting stamps, whether it takes the form of the myopic interest in the archaeology of buildings, the “Morellian” classification of forms in painting and sculpture, or the indexing of iconographic motifs. Publications on medieval art are declining in number. Not only does medieval art in general now get less attention than it once did, but medieval topics have become scarcer in college curriculums. How can one then speak, as some now do, of a “new” dawn of the Middle Ages in the study of art history?

Things are not as simple as that. We are not seeing the end of a traditional field, but a promising yet also irritating shift in interest. Medieval images are now understood as the visual instruments of religious experience, prayer and repentance, meditation and vision. As the American scholar Jeffrey Hamburger puts it, medieval works “find their full meaning only as part of an integrated environment.” The exploration of religious images has become the visual complement of the study of texts concerned with medieval spirituality. One could speak here of a turn toward the anthropological in which art history is expanding into a branch of the general histoire des mentalités. The gains and losses of this shift in direction are already numerous. Such lofty subjects as Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts or Gothic cathedrals have lost some of their former appeal. Humble, even crude objects arouse a new curiosity. One of the early seminal books of this reformed medievalism, James Marrow’s Passion Iconography in Northern Europe, deals to a great extent with German material such as Gothic painting that had been dismissed as provincial by earlier art history.1

The new medieval historians are less interested than their predecessors were in the aesthetic refinement or noble qualities in medieval arts and crafts; instead they look for uncontrolled emotional expression and even outspoken ugliness. There is a rising wave of interest in the “margins of medieval art,” in the “image on the edge,” to cite the title of a contentious but brilliant book by the Chicago art historian Michael Camille.2 We see book after book on the distorted figures and faces of medieval demons, devils, witches, and fools.3 Not all of these publications are based on serious scholarship, but they show how deeply our images of medieval art have become shaken. Rabelais is far more fashionable these days than Thomas Aquinas.

Until thirty years ago, moreover, the role of women in medieval art, now a central theme, had been more or less neglected. True, historians had always recognized that powerful aristocratic women, from Gisela of Hungary to Mahaut d’Artois, were lavish patrons of medieval art, and that nuns produced elaborate embroidery and weaving. But the results of their monastic industry were never fully respected as serious art. During the last few decades gender and feminist studies have sometimes taken up medieval art, but most such publications were obsessed with the “male gaze” toward women and its misogyny or prurience. The voice of the medieval woman herself was seldom heard. That medieval women had a part in producing or stimulating the art of their time was a largely unexplored possibility, and it is this possibility that Jeffrey Hamburger discusses in his book The Visual and the Visionary. As he acknowledges, he learned from James Marrow to pay attention not only to the forms but also the functions of medieval works of art. Inspired by Caroline Bynum’s influential studies on the spirituality of medieval women, Hamburger has made the role of medieval nuns as artists or as consumers of art the main theme of his art-historical studies. He has initiated and virtually monopolized a new field.

The Visual and the Visionary, a lengthy collection of essays exploring the world of medieval nuns, discusses many different aspects of art and spirituality in late medieval Germany. Some articles are extensive surveys, others case studies, mostly concentrated on how images were used in the cura monialium, the pastoral care of nuns. The introduction—“Texts Versus Images: Female Spirituality from an Art Historian’s Perspective”—begins with the confession that the book “is largely the product of dissatisfied curiosity.” It goes on: “In the early 1980s, when I was still a graduate student,…a book on female spirituality, let alone on the ‘visual culture’ of female monasticism, would have been regarded as an oddity.” Hamburger became convinced that it was his mission to conquer the female province of medieval art. His confidence in the possibility of fulfilling such a mission seems somewhat naive. “I have written this book,” he declares, “in the conviction that the experiences of medieval nuns remain accessible.”


The first chapter, “Art, Enclosure, and Pastoral Care of Nuns,” gives us a fair idea of his approach. It is a broad if somewhat scattered survey on, among other topics, “The Architecture of Enclosure”—by which he means convent buildings—“Enclosed Images,” “Enclosure and the Eucharist,” and “The Topography of Visionary Experience.” Much has been written recently on the construction of nunneries, and the examples selected are widely varied. They range from the simple enclosure of the Dominican convent of Unterlinden at Colmar to the lavish Cistercian nunnery at Trzebnica in Silesia, an aristocratic establishment founded by Saint Hedwig. Hamburger is not much interested in architectural history. Monastic buildings are for him only the shells of the enclosure. The nuns, once they had passed through the narrow entrance of the monastery, remained secluded from the outside world. Even in the interior of the community nuns had only limited access to the open spaces within the religious buildings. They lived in their cells; they prayed in closed galleries, separated from the high altar and the nave of the church. Since they were barred from the sight of exterior things, their desire for spiritual visions became all the more intense, and they sought compensatory satisfaction in the fetishistic attachment to devotional images. “Enclosure and confinement,” Hamburger writes, “rather than curtailing the role of images, enhanced their vitality.”

Hamburger reminds us that former German nunneries such as Ebstorf, Lüne, or Wienhausen are still stuffed with devotional images and objects. Nuns owned private devotional images—figures of the Christ child, crucifixes, panels showing the crucifixion—which they regarded as brides regard photographs of their betrothed and which they handled as little children handle their playthings. But these images functioned also as the visual images for the imitation of Christ and his suffering, arousing the nuns to tears and self-flagellation. The images began to live, to move, and to speak. Hamburger writes: “The visions of female mystics and convent chronicles brim over with accounts of nuns standing before works of art, exchanging love vows with Christ, sharing embraces, kissing his wounds, and, of course, receiving the stigmata.”

For a post-Freudian reader such bodily reactions to living images seem quite naturally to be spiritual substitutes for maternal, erotic, and sexual experiences. A comprehensive interpretation of these mystic spasms would have to include inquiring into their psychological and possibly pathological origins. But even now art historians remain reluctant to admit such an approach. Hamburger in any case absolutely refrains from psychological or analytical explanations of the spiritual attacks that befell his beloved nuns.

He proposes instead: “I believe that we need to make images as central to our investigations of female monasticism as they were to the women who commissioned and created them.” This good and pious intention deserves respect, and it makes perfect sense for the mission Hamburger has set himself. But for a critical historian there remain problems. We will of course never be able to see the “visual culture” of a medieval nunnery entirely from the inside. Even Hamburger, who tries so hard to put himself in the place of the nuns in the enclosure, cannot help falling occasionally into the trap of modernist interpretation. “Women,” he writes, “even in the confines of enclosure, used art and architecture as vehicles for self-expression.” “Self-expression” was certainly not an accepted ideal in nunneries, but belongs to the vocabulary of women’s liberation.

The remaining eight chapters demonstrate the close and careful attention Hamburger has given to the relation between art and female spirit-uality. Again and again he returns to the same fundamental problems: the role of images in the cura monialium, the nuns’ desire to see the Savior, and their visions. An informative essay called “Before the Book of Hours” deals with an early illustrated prayer book discovered by Hamburger in Sélestat. This discovery provides him with yet another occasion to insist on his conviction that women need images. “Images,” he repeats, “remained an indispensable mainstay for women.” But now he adds a supplementary physiological argument which recalls the old male prejudice against the weaker sex. “Corporeal images,” he writes, “proved uniquely suited to the somatic character of female spirituality.” He concludes: “Female spirituality would eventually grant both the body and the image a novel legitimacy.” It is fascinating for the reader to see how very modern—even trendy—arguments about the body and its desires emerge from Hamburger’s learned discussion of a twelfth-century prayer book. No theme has been more fashionable in recent art and art history than the body.


Of the other essays two seem worth special attention. The chapter entitled “The Liber Miraculorum of Unterlinden: An Icon in Its Convent Setting” deals with the history of an image of the Virgin, its role in a Dominican convent, the miracles it worked, and the pilgrimage it attracted. Hamburger discusses the charming illustrations of the Liber Miraculorum, a small manuscript about the icon that shows its installation on an altar, the nuns venerating the image of the Virgin, and the pilgrims in prayer. With these illustrations we enter for once very convincingly into the interior of an enclosure and can observe an aspect of the pious life of the nuns.

Of greater importance is the chapter called “Vision and the Veronica.” The Veronica was the famous sudarium, or face cloth, allegedly imprinted with the face of the suffering Christ. It was taken to be both a faithful portrait of the Savior and a relic of his passion and, while the relic was kept in Italy, images of it were widely disseminated through all sorts of copies—panels, miniatures, woodcuts. “Many of the early examples…belonged to women,” Hamburger writes, “among them mystics, visionaries, and patrons of female communities.” Unlike any other image, the Veronica could satisfy the nuns’ desire to see the Lord’s face. Hamburger cites passages from a book (Legatus divinae pietatis) by the famous German mystic Gertrude of Helfta showing the ardor of Gertrude’s meditation on the Veronica. The vision of the Veronica could be called a centerpiece of Hamburger’s theory of female spirituality. But with this prime example, Hamburger overrates the religious significance of visual experience. “Images of the Veronica,” he suggests, “may have substituted for the Host, supplying a surrogate sacramental presence.” To this adventurous suggestion there is a clear objection: images could certainly enhance the nuns’ desire for communication with Christ, but they could not serve as a surrogate for the sacrament of the Eucharist. That would have been blatantly heretical.

Hamburger’s previous book, Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent, is a narrowly conceived case study. Concerned not only with the use but also with the production of images by nuns, it concentrates on a small number of colored drawings that were conceived in the venerable Benedictine nunnery of St. Walburg at Eichstätt in Franconia. Walburga was the sister of Willibald, the first bishop of Eichstätt, an Anglo-Saxon missionary, active in the eighth century. She became soon venerated as a saint. In 1035 a Benedictine nunnery was founded over her tomb, which continues to exist until this day. Pilgrims flock still to the tomb of Walburga and collect the miraculous oil dropping from her sarcophagus.

In this religious house, Hamburger writes, he “came across” the curious drawings that are the subject of his book. In their parlor the nuns, proud and jealous custodians of this unique treasure, showed him eleven drawings, while withholding fifteen more. So all his conclusions are based only on a part of the relevant material and remain by consequence preliminary.

The drawings, on paper or parchment, are of surprisingly small size, smaller than the reproductions in the book. They seem to date from about 1500, the very end of the Middle Ages. Hamburger believes that they are the work of the same hand, a “draftswoman” (Malerin) in the enclosure of St. Walburg. There are at least two objections to this view: (1) the differences between the drawings are so distinctive that the images were probably not created around the same time, and it seems still more doubtful that they could have been done all by the same hand; (2) that the drawings are of poor quality and show no professional skill seems to exclude Hamburger’s attribution to a trained “draftswoman.” It looks as if these are doodles, drawn in a dilettantish mood by several nuns without great artistic experience. But Hamburger is convinced that the very awkwardness of these images—their sheer ugliness—makes them interesting. “By being not stylized and not sophisticated,” he writes, “they mirror with faithful immediacy the nuns spirituality.” The “artless images…express with an uncommon immediacy the aspirations of the nuns who made them.”

Artlessness thus seems to be in Hamburger’s eyes a positive spiritual quality of the works by nuns as artists. He imagines his fictive draftswoman in the enclosure of St. Walburg somewhat as the eighteenth-century German writer Wilhelm Wackenroder, author of the famous Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Lay-Brother, imagined Fra Angelico in the enclosure of San Marco in Florence: “Painting was for him a holy penitential exercise; and sometimes, when he painted Christ’s sufferings on the Cross, one saw great tears flow down his face as he worked.”4 But in Hamburger’s case the core of the “visual culture” of the Benedictine nuns from St. Walburg was to be found in an artless primitivism. This view is remarkable in its degradation of the aesthetic.

Still greater are the problems of the provenance and the function of the drawings. We cannot be entirely sure that these were made at St. Walburg. They could have been sent there from another monastery after the devastation of St. Walburg in the Thirty Years’ War. An oral tradition in the abbey claims that the drawings were cut out from codices in the library of the monastery no longer than a hundred years ago and thereafter kept together as a collection of devotional images. This would explain why the borders of the drawings seem cut and why they are so small. If this tradition should prove true, it would shake much of Hamburger’s speculations about the role of drawings as being a distinctive part of the “visual culture” of the nunnery. He himself admits: “I have not…refrained from drawing sweeping conclusions.” As things look now, we shall have to wait for the forthcoming comprehensive study of the drawings by the learned sister Maria Magdalena Zunker, a nun in the convent in Eichstätt.5

The eleven drawings Hamburger has discussed pose other problems as well; two seem worth particular attention, one connected with the nuns’ veneration of the Virgin, the other with their meditations on the sacrifices of Christ. The first drawing shows seven festively clothed virgins kneeling in prayer on a flowering meadow before Mary with the Christ Child. Over the heads of the virgins an inscription says: “Accept this boy and bring him up for me” (Accipe puerum Istum et nutri michi). None of the other drawings is as charming and sweet as this image of the smiling virgins who receive the Christ Child. Fondling and kissing figures of the Christ Child was a well-documented form of piety in nunneries, especially around Christmas. The drawing is an allegory of the nuns’ love of Christ. It is astonishing that Hamburger could misread it as an image of the “consecration of the virgins,” with Mary officiating in place of the bishop.

The second drawing shows Christ on the cross (see illustration on page 40). The upper part of his body has been expanded into a symbolic image of his heart. A ladder leads up to an opening and in the heart’s interior we see the Christ Child embracing a nun. An inscription reads “O Heart, draw me to You, in You, after You” (O herz zeuch mich zu dir, in dich und nach dir). The rungs of the ladder symbolize the virtues that step by step raise the soul to the union with Christ. The highest rung symbolizes love (lieb). The drawing is a telling allegory of the devotional exercises leading the nuns to the ascension to their beloved Lord.

Hamburger describes this image very sensitively, but obsessed by his favorite idea of the “interrelation of sight and subjectivity,” he reverses its meaning. “The oversize heart,” he suggests, “no longer Christ’s alone, also represents the interior of the nun’s own being, into which she welcomes Christ.” This is an iconographic confusion. We know many images of a faithful person’s purified heart which becomes the dwelling of Christ. But this is not at all what the drawing with the ladder of virtues shows. It may be that, in looking at images, seeing can be more important than reading; but seeing without precise reading ends up in subjective delusions.

Hamburger has conquered a new province of medieval art. Thanks to his efforts “nuns as artists” will be no longer overlooked; but apparently blinded by enthusiasm over his own discovery he has largely ignored the hierarchical order that pervades the art of the period. Marginal images must be evaluated in relation to the higher forms of art works and the standards they were expected to meet. The ugly becomes recognizable only by comparison with the beautiful. A Benedictine nunnery like St. Walburg at Eichstätt with a long tradition reaching back beyond the twelfth century, with the tomb of a saint and a pilgrimage, was a complex institution. It is a romantic error to use awkward drawings of uncertain provenance as the master key to its visual culture.

This Issue

April 25, 2002