Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 1, 2000
Jeffrey F. Hamburger The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany MIT Press, 1998. 608 pp.; 5 color ills.; 341 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0942299450)
Thumbnail

Winner of CAA’s Charles Rufus Morey Book Award

Jeffrey Hamburger’s collection of essays, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany, examines the function of religious images in the context of female enclosure in the later Middle Ages. Hamburger’s stated objective is twofold: to explore art that medieval women commissioned, or that their superiors commissioned for them; and to situate this art in the context of enclosure. Hamburger began research that led to this publication in 1989. Six of these nine essays have been previously published, but revised for this collection. Though they remain essays rather than chapters, they all revolve around the theme of the pastoral care of nuns, or cura monialium. By re-examining reformers whom other scholars overlooked, introducing works of art that have received negligible attention, and problematizing the relationships between nuns and their male superiors, Hamburger ensconces the art of female enclosure in the complexity of its context.

In the first essay, “Art, Enclosure, and the Pastoral Care of Nuns,” Hamburger considers the cura monialium, demonstrating that women’s spiritual lives were far from passive, despite their constant supervision by male superiors. Though many of the texts written by male superiors were prescriptive, they also responded to the actual beliefs and behaviors of their female charges. Hamburger begins with the double monastery of Admont in Steiermark, in twelfth-century Austria. This essay sets both the tone and the method for the rest of the essays. Hamburger collects texts and images, used in, produced by, or in some way tied to a female cloistered community. Through close reading of texts, manuals written by men for their female charges, paintings and prints, among other sources, Hamburger situates the lives of cloistered women in the context of their own expectations and of male authority.

More particularly, Hamburger explores the role of images in the devotional practices and visions of cloistered women, concluding that visual experience was not only a critical feature of female spirituality, but also that the boundaries of an enclosed life magnified the potency of images. He also offers the significant corrective that the role of images in female enclosure is not an extension of lay culture; quite to the contrary, the “popular” piety of the laity in the later Middle Ages is indebted to practices of cloistered women.

In “The Visual and the Visionary: The Image in Late Medieval Monastic Devotions,” Hamburger argues that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, images of enclosed female visionary experience differed from Bernard of Clairvaux’s twelfth-century proscriptions. For thirteenth- to fourteenth-century nuns, images were a step toward, rather than an obstacle to, visionary experience. An example is a monk praying before a crucifix in the Rothschild Canticles, a book made familiar from Hamburger’s 1990 study. Whereas Bernard of Clairvaux uses the imagery of the Song of Songs to symbolize spiritual states, by the late thirteenth century, nuns see the images of the Song of Songs as visions.

Hamburger analyzes late medieval mysticism in terms of function rather than iconography, an approach that is both sensible and productive. However, I would take exception to his assertion that the difference between iconographic and functional interpretation is a contrast between an iconographic focus on “high” art and a functional approach to “low” art. Both methods depend on the presuppositions of art historians rather than the dictates of objects themselves. Paintings by Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck, as well as countless others, have been subject to, and the site of dispute over, the merits of both approaches.

The remaining essays are what Hamburger calls case studies. “Before the Book of Hours: The Development of the Illustrated Prayer Book in Germany” examines images in the narrative cycles of twelfth-century prayer books. The liber precum in Sélestat and Hildegarde’s purported prayer book are tools of affective piety written by men for female novices, though such uses may have been scorned by monks.

“The Use of Images in the Pastoral Care of Nuns: The case of Henry Suso and the Dominicans” scrutinizes Suso’s fourteenth-century Exemplar. Suso’s Exemplar demonstrates that images are useful tools for cultivating religious experience, even though he seems to concede, at least rhetorically, that it is best to pray without them. In keeping with the Dominicans’ mission as teachers, Suso used images as a didactic tool. However, he also appears to have used images in his own devotions. Proof of this is the paintings in his own chapel, described in his Exemplar, which also find echoes in illustrations of the Rothschild Canticles and paintings in Dominican cloisters in Italy. That Suso likely used images in the same ways he counseled his female charges to use them marks a clear departure from the twelfth-century ideals.

“Medieval Self-Fashioning: Authorship, Authority, and Autobiography in Suso’s Exemplar” addresses the issue of the function of a late medieval Exemplar in general. Suso’s Exemplar exemplifies both the medieval contemplative life and modern autobiography. It not only anticipates modern selfhood, but also refers back to twelfth-century patterning of one’s own behavior on ideal models. Suso’s autobiography is modeled on the Life of Christ; and in turn, Suso’s Exemplar provides a blueprint for the reader’s own life.

The “vera ikon” and its reception in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is the subject of “Vision and the Veronica.” The experiences of Gertrude of Helfta, Mechthild of Hackeborn, and Julian of Norwich exemplify specific forms of devotion to the Veronica, and also reveal basic underpinnings of affective, image-based piety. Veronica is a model not as a woman, but as a witness to the Passion. Hamburger astutely points out that Veronica’s feast day occurs on the on the second Sunday after Epiphany, linking her to Christ’s life on earth, when he was physically visible, rather than the Passion more narrowly construed. (The Veronica image substitutes for pilgrimage, in effect by bringing the holy figure to the pilgrim, and it collapses the paradox of physical sight and metaphysical vision, representation, and visionary image.)

“’On the Little Bed of Jesus: Pictorial Piety and Monastic Reform,” the penultimate essay, addresses an unpublished Sendbrief of the second half of the fifteenth century in Nuremberg. This is an encyclical meant for the entire community of nuns to read, or to be read aloud, even though it is ostensibly written for a single person. “Von Ihesus pettlein” addresses two issues: the love between Christ and the soul as a product of private piety, and asceticism as a method of discipline. The problem with both private piety and extreme asceticism is that both grant excessive power to the individual believer, diminishing ecclesiastical power. The strategy of “Von Ihesus pettlein” is to preserve the traditional sexual metaphor of the love of the soul for Christ, but to detach it from the private devotion or acts of self-denial, and to redirect it to public forms of worship, specifically the eucharist. Though the text is not illustrated, it exploits familiar erotic metaphors (the “little bed” refers to the lovers’ bed in the Song of Songs) and generically to images that were likely familiar to nuns. This redirection of mysticism addresses the tension between private mystical experience and fidelity to rules of community, the essential conflict of religious life.

The final essay on reform movements in fifteenth-century German monasteries is a fitting conclusion, bringing changes in image-based devotion up to the point of the Reformation. The Book of the reformed, or Observant, Dominican Order, by Johannes Meyer, is a worthy source of information, in part because scholars have traditionally overlooked Meyer, seeing him as a “compiler” of the ideas of others. Meyer’s narrative focuses on the convent of Schonensteinbach in Alsace, what Hamburger calls the “cornerstone” of Dominican reform. Hamburger carefully explains that Meyer’s commentary does not describe or account for the presence of art in the convent. Instead, Meyer describes how the nuns should interact with images. This is an unusual and invaluable angle. Rarely can scholars discover historical perceptions of actual behavior.

Meyer was suspicious of religious art, and believed private image-based devotions to be profoundly threatening to ecclesiastical power. Like the writer of “Von Ihesus pettlein,” Meyer believed that individual visions permitted too much autonomy; and like Luther, Meyer held that private visions were too easily confused with demonic apparitions. Meyer is in fact the diametric opposite of Suso, who nurtured private, image-based devotion.

Occasionally, the vast information and density of Hamburger’s prose detract from the greater conceptual issues of his essays. For example, in the discussion of the portable triptychs in convents in northern Germany in the final essay, one paragraph consists entirely of a list of convents with images comparable to the portable triptychs at Meyer’s home monastery. This profuse evidence is of course the foundation of Hamburger’s argument, but presented in this manner it interrupts the flow of his argument.

Overall, Hamburger’s essays offer the reader fresh insights into late medieval culture of female enclosure. He challenges our assumptions about the relationship of female monastic piety to lay devotion, and he analyzes the changes in devotional practice from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. He casts the authority of male superiors as both prescriptive and reactive to the beliefs and practices of their charges, and brings to light the effect of enclosure on the function of images. Though the essays are discrete units and do not cohere into book chapters, together they offer related, occasionally overlapping, and always provocative interpretations of late medieval female piety.

Bonnie Noble
University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.