Retable from Altenberg near Lahn © Städel Museum/Norbert Miguelitz

Heaven Was on Display in Altenberg

This summer head for Franfurt and the Städel Museum, which shows a unique reunion of the Altenberg Altar and its liturgical treasures from c. 1300

Linen altar cloth from Altenberg © Städel Museum/ Norbert miguletz 0112 web
Linen altar cloth from Altenberg normally in St. Petersburg © Städel Museum/ Norbert Miguletz

Art historians tend to look at specific pieces of art apart. However, retables, alters, textiles, reliquaries etc. all constituted living liturgical ensembles presenting the officiating priests and  onlookers with powerful 3D images of the holiest of holies.

In the Städel Museum in Frankfurt visitors are currently invited to experience such an ensemble, which has been lovingly recreated around one of the prized possessions of the museum: a retable of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, which comes from the former Premonstratensian convent of Altenberg an der Lahn. From about 1330 onward, this retable, formed the core of an ensemble, which furnished the choir and main altar of the convent church built between 1260 and 1270. The altarpiece entered the Städel collection and its superb holdings of Early German painting in 1925.

In the exhibition the retable have been reunited with 37 other artefacts, which used to be part of the ensemble until the secularisation of the convent in the beginning of the 19th century.  At that time the princes of Solms Braunfels acquired the convent and its possessions and soon particular items made their way to prestigious collections all over the world. For the first time in 200 years these pieces of art are shown in their liturgical and spiritual context.

The ensemble of objects belonging to the Altenberg Altar and on display in the show is quite broad, encompassing reliquaries originally presented in the interior of the shrine cabinet, altar cloths of around 1330 embroidered with figural depictions and bearing patrons’ inscriptions, gold work and altar crosses of the thirteenth century, figural glass paintings from the early fourteenth-century choir window, etc.

Altar Cloth from Altenberg © The Met/the Cloister Detail
Altar Cloth from Altenberg © The Met/the Cloister Detail

Madonna and Child

Madonna with Child from Altenberg © Städel Museum/Bastian Krack
Madonna with Child from Altenberg © Städel Museum/Bastian Krack

Foremost, of course, it has been reunited with the Madonna and Child, which used to be placed in the centre of the retable. Now on permanent loan from the Bavarian National Museum it constitutes the eye-catching centre of the exhibition. It is easy to imagine how the nuns experienced the sclupture coming alive in the flickering and bejewelled light from wax candles and stained glass windows.

However, the survival of the altar cloths belonging to the altar ensemble from the Early Gothic period is in itself unparalleled. Concurrently with the panel paintings, they were produced as embroidered pictorial compositions of imposing size and quality to decorate the altar table in front of the altarpiece. The exhibition includes two of these embroidered linen cloths made in Altenberg in Opus teutonicum. Other textiles exhibited are the tapestries executed around 1270, which illustrate the life of Elizabeth and her husband, Landgrave Louis IV. One of these works may have been hung above the altar on high feast days before the installation of the retable; thus it may have been its textile predecessor. A second large tapestry with embroidered figures, likewise produced under Gertrude, was shown on days commemorating the family. The two hangings join with other objects from the convent – for example the arm reliquary of St Elizabeth, her silver jug and a ring allegedly once belonging to her husband – to provide insights into the story of Elizabeth of Hungary and her family. The saint’s youngest daughter, Gertrude, entered the convent as a small child and was ultimately responsible for the loving recreation of Altenberg as a shrine for her mother.

The Adoration of the Magi

The Adoration of the Magi. Stained window from Altenberg © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Adoration of the Magi. Stained window from Altenberg © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the background surrounding the altar were also stained windows, representing their own pictorial cycle. Four of these panels now kept in the Cloister (the Met) in New York and featuring the adoration of the Magi and the Annunciation have been generously lent to the exhibition. The motif of one of those windows – the adoration of the Magi – can repeatedly be found in the paintings on the sidewings of the retable, in the stained windows and in the linen cloths, thus documenting the specific concern of the sisters to place the Mother of God at the centre of their spiritual life.

Along with the original altar cloths and the ensemble of extremely precious objects, the retable forms one of the most impressive sets of church furnishings that have come down to us from the Late Middle Ages. But it also yields detailed information on how the many diverse artefacts played a role in the devotion of the sisters. New examinations of the painted wings of the retable have yielded information about new paintings and inscriptions, which were only visible from the back or when the retable was closed. Covered in Baroque over-paintings, the original medieval decoration was revealed through fluorescent x-ray examination.

The exhibition has been generously provided with 3D-visualisations intended to show the exhibited artefacts in their original setting, thus providing the visitors with ample possibilities to “sink” into a meditative stance akin the immersion, which the nuns and their visitors had so ample opportunity to seek out when “Heaven went on Display”.

Altenberger Retable in a photomontage © Städel Museum
Altenberger Retable in a photomontage © Städel Museum


Schaufenster des Himmels. Der Altenberger Altar und seine Bildausstattung
Städel Museum
Schaumainkai 63
60596 Frankfurt am Main


Visiting the Heaven catalogueSchaufenster des Himmels – Heaven on Display
Ed by Jochen Sander with contributions of  von Max Hollein, Jochen Sander, Julia Schultz, Stefanie Seeberg, Christoph Krekel, Christiane Weber and Fabian Wolf
Deutscher Kunstverlag 2016

Aus der Nähe betrachtet. Bilder am Hochaltar und ihre Funktionen im Mittelalter
Ed by  Jochen Sander, Stefanie Seeberg and Fabian Wolf, with contributions by Angela Kappeler, Stephan Kemperdick, Peter Knüvener, Christian N. Opitz, Victor M. Schmidt, Johannes Tripps, Gerhard Weilandt, Matthias Weniger, Jörg Widmaier and Susanne Wittekind
Deutscher Kunstverlag 2016




Textile Bildwerke im Kirchenraum coverTextile Bildwerke im Kirchenraum. Leinenstickereien im Kontext mittelalterlicher Raumausttattungen aus dem Prämonstratenserinnen Kloster Oltenberg/Lahn.
By Stefanie Seeberg.
Michael Imhoff Verlag 2014

For English Readers:

Women as Makers of Church Decoration: Illustrated Textiles at the Monasteries of Altenberg/Lahn, Ruppertsberg, and Heiningen (13th-14th. C.)
By Stephanie Seeberg
In: Reassessing the Roles of Women as ‘Makers* of Medieval Art and Architecture. Ed. by Therese Martin, Brill 2012 Vol 1, pp. 355 – 398



Retable from Altenberg near Lahn © Städel Museum/Norbert Miguelitz




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