Altar cloth from Altenberg in the Met - the Cloister detail adoration of the Magi

Medieval Embroidered Textiles in Whitework

While England is renowned for its Opus Angelicum embroideries, Germany is known for its tradition of Opus Teutonicum or Whitework, worked with white or coloured linen or silk on bleached linen and used for altar cloths. New book tells the story of the textiles from Altenberg.

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

This is an very important – and beautiful – publication. Based on the authors doctoral dissertation it presents a very detailed analysis of a number of textiles – and other precious artefacts – which were produced and amassed at the Convent Altenberg an der Lahn.

The convent was founded in 1170. However, it was not until 1229 the convent began to gain visibility in the wider religious landscape of the 13th century. That year the two-year old Gertrud, daughter of the future St. Elizabeth of Hungary, was given to the convent to bring her up, while her mother went around acquiring her saintly status. As a grown up, Gertrud was in 1248 created Magistra of her mother institution. At this point, she embarked on a life-long endeavour to turn her convent into an important memorial for her mother and her wider family. Part of this work consisted of rebuilding the church and securing a number of relics of her mother and reliquaries to hold them. However, another part consisted in creating a pictorial legacy of her mother and father (who died on a crusade) through the production of several remarkable textiles.

Altar Cloth from Altenburg c 1330. Source: Cleveland museum of Art
Altar Cloth from Altenburg c 1330. Source: Cleveland museum of Art

Foremost, she was responsible for a beautiful embroidered hanging showing the vita of her mother. Now in St. Petersburg, it is currently (2016) on show in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The hanging includes eight key moments of the history of St. Elizabeth some of which are unique, e.g. the cutting of her hair before she entered the convent in Marburg. The tapestry also includes the scene where Elizabeth bids her husband farewell before he ventured on the crusade. This had stark personal importance fore Gertrud, who was promised to a religious institution if her father should die before he came home. This scene can also be found in Gertrud’s personal psalter as well as in the stained windows in the choir of the church at Altenberg. Stefanie Seeberg argues that the textile functioned as a wall-hanging, which was perhaps hung behind the altar before the church was fitted with a winged retable in the 14th century.

Another precious item is a cover for a catafalque with a particular pictorial programme. Two rows of crowned kings and queens are depicted under arcades. It is argued by Stefanie Seeberg that the hitherto unidentified individuals are members of the beata stirps of Getrud’s family; here rendered as crowned ancestors lined up to honour a family with perhaps not so spectacular a descent. Might textiles be a more malleable and less controversial medium than for instance carved sculptures?

To these two early textiles were later added a number of altar cloths, currently kept at such diverse institutions as the Metropolitan in New York (the Cloisters), the Art Museum in Cleveland, the collections in Eisenach and the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts. A fragment of another altar cloth can be found in the nearby Castle of Braunfels.

Some of these cloths were evidently produced as part of the refurbishing of the choir, which took place in 1320 – 30 and measure about 125 – 390 cm. They fit the present altar in the church perfectly. They are characterised by high quality drawing and have been signed by sisters in the convent. Written inventories reveal that other such textiles have been lost. Others were made at a later time.

A fascinating element are the “political comments”, which Stefanie Seeberg has discovered were designed and embroidered into the textiles; at that point the relations between Pope and Emperor where fraught with conflicts. Curiously enough, the nuns lined up with the Pope although they depended on the protection of the Emperor to avoid the intrigues of the Princes of Sols and Nassau bent on trying to insert themselves as guardians and overlords.

The book offers an extremely detailed analysis of both the history behind these textiles, their pictorial programs, and how they were made. Included in this are details about materials and embroidery techniques. However, the textiles from Altenberg are considered in a comparative context with a number of other such preserved pieces of arts, e.g. those kept in Berlin or in the convents near Lüneburg.

As such it serves not only as an introduction to the remarkable pieces of textile art preserved from Altenberg. It may also function as a valuable introduction to the art of the Opus Teutonicum and their place in the construction of the ensembles of furnishings characteristic of the High and Later Middle Ages

Karen Schousboe

Featured Photo:

Altar cloth from Altenberg in the Met – the Cloister detail adoration of the Magi © Metropolitan Museum of Art/ The Cloisters


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

Having her hand in it? Elite Women as ‘Makers’ of Textile Art in the Middle Ages
By Stefanie Seeberg
In: Journal of Medieval History Volume 42, Issue 1, 2016 Special Issue: ‘Me fecit.’ Making Medieval Art (History), pp. 26 – 5


Wall hanging from Altenberg St Elisabeth. St Petersburg. Source: Pinterest
Wall hanging from Altenberg with the story of St Elisabeth of Hungary. St Petersburg. Source: Pinterest