Nuns. Powerful women in the Middle Ages. A view of the exhibition. Copyright: © Swiss National Museum

Nuns and their lives in the 14th century

This summer, visitors to Zürich National Museum can study the remarkable story of the careers of medieval nuns. Extended to mid-august, an exhibition is worth looking into, if you are in the vicinity.

Votive panel, from St Gertrud in Cologne, ca. 1465, oak wood. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud Cologne, WRM 340-342. © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne
Votive panel, from St Gertrud in Cologne, ca. 1465, oak wood. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud Cologne, WRM 340-342. © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne

The study of nuns and their nunneries have consistently shown a marked variation in the opportunities, which were offered to the members of these institutions. History shows that the nuns might live contemplative lives. Often, though, the convents offered education and opportunities of a wide variety, including political power. This summer, an exhibition in Zürich shows this diversity by presenting a handful of career-possibilities such as becoming head of an important economic institution (including the right to mint coins), to become a creative theologian or a spiritual mystic.

The exhibition is build up through the presentation of fifteen powerful women with very diverse careers from Pétronelle de Chemillé (1115-114), abbess of Fontevrault and fifty adjacent cloisters, to Katharina von Zimmern (1478-1547), who was forced to hand over her abbey to the city of Zürich in 1524, after which she married a mercenary. Along the way, we learn about the careers of Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, and Catherine of Siena as well as lesser profiles; though curiously enough not about such women as Radegund from Poitier, St. Agnes of Prague, nor Birgitta of Vadstena. Thus, the selection is eclectic from the point of view of the Swiss curators. On the other hand, the exhibition offers a valuable insight into the women peopling the major religious institutions in the region between Zürich, Stuttgart and Nüremberg in the high and late Middle Ages.

Elsbeth Stagel

Illuminated letters from a manuscript with the Sisterbook of Töss Monastery. Stadtsbibliothek Nürnberg, Ms Cent. V 10a. Source: wikimedia
Illuminated letters from a manuscript with the Sisterbook of Töss Monastery. Elsbeth Stagel is pictured sitting at her writing desk. Stadtsbibliothek Nürnberg, Ms Cent. V 10a. Source: wikimedia

One of the women used as a powerful lens is Elsbeth Stagel(c. 1300 – 1360). She was born as the daughter of a wealthy magistrate in Zürich and was dedicated to religious life when she entered the monastery of Töss at an early age.

The Töss Convent was founded un 1233 in Winthertur, twenty kilometres north of Zürich near the Töss River. In 1240 the church was dedicated, and a few years later it became a Dominican convent. In the next hundred years, the nunnery grew to become a significant and wealthy institution with an important role to play in the history of Zürich. In the 13th and 14th centuries, there may have been about a hundred nuns living inside the walled enclosure. Among these was Elsbeth Stagel, who became known from her contact to the mystic, Heinrich Suso, her influence on his writings and his spiritual development. But she is also known for her literary output, foremost the lives of her sisters recorded in the “Sisterbook from Töss”. As such, she was an active participant in the religious conversations that dominated the day.

The “Sisterbook from Töss” is one of nine preserved manuscripts produced between ca. 1310 and 1350 in southern Germany, and containing spiritual biographies written by Dominican nuns. Primarily written in the vernacular, they constitute a distinct form of spiritual literature written by, for and about women. Mainly, they hold spiritual biographies or “Gnaden-Viten” as they have been characterised. The lives are not biographies as we would understand this genre, but rather the collections of the auditions, visions, and descriptions of unity with God experienced by the Dominican nuns. Illuminations from the Nuremberg manuscript of the Töss Sisterbook are exhibited.

These biographies differ from most of the texts written by their male counterparts. Neither are they commentaries on the mystical meaning of the scriptures nor do they have the character of spiritual guides. Instead, the Sisterbooks hold narratives praising the saintly sisters and their achievements in terms of holiness. However, as the genre usually contains an introduction telling the history of the convent and the early struggle to be recognised by the Dominicans, the genre also represents a kind of communitarian biography – part history, part hagiography, and part mystical ecstatic narratives.

The exhibition shows a number of preserved altarpieces, sculptures, and manuscripts offering insight into the life at these convents in the Middle Ages.

Detail from: hanging, depicting a Hortus conclusus, Basel, 1480, wool, silk, gold and silver wire, woven © Swiss National Museum, LM 1959
Detail from: hanging, depicting a Hortus conclusus, Basel, 1480, wool, silk, gold and silver wire, woven © Swiss National Museum, LM 1959

VISIT:

Nonnen. Starke Frauen im Mittelalter
Landesmuseum Zürich
20.03.2020 – 16.08.2020

CATALOGUE

Nonnen. Starke Frauen im Mittelalter.
Published by Schweizeriches Nationalmuseum 2020.

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