Women as Conceivers, Donors, Artists, and Embroiderers of Illustrated Textiles in Liturgical Furnishings and Church Decoration in the 13th and 14th Centuries

Stefanie Seeberg, Universität zu Köln, sseeberg@uni-koeln.de

An excellent example of the active roles women played in church decoration in the Middle Ages is the Premonstratensian nunnery of Altenberg in Hesse, Germany. From this monastery five large illustrated linen embroideries (about 150 to 400 cm) survive. They were made between 1270 and 1330, two of them during the time of magistra Gertrud (1227-1297), daughter of Saint Elizabeth (1207-1231), when the newly constructed church of the fast-growing nunnery got its first decoration. The first is a tomb cloth or catafalque cover, singular in its elaborate figural program with royal nimbed couples and prophets, and the second an embroidery with nine scenes from the life of Saint Elizabeth.

One generation after Gertrud’s death, three altarcloths with different pictorial programs in high quality drawing were made about 1330, together with an altarpiece—one of the earliest surviving winged examples. Unlike the altarpiece, the textiles show figures of donors as well as initials and names of women who dedicated their work to Jesus, as the inscriptions indicate. These embroideries, together with written sources and other liturgical objects, tell us about the furnishing of the high altar as a project of several women from the leading families connected to Altenberg - the landgraves of Thuringia and Hesse, the earls of Nassau, and others. Women from both within and outside the convent were involved in conceiving, financing, drawing, and embroidering the textiles. 

Together, all five textiles were made for the public space of the church, not the cloistered areas. Central elements of the decoration on high feast days when the church received many visitors and pilgrims, they give witness to the active roles played by women in the iconographic program of church decoration, as well as representing their cloister and the memoria of their families.