Professor Corine Schleif (1949–2023)

Corine working in 2004 in the archives at Harburg Castle (Fürstlich Oettingen-Wallersteinsches Archiv Harburg) on the only surviving account book of the monastery of Maihingen (Photo: Volker Schier)

Corine Schleif, art historian, born February 20, 1949 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, passed away on December 8, 2023, in Phoenix, Arizona.

An esteemed scholar of medieval and Renaissance art, she has left us with an extensive body of work that questions the motivations of patrons, artists, and art historians, explores intersensorality and emotion, and challenges the limits imposed through categories of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and animality.

Corine Schleif studied art history at prestigious universities in the United States and Germany: Washington University in St. Louis, Philipps University in Marburg, Free University in Berlin, and Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. She received her Ph.D. from Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg in 1986. Corine Schleif felt equally at home and was respected in the academic environments on both sides of the Atlantic. As a university professor it was

important to her to devote time and effort to mentor students and, whenever possible, to help open doors on a difficult career path. As an activist she was vocal about protecting endangered cultural heritage, such as the library of the now-dissolved Birgittine monastery of Altomünster, which she helped to safeguard.

Since her extensive work addressed many topics in medieval and Renaissance art, it must remain an unsuccessful attempt to cover all her four single-authored or co-authored books, three edited volumes , 70 articles and reviews, close to 140 presentations, and various other projects. However, one may attempt to highlight those that were of particular importance to her.

Throughout her career Corine Schleif worked extensively on medieval memorial practices and gift exchange which created the basis for complex perpetual and cyclic rituals of remembrance. Her dissertation Donatio et memoria, Stifter, Stiftungen und Motivationen an Beispielen aus der Lorenzkirche in Nürnberg, published by prestigious Deutscher Kunstverlag in 1990, focuses on the partly elaborate donation strategies by clerics and patricians at the church of St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, ranging from the 15th century to the beginning of the Reformation in 1524. Her groundbreaking work provided the methodological framework and became a case model for subsequent scholarship on devotional practices at other churches, especially in the German-speaking lands and the Low Countries.

As a feminist who was not only aware of gender inequalities but also social hierarchies, Corine Schleif was devoted to shedding light on the work of the many wives of medieval and Renaissance artists who were mostly written out of the historic narratives, generated within the initially male-dominated field of art history in a successful attempt to forge the image of the male genius artist (e.g. “The Many Wives of Adam Kraft: Renaissance Artists’ Wives in Legal Documents, Art-Historical Scholarship, and Historical Fiction”).  She also explored how artists’ wives were unjustly denigrated as nagging and interested solely in material gain, such as Agnes Frey, the wife of Albrecht Dürer, who as patrician daughter indeed was the apt and successful manager of the family workshop (e.g. “Albrecht Dürer between Agnes Frey and Willibald Pirckheimer“). Schleif’s work, based on her meticulous research in the archives and libraries especially of Nuremberg, enabled her to identify, isolate and in many instances correct the multilayered stories replete with prejudice and personal opinions that often had not been scrutinized.   

In 1998, Corine Schleif and Volker Schier happened across a collection of letters by a Birgittine nun at a monastery in South Germany that was largely untapped. Together they authored the book Katerina’s Windows: Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen through the Writings of a Birgittine Nun in 2009 [Book Review on Vidimus Issue 36] and subsequently Pepper for Prayer, in collaboration with Anne Simon in 2019, which describes how a successful businesswoman with a patrician family background in 16th century Nuremberg entered the monastery of Maihingen following the death of her husband [Book Review on Vidimus Issue 133]. In her new role as nun, Lemmel made use not only of her extensive funds, but also her family and business networks, to rebuild, improve and furnish parts of the monastery, foremost the cloister which played a central role in the Birgittine liturgy for women. The letters provide previously unknown insights into detailed planning and fund-raising strategies in order to formulate the exchange value of prayers and remembrance for potential donors. Lemmel’s carefully formulated strategies substantiate and corroborate many of Corine Schleif’s previous theories and assumptions in regard to spiritual economies.

Another large project Corine Schleif was devoted to for many years was the contextualization of the so-called Geese Book, a large format two volume illuminated gradual produced in the years 1507 and 1510 for the church of St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, today kept at the Morgan Library in New York. In retrospect the extensive manuscript resembles a final backup of the liturgical practice of the church on the eve of the Reformation. Opening the Geese Book, launched in 2012, makes use the digital technology of our time to explain aspects of the genesis and production as well as the liturgical use of a manuscript that encodes central elements for multi-faceted rituals in a multisensorial environment.

Among her many articles, the most well-known is beyond doubt “Men on the Right – Women on the Left: (A)symmetrical Spaces and Gendered Places,” published in 2005, which analyzes (localized) gender polarities within and beyond medieval society.

The project that was probably dearest to Corine Schleif was a monograph on the Nuremberg artist Adam Kraft, today best known as the maker of the famous tabernacle at St. Lorenz. Her extensive study of the life and work of Kraft, based on archival sources, paired with research of his afterlife, including appropriations in popular narratives, various scholarly environments, as well as in political contexts, accompanied Corine Schleif throughout much of her career. It was only weeks before her death that she completed the last chapter. Thus, Bending Stone: Adam Kraft and the Sculpting of Art’s History will be her lasting memorial.

For a medievalist and scholar, nothing seems more appropriate than readers performing remembrance once they will be able to hold this book in their hands. In a truly medieval sense this not only permits access to her thoughts, otherwise lost, but also establishes a physical connection back to the author. In this respect, one might even imply that Corine Schleif made use of strategies not dissimilar to those employed by many of the donors she had written about. I have no doubt that her strategy will prove successful.

Volker Schier

(To remember and commemorate Corine Schleif, you may want to access many of her articles mentioned above, as well as the entire volume Donatio et memoria on her Academia page. The page also contains full bibliographic references to her work.)

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