Katerina’s Windows: Donation and Devotion, Art and Music As Heard and Seen Through the Writings of a Birgittine Nun.

Katerina’s Windows: Donation and Devotion, Art and Music As Heard and Seen Through the Writings of a Birgittine Nun by Corine Schleif and Volker Schier. Pennyslvania State University Press, 2009, 53 colour, 195 b/w illustrations, 4 maps, 624 pages, 8 x 10 inches, hardback. Price: $110.00

Fig. 1. A portrait of Katerina Lemmel wearing the crown of a Brigittine nun

Fig. 1. A portrait of Katerina Lemmel wearing the crown of a Brigittine nun

This is a book of profound importance to Vidimus readers and anyone interested in late medieval life and religion. It centres upon fifty-eight letters sent by a 16th-century German nun to her cousin over a six-year year period (1516–1522), the highlight of which is her successful efforts to commission a set of stained glass windows for the monastic cloister. Preserved in family archives, the letters, together with three others to the cousin from the abbess of the monastery, and six short notes, have been translated from medieval German by the authors and provided with extensive contextualising commentaries. Put as such, it sounds simple, but there is nothing simple on a single page. The book is nothing less than a 500 page epic – a magnificent, utterly engrossing, splendidly illustrated, five-star achievement which brings a lost world to life and represents a major contribution to medieval stained glass studies and much more.

The first two chapters set the background to the story which begins in late medieval Nuremberg, a prosperous city in southern Germany, where in the summer of 1484 the eighteen-year old Katerina Imhoff married Michel Lemmel, the son of a well-to-do merchant family from Bamberg. By any standards the young bride was a prize catch: educated, articulate, strong-willed and with a good head for figures. Her family was one of the richest and most powerful in the city from where they ran a multi-national trading business. Through her grandmother she was related to the Volckamer and Tucher families, also members of the local oligarchy. As befitting their wealth and status the young couple lived in an imposing mansion, had a garden, attended dances, ate well, socialised with an extended network of cousins and in-laws and enjoyed the privileges and conventions of upper-class respectability. Then after nearly thirty years of marriage, Katerina’s world crashed. In 1513 Michel died. Suddenly her life was turned upside-down: she was a widow, a woman on her own, her grief made harder by being childless; her future uncertain and possibly unfulfilling.

Despite the misgivings of her closest relatives, she took a life-changing decision, marrying not another man, but becoming a bride of Christ. Three years after her husband’s death, having sorted out her inheritances, she left the city to become a professed Brigittine nun at the monastery of Maria Mai at Maihingen in Ries, about fifty miles (eighty kilometres) to the south of her former home. Until her death seventeen years later, she would never voluntarily leave its walls.



The Brigittine Order observed the rules of its founder, St Birgitte (Bridget) of Sweden (1303 – 1373). Its nuns were mainly drawn from urban patrician families and in Germany regarded themselves as members of an elite group. Chapter Twenty of their Statutes, for example, prescribed a daily diet of almost a pound of bread, over a litre of beer or wine, and two kinds of meat, as well as broth and vegetables except when fasting was mandated. Although their monasteries included monks and priests, the community was always governed by an Abbess elected by the nuns and priests. The women were cloistered (enclosed) and much of their day was spent in prayer. They wore full-length grey habits and a unique crown made of white linen fastened to their hoods. The intersecting lines of the crown were highlighted by small patches of red cloth representing the blood of the five wounds of Christ. [Fig. 1]

Katerina’s letters are largely a one-way correspondence to her cousin Hans Imhoff, the chief executive of the family trading business. Although none of his letters to her survive, the authors’ skilful accompanying commentaries make it possible to reconstruct some of this missing correspondence. Initially her letters reassure the family that she is contented and busy – implicitly addressing concerns on these accounts. Thereafter they focus on detailed requests for money from her financial investments and the provision of spices, such as saffron and ginger, and other supplies for the monastery. Some include suggestions detailing how money should be hidden in grain sacks in case robbers attack the wagons that bring the goods while others grumble about the difficulties of ensuring that letters and receipts are safely delivered.

Slowly, an impression grows of a monastery which, though internally harmonious, is struggling to make ends meet, becoming increasingly dependent on Katerina’s money and family contacts. Katerina herself emerges as a woman who, although physically isolated from the outside world, still has her finger on the pulse of family marriages, births, deaths and other news, including the fortunes of the Imhoff trading business, and occasionally even of small-scale local wars and disputes which pose threats to the tranquillity of her ordered life.

In January 1518 she writes the first of her letters to Hans about the glazing of the abbey cloister. The importance of this correspondence – and the author’s commentaries – cannot be overstated.

The nunnery cloister was an important communal space in the monastery, its four long covered walks (corridors) being used for weekly processions. Led by the sacristan, who carried a crucifix, the nuns followed two by two holding relics, singing psalms and saying prayers for the well-being and souls of their wealthy benefactors. The cloister was where nuns congregated as they entered the church and where their individual lives criss-crossed as they moved between their cells, their workshops and others parts of the complex. Some were buried below its pavements.

Katerina is already funding the rebuilding of the cloisters when, with tangible excitement, she tells Hans that, as a way of settling some long running financial dispute, one of her brothers-in-law, Martin Tucher, has agreed to ‘have a window made for us’ and promised to ask his son, Lorenz, and his son’s father-in-law, if they would do the same. The value to the donors of such generosity is underscored as she tells Hans:

When the sisters process through the cloister with the holy relics and…when they sing the seven Psalms and when they daily pass by at other times, on seeing the coats of arms they will pray for them all the more………I should very much like to ask several good friends if they would make memorials to themselves by making the other windows …and share in the inter cession for eternity. (p. 248)


Fig. 2. The Bethrothal of the Virgin by Viet Hirsvogel and workshop, Großgründlach, St. Laurentius. © Corine Schleif and Volker Schier.

Fig. 2. The Bethrothal of the Virgin by Viet Hirsvogel and workshop, Großgründlach, St. Laurentius. © Corine Schleif and Volker Schier.

So begins what the authors call, ‘a complex process of planning, sponsoring, donating, commissioning and executing the glazing of the cloister’, which sees Katerina writing to her relatives and using Hans as her emissary to solicit an additional twelve windows for the monastery as part of a reciprocal gift-giving process – the donors give windows to the nuns, the nuns give prayers on their behalf. Between the lines, she pleads, she exploits rivalries, she cajoles, she promises prayers to the generous and appeals to the sympathy of her cousins by describing conditions in the cloisters as cold and wet.

As the donations begin to arrive the work of Master Veit Hirsvogel the Elder (1461–1525) began. Viet Hirsvogel was the official Nuremberg glazier and the beneficiary of a virtual craft monopoly in and around the city. Founded by his father and an uncle, the workshop also included his sons and a grandson (Sebald). He had been contacted by Tucher to undertake the work at Maihingen and made the journey himself to measure the windows. By August 1518 the plan was finalised: fifteen windows on four sides,with one side having more than the others. Examples of his work still survive in the city and elsewhere, including the Victoria and Albert museum in London. [Figs. 2 and 3]


The Brigittine order, like the early Cistercians, initially frowned on colourful figural stained glass. St Birgitta pronounced that in one of her visions (recorded and transcribed as her Revelationes ) Christ had told her that ‘windows should be simple and bright’ in order ‘that my words although plain, nonetheless through the light of divine cognition, shall go out into the world’. This view was enshrined in the Statutes of the Order which stated that ‘glass shall neither have images or other painting nor shall it be anything but white or yellow’. By the early 16th century, however, these stipulations were no longer enforced.

Among the iconographical subjects chosen were the Coronation of the Virgin, Christ Taking Leave of his Mother, the Last Supper, Christ Crowned with Thorns, The Crucifixion, scenes from His Life and that of the Virgin, and a complementary sequence known as the Seven Falls of Christ, which presented images of Christ’s suffering while his mother watches from the sidelines, thus simultaneously integrating the Sorrows of the Virgin into the same story. It is possible that the designs for the latter cycle were based on woodcut designs already owned by the monastery or shown to them by Hirsvogel. For reasons which will become apparent shortly, it is likely that the final designs were approved in Nuremburg between the cash-conscious donors and the glaziers rather than by the recipients, Katerina and the nuns.

Fig. 3. The grave of Veit Hirvogel the Elder, St Johannis Cemetery, Nuremberg

Fig. 3. The grave of Veit Hirvogel the Elder, St Johannis Cemetery, Nuremberg

When installed the scheme seems to have consisted of narrative scenes set within fields of colourless glass, either bulls-eye or plain lozenge-shaped quarries, together with the donor’s coat of arms, either above or below the main picture. Interestingly the names of the donors were also painted on the walls above the windows – similar in principle to the inscriptions below the windows which can be seen at Ulm Münster today.

Although the scheme no longer survives (see below) similar arrangements can still be seen at two former women’s monasteries in Germany, at Ebstorf and Lüne in Lower Saxony [Fig. 4]

Katerina’s letters to Hans during this period constitute, in the authors’ words, some ‘of the most revealing passages about the original reception of late medieval stained glass to have survived’.

First, she is excited at the prospect of seeing the cloister fully glazed and fifteen coats of arms of her friends and family commemorated. Next she is impatient about delays. Most tellingly, however, she is disappointed with the colour and durability of some of the panels. She finds the colours pale and implicitly criticises the use of a cheaper reddish enamel paint known as ‘sanguine’ rather than the traditional pot metal flashed red glass she remembers in Nuremburg and which was less inclined to deteriorate. In short she exhibits a knowledge of her subject which says as much about how stained glass was understood and appreciated by patrons in her social circle as it does about her own impressive expertise and judgement. [Fig. 5]

Fig. 4. The Cloister glazing at Ebstorf. © CVMA (Freiburg)

Fig. 4. The Cloister glazing at Ebstorf. © CVMA (Freiburg)

By January 1519 the scheme seems to be approaching completion as witnessed by a letter sent directly to Hans Imhoff from the abbess, thanking him for his support and echoing the language of business to reassure him:

Thank you.. for having decorated our cloister with beautiful images and glass…I do believe that you have made a good investment , since you are going to have much intercession from us and our descendants. The devotional images will visit the sisters often, morning and evening, in the renewed memory of the bitter way that the Lord Jesus walked in his torment. (p. 309)

The authors rightly draw attention to the use of the word ‘visit’ in this letter. The employment of a verb propels the imagery in the glass into an active participatory role in the daily life of the nuns. During their midday meal in the refectory they were already asked to look at their hands and contemplate the nails which pierced those of Christ. Now, whenever they entered the cloister, they would be able to ‘visit’ his Seven Falls and imagine themselves walking alongside Christ as his bloodied and weary body stumbled towards the final horrors of Calvary.

Fig. 5. Panels possibly of the type installed in Katerina’s cloisters. Nuremberg, St Sebald, Rectory. © Corine Schleif and Volker Schier.

Fig. 5. Panels possibly of the type installed in Katerina’s cloisters. Nuremberg, St Sebald, Rectory. © Corine Schleif and Volker Schier.

Significantly these themes were taken up in one of Katerina’s last letters to Hans. While celebrating the completion of the project, she also complains that the windows ‘are not all made to arouse desire’, by which she means emotional empathy. ‘How’, she wonders, ‘can viewers be aroused when Christ sits like a ‘fat priest’’ rather than ‘all wounded and bloody.’ As she opens up her heart she says she told Master Veit to make them ‘arouse viewers’ longing’, but he seems to have taken no notice. Although not spelled out openly one gets the feeling that he (and the donors led by Tucher) gave the nuns either what they thought was desirable or what they thought the monastery needed, optimal light with fashionable pale luminous pictures, rather than what Katrina wanted: images which would make her cry and wince, help her to feel Christ’s pain, share his torments, and offer herself to his mercy and judgement.

Although most of the windows were completed sometime in the early part of 1519 and the letters are unknowingly drawing to a close, Katerina is still badgering members of her family for additional Imhoff heraldry to insert into the cloister. Notwithstanding her vows of poverty and her apparent cloistered life, it seems that she still values her family traditions and ties and wishes them to be permanently remembered in prayer within the monastery. [Fig 6]

The final letter is dated July 1522 and refers to the impending death of Hans Imhoff who passed away in August of that year. Thereafter only one letter survives in the archives – not from Katerina but to her and as we will see shortly, what a letter it is!

Although we can assume that Katerina corresponded with Hans’ widow and other family members after 1522, nothing from this period survives and we have little evidence about the remainder of her life, including her response, if any, to the impact of Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) protestant challenge to the Catholic church and its fundamental teachings.

What does survive, however, is a document in the abbey’s own records, its so-called House Book, which contains an electrifying account of what must have been the most terrifying moments of Katerina’s life – the sacking of her beloved monastery and the destruction of her newly fitted windows by revolutionaries during the peasants’ uprising of 1524–5.

The narrative pace is extraordinary. It reads like the script for a movie like Zulu, Assault on Precinct 13 or any number of westerns where a small group of defenders are surrounded by waves of hostile attackers.

Fig. 6. Imhoff heraldry with the type of colours admired by Katerina.

Fig. 6. Imhoff heraldry with the type of colours admired by Katerina.

The trouble begins with local children climbing the hills above the monastery and caterwauling abuse. Then stones are thrown over the walls and into the courtyard frightening the nuns. Beehives and vegetables are stolen. Later some of the villagers try to storm the gates while the nuns are asleep. Although initially unsuccessful, the attackers soon mount another and more decisive assault. After scaling the walls, the peasants burst into the cloisters, smash Katerina’s windows to melt the lead calmes into bullets and order the nuns from their home. Suddenly our previous assumptions about the abbey are sent topsy-turvey. Instead of being poor it is revealed as wealthy as the peasants steal treasures never mentioned by Katerina in her letters; instead of being a harmonious community respected by local villagers, it is revealed as divided as servants betray the nuns and some sisters use the turmoil to escape the convent entirely. As the nuns depart they are mocked by their tormentors who imitate their dress by wearing Brigittine crowns on their heads and use the abbey’s banners as wagon coverings. After reaching the apparent safety of the nearby town of Oettingen, Katerina and others are devastated when its gates are then opened to the rebels. She is one of five chosen to beg the peasant commanders for food amid fears that she and the others might be raped. Their ordeal only ends when the peasant army is routed by the local Margrave and hundreds of its supporters slaughtered and maimed.

When Katerina and the other survivors return to the monastery, the buildings remain intact but the damage is catastrophic. The abbey has been stripped, even its doors have been looted and the tombs of past benefactors opened in case they contained items of value. Everything has been despoiled. How the survivors coped is not described.

It is in the aftermath of these shattering events that a letter is sent to Katerina by Christoph Fürer, Hans’ son-in-law, and one of the original donors of her windows. It must have been another body blow. Instead of offering money to rebuild Maria Mai, he implores her to leave the monastery and its hardships and rejoin her family in Nuremburg. He tells her that his faith in the monastic system has collapsed. Embracing the ideas of Martin Luther he rejects the belief in intercessory prayer and urges her to devote herself to a Christian life of practical charity. Although her reply does not survive, we know her answer from the fact that she died at the monastery in 1533, seventeen years after she had taken her formal vows, accepted the ring of Christ and embarked upon a life that she would and could not surrender. In time not even the monastery she knew would survive. When the site was subsequently taken over by Franciscans the church and the monastery were rebuilt in the 18th century. A stretch of medieval walling is all that remains of her final home. [Fig. 7]

Fig. 7. The monastery today.

Fig. 7. The monastery today.

This is a magnificent book full of unexpected riches. Apart from its eye-witness accounts of the glazing scheme, it also opens windows into the financing and daily life of monasteries, into Brigittine rituals and observances, into how nuns spent their time and maintained links with the outside world, into the books they read, the gifts they gave, the music they sang, and finally into the collapse of their world as reformation and revolution destroyed the old order and everything they believed and worked for.

This review would not be complete without mention of the publishers. Pennsylvania State University Press deserves the highest praise for the design and production qualities they have poured into this book. The illustrations are plentiful and first class. Detailed family trees of Katerina and her relatives and an extensive bibliography are also included. Nothing has been overlooked. Inevitably such care costs money. Yes, the book is expensive and probably beyond the pockets of many. But that should not stop people from reading it. Order it from local libraries, take advantage of the special offer price, save up, add it to birthday lists. You will not be disappointed.

Roger Rosewell

The book is on special offer to Vidimus readers see our News pages for details

The authors have created a dedicated website, which also includes a fascinating teaching document.

Further Reading

Related Articles

– C. Schleif and V. Schier, ‘Views and Voices From Within: Sister Katerina Lemmel On the Glazing of the Cloister at Maria Mai’ in R. Becksmann (ed.): Glasmalerei im Kontext – Bildprogramme und Raumfunktionen, Akten des XXII, internationalen Colloquiums des Corpus Vitrearum, Nürnberg, 29 August–1 September 2004, Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, wissenschaftlicher Beiband 25, , Nürnberg, 2005, pp. 211–228

– C.Schleif, ‘Forgotten Roles of Women as Donors: Sister Katerina Lemmel’s Negotiated Exchanges in the Care for the Here and the Hereafter’ in T. van Bueren (ed.): Care for the Here and the Hereafter: Memoria, Art and Ritual in the Middle Ages, Turnhout, 2005, pp.137–154

For the Hirsvogel workhop

– G. Frenzel, V. Hirsvogel, ‘Eine Nürnberger Glasmalerwerkstatt der Dürerzeit’, in Zeitschrift für Kunstwissenschaft, 23, 1960, pp. 193–210

– K-A. Knappe, ‘Albrecht Dürer und das Bamberger Fenster in St Sebald in Nürnberg’, Erlanger Beiträge zur Sprach- und Kunstwissenschaft, 9, Nürnberg, 1961

– U. Knappe, ‘Die Nürnberger Glasmalerfamilie Hirsvogel’, in: Fränkische Lebensbilder, 5, 1973, pp. 64–96

– H. Scholz, Entwurf und Ausführung. Werkstattpraxis in der Nürnberger Glasmalerei der Dürerzeit, Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Deutschland, Studien I, Berlin 1991

– H. Scholz, ‘La bottega di Veit Hirsvogel – Modi di produzione e sviluppo della pittura su vetro a Norimberga al tempo di Dürer’, in R. Cassanelli (ed.): La bottega dell’artista tra Medioevo e Rinascimento, Storia dell’Arte Europea, 5, Milano 1998, pp. 155–174; – in deutscher: ‘Übersetzung: Die Werkstatt des Nürnberger Stadtglasers Veit Hirsvogel’, in: Künstlerwerkstätten der Renaissance, Geschichte der Europäischen Kunst, 5, Zürich/Düsseldorf, 1998, pp. 155–173, Pl. 58–64

– B. Butts and L. Hendrix, Painting on Light. Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Dürer and Holbein, B. Butts und L. Hendrix (eds), Exhibition catalogue, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and The Saint Louis Art Museum, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, 2000.

The 72 Stained-Glass Windows of Saint John’s Church in Gouda

The 72 Stained-Glass Windows of Saint John’s Church in Gouda, by R.A. Bosch for the Stichting Fonds Goudse Glazen. Hardcover, 176 pages, NL/Eng text, numerous colour illustrations, Eburon publishers, 2008, price € 34.50.

Fig. 1. Book cover.

Fig. 1. Book cover.

61 of the 72 windows in the church of St John (Sint Janskerk) in Gouda have stained glass dating to the 16th century or shortly afterwards. Although the glass has been thoroughly researched and catalogued in three magnificent volumes by members of the Dutch CVMA, wider audiences have long craved a more affordable guide to this outstanding collection, the most important in the Netherlands. The good news is that the wait is over.

Produced by the Stichting Fonds Goudse Glazen, a fund-raising charity which raises money for the care of the windows, this book is published in bi-lingual text (Dutch and English) and includes a feast of often full-page photographs.

The structure is straightforward: a short introduction by the author, a former diplomat, followed by a diagram of the fenestration of the church and 143 pages of text and photographs explaining the history and iconography of each window, many of which soar to the dizzying heights of 65 feet.

Although succinct, the introduction explains the history and meaning of the windows well enough. Apart from their iconographical and outstanding artistic qualities, the Gouda windows also reflect the religious and political turbulence that engulfed the Low Countries in the 16th and early 17th centuries. At this time, the divisions of the Reformation combined with an eighty-year struggle against Spanish rule, leaving Holland and the northern states Protestant, and Flanders (modern day Belgium) Catholic. These struggles are chronicled in the windows, both in the subjects depicted and in the pace in which they were installed.

The oldest surviving windows, which depict Christ and his Apostles, were begun in 1530 when Catholicism was dominant. Twenty years later, in 1552, a fire tore through the church, leading to its rebuilding and present appearance. Astonishingly most of the early Renaissance windows in the choir were undamaged and the entire cycle was completed in 1560.

As the first campaign drew to a close another began, employing two of the greatest artists of their age. Between 1555 and 1571 fourteen windows were made for the nave side-windows by the Gouda glass painters Dirck (c.1501–1574) and Wouter (1510–1590) Crabeth. The Spanish King, Phillip II, depicted with his wife, Mary I of England, was among the donors.

The full-size cartoons for these windows still survive and have often proved invaluable for restorers. Although details from only three of these drawings are illustrated in this book they have long been admired in their own right and were fully discussed in the second volume of the Dutch CVMA’s study of the windows (see Further Reading below).

The windows are masterpieces of realism and colour combinations with every pane full of incredible detail.

Thereafter there was a twenty-year lull in the glazing programme as the disruptive effects of the war with Spain took its toll. In 1572 Gouda fell to Prince William of Orange (1533–1584), the leader of the Dutch revolt. Although Catholic services were initially allowed, in 1573 the church became fully Protestant. The last of the pre-1700 glass was made for the new regime by Haarlem, Utrecht, and Antwerp glass painters and installed between 1593 and 1604. While some windows were filled with coats-of -arms, others championed the triumphs of the rebellion. The so-called ‘Freedom of Conscience’ window of 1596 contained a verse whose last sentence read ‘The lands are happy because the virtues reign’. Others celebrated military valour such as the victory of Dutch crusaders at the battle of Damietta in 1219 and the relief of the Dutch town of Leiden in 1574 by the liberating armies of Prince William.

Although some of the earlier window were damaged by iconoclastic Calvanists in the 17th century, with images of God the Father removed and an anti-Catholic text inserted into one of the 1567 windows, most of the original glass has survived.

Two modern windows also deserve mention. The first maintains the political traditions of the later glazing schemes and commemorates the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of the Second World War. Another includes coats of arms of donors who contributed to the restoration of the windows between 1920 and 1936.

The publishers of the book are to be congratulated on producing a handsome volume on these wonderful windows.

Petrina Talle

Further Reading

– H. van Harten-Boers and Z. van Ruyven-Zeman with C. E. Coebergh-Surie and H. Janse, The Stained-Glass Windows in the St.-Janskerk at Gouda. I: The Glazing of the Clerestory of the Choir and of the Former Monastic Church of the Regulars, CVMA Vol I, English text, Amsterdam, 1997

– X. van Eck, C. E. Coebergh-Surie and A. Gasten, The Stained-Glass Windows in the St.-Janskerk at Gouda. II: The Works of Dirck en Wouter Crabeth, CVMA Vol. II, English text, Amsterdam, 2002

– Z. van Ruyven-Zeman, The Stained-Glass Windows in the St.-Janskerk at Gouda: III: The Pre-Reformation Windows in the Ambulatory of the Choir; the Post-Reformation Windows of the Nave and Transept, CVMA Vol. III, English text, Amsterdam, 2000

– W. de Groot (ed.) The Seventh Window: The King’s Window Donated by Philip II and Mary Tudor to Sint Janskerk in Gouda (1557). Hilversum, 2005.

The Journal of Medieval History, 35/4

Articles of potential interest to Vidimus readers in this issue which might shed light on glazing schemes of a period are:

‘A shared imitation: Cistercian convents and crusader families in 13th-century Champagne’, by Anne E. Lester

This article examines the relationship between Cistercian nunneries and the crusade movement and considers the role of gender in light of the new emphasis on penitential piety and suffering prevalent during the 13th century. Focused on evidence from the region of Champagne in northern France, it argues that female family members of male crusaders adopted Cistercian spirituality as a means of participating in the experience of suffering and the pursuit of the imitation of Christ that had come to be associated with the act of crusading. The connection between Cistercian nuns and crusaders was further strengthened during this period as the Cistercian order expanded its liturgy to include specific rounds of prayers for success in the east and in southern France, for Jerusalem, and for the well-being of crusaders. Many crusader families in Champagne founded Cistercian nunneries to function as family necropolises, further sharpening the connections between crusaders, memory, and suffering as experienced in female Cistercian houses.

‘Prison and sacrament in the cult of saints: images of St Barbara in late medieval art’, by Megan Cassidy-Welch

This article analyses the changing visual representation of St Barbara during the later Middle Ages. The article identifies a shift in St Barbara’s iconography: whereas earlier medieval representations of the saint almost always show her with her prison tower, a number of 15th-century representations show the saint holding a chalice and host. The article traces how and why this shift occurred. In particular, the article explores the ways in which medieval thought, linking incarceration and liberation, was integrated into new representations of St Barbara, to stress her intercessory, sacramental functions. Overall, the article argues that the visual transformation of St Barbara’s prison tower into a liturgical vessel reveals how saints like Barbara were increasingly viewed as conduits to the inclusive sort of freedom that participation in Christianity’s sacramental economy invited.

Name that Roundel Solution!


Fig. 1. Name that Roundel! The Prodigal son driven from the brothel by a harlot.

Fig. 1. Name that Roundel! The Prodigal son driven from the brothel by a harlot.

This month’s puzzle shows an ‘amplified’ scene from the Parable of the Prodigal Son as told in the Gospel of St Luke 15: 11–32. The story concerns a man who has two sons: a younger son who demanded his share of his inheritance while his father was still living, and an older son who was loyal and staid. Once he was given his inheritance, the eponymous son left the family home and wasted ‘his substance with riotous living’ until the money ran out and he was forced to become a swineherd, the lowliest of the low in Judaism, as it meant working with ‘unclean’ animals. Unable to tolerate his humiliation any further, the son decided to return home and throw himself on his father’s mercy, hoping to be given the job of a household servant. But instead of being disowned, his father greeted him with open arms and even killed a fatted calf to celebrate his return. When the older brother complained at this preferential treatment, protesting that while his sibling had spent all his money with harlots and been rewarded by the killing of a fatted calf, his own loyalty had been ignored, the father responded:

‘Thou art ever with me, all that I have is thine… Be glad… for this thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found.’

Fig. 2. The same scene at Chartres cathedral. © Painton Cowen.

Fig. 2. The same scene at Chartres cathedral. © Painton Cowen.

According to Wolfgang Kemp, a leading historian of narrative theory, the scene depicted in this month’s roundel had never been shown in western art before it suddenly appeared in the stained glass windows devoted to the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the French cathedrals of Chartres and Bourges around 1210. As it was not derived from any biblical authority, he attributed both windows to a separate visual or verbal ‘amplified ‘model developed by writers and artists who worked within a tradition of lengthening stories to make their telling more memorable. In this instance they gave pictorial form to the phrases ‘riotous living’ and ‘harlots’ by showing the son consorting with prostitutes and gamblers until all his money and fine clothes had been lost and then intensifying the drama by showing him being driven from the brothel by a harlot. The answer to the month’s puzzle is thus: ‘The Prodigal Son driven from the brothel by a harlot’. [Figs. 1 and 2]

Fig. 3. A different example of the son being driven from the Brothel, Antwerp (?), 1540. © Klaus Tiedemann.

Fig. 3. A different example of the son being driven from the Brothel, Antwerp (?), 1540. © Klaus Tiedemann.

In the 16th century this and other scenes from the story were often painted on glass roundels. Some audiences embraced its moral themes of the dangers of vice, the need for repentance, and the forgiveness of sins. Others saw it as an allegory of the Reformation with the ‘lost church’ repenting of Catholic practices, embracing Protestantism and being forgiven by God the Father. A c.1540 woodcut by the Amsterdam-based artist, Cornelis Anthonisz (1505–1553), incorporated such anti-Catholic and pro-Lutheran elements into his designs for the story. His version of ‘The Prodigal Son being driven from the brothel by the harlot’ incorporated an additional scene of the Son being accosted immediately afterwards by a pilgrim personifying Superstition and directed towards the Temple of Satan where the figure of Illness, wearing a papal tiara, can be seen waiting to welcome him.

Fig. 4. Cornelius Anthonisz. The Prodigal Son is Driven from the Inn and is Directed by Superstition to the Temple of Satan.

Fig. 4. Cornelius Anthonisz. The Prodigal Son is Driven from the Inn and is Directed by Superstition to the Temple of Satan.

Apart from the Son’s expulsion from the brothel, other scenes from the Parable which are found in roundels of the period include: the son receiving his inheritance, the departure of the son, the son feasting with prostitutes, the son at a tavern with gamblers, the son as a swineherd, the son being welcomed by his father, the killing of the fatted calf. [Figs. 3 and 4]


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