Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent

Article excerpt

Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent. By Jeffrey F. Hamburger. California Studies in the History of Art, vol. 37. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1997. xxiv + 318 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

Art historical studies often aim "high," portraying fine art on a grand scale by insisting on historical antecedents and analogues. This study of a set of single-leaf drawings from late medieval Franconia aims "low" and in doing so attains monumental scope. At the heart of this pioneering book is a series of small devotional images (Kleines Andachtsbilder or Nonnenarbeiten) that are similar enough in style and iconography to be considered the work of one cloistered nun in the convent of St. Wallburg. Hamburger laments that these images have been classified out of "serious" scholarly consideration, tossed into "dumping grounds for images . . . with which art history would rather not be bothered" (p. 4). Yet these modest sheets attest beautifully to the resourceful and complex visual culture of female monasticism.

Hamburger's book itself is aesthetically delightful, with twelve vivid color plates and 118 black-and-white illustrations. The author guides his readers effortlessly through fine, detailed descriptions and a painstaking delineation of his argument. He opens by examining possible textual, ritual, and artistic sources for these images while carefully avoiding any insinuation of direct influence. He then explores at length several extraordinary visual themes, such as "The Sweet Rose of Sorrow" and "The House of the Heart," all of which reflect the nims' spiritual inwardness and humility, ideals of imitatio Christi, and actual enclosure. The final chapter explores the ways in which image-making and use became a pivotal part of devotional life in the convent. …