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. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2009Pp. xliv, 579. $1 10.00. ISBN 978-0-271-03369-3.)
Research on women's patronage of religious art has emphasized its more "creative" angles. Katerina's Windows also illuminates essential, but less glamorous, aspects. In 1516 a Nuremberg widow, Katerina Imhoff Lemmel (1466-1533), entered the Birgittine abbey of Maria Mai. Lemmel brought not only substantial wealth but also experience in the commercial ways of the world. Religious superiors let neither go to waste.
Lemmel had scarcely settled in before the abbess made her the equivalent of today's church development officer. Sixty surviving letters reveal how this resourceful woman forged chains of influence linking her convent to the world. Hans Imhoff, her cousin and recipient of the letters, emerges as Mai's indispensable (and long-suffering) "gofer" beyond the wall.
Lemmel's first letter asks for money; later ones ring unremitting changes on this numbing refrain. By her second letter she is apologizing: "I am happy to see that you too have become a beggar, so you will not look so disapprovingly at my begging. See how it is with holy poverty!" (p. 127). By letter 6 she is also apologizing for constantly importuning poor Imhoff, but reassures him, "I believe you soon will have less to do" (p. 141). Exactly the opposite proves true. "Dear Cousin, don't be frustrated with all the trouble that we put you through" (p. 261) becomes a counterpoint to Lemmel's pervasive, mendicant theme.
After nearly three years Lemmel remarks, "Dear Cousin, you write that I should relieve you of some responsibilities, which is only right" (p. 321). But the indomitable Birgittine does not change her tune. When another cousin dies, she hustles for a handout. "If you are an executor, then I wanted also to come begging to you and ask if you could not have something come our way. . ." (p. 3 46). And she plays that well-worn convent trump card:". . . because we are also to be counted among the poor and homeless, being locked up in one of these poor monasteries. . ." (p. 346).
Lemmel's persistent tactics were essential- and worked. Within three years new stained glass (hence, the book's title) adorned the abbey, thanks to Lemmel's generosity and dunning letters to relatives. …