Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 14, 2018
Stefanie Seeberg Textile Bildwerke im Kirchenraum: Leinenstickereien im Kontext mittelalterlicher Raumausstattungen aus dem Prämonstratenserinnenkloster Altenberg/Lahn Berlin: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2015. 336 pp.; 123 color ills.; 141 b/w ills. Hardcover €69.00 (9783731900382)

Recently, I chaperoned some undergraduates visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art. As I was admiring the Jonah Marbles, a student rushed up in excitement, eager to tell me about an extraordinary work of embroidery. I followed her and immediately recognized it as a piece of white work from Altenberg an der Lahn. Thanks to Stefanie Seeberg’s excellent discussion of this and similar works in her Textile Bildwerke im Kirchenraum: Leinenstickereien im Kontext mittelalterlicher Raumausstattungen aus dem Prämonstratenserinnenkloster Altenberg/Lahn, I could explain that such textiles were not made to be white-on-white embroideries—but that they originally featured outlining in contrasting colors. I was also able to describe the role of embroidery in the lives of medieval nuns and the place of this work within a larger context of textiles produced at Altenberg.

Seeberg’s lavishly illustrated volume is both a masterpiece of scholarship and a compelling read. Her focus is on six surviving (and one lost) monumental linen embroideries that were produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries at the Premonstratensian convent of Altenberg an der Lahn. Utilizing rich archival material and closely examining the fabric and decoration of the convent itself, Seeberg fully explores the context, function, and meaning of these important textiles. She begins by making a seemingly bland topic (white linen embroidered with white) colorful, using scientific methods and close examination to identify faded color on apparently monochrome textiles. Rather than strictly white on white, these embroideries were enhanced with outlines of contrasting colors, generally blue, and touches of other colors such as red. After years of use and repeated washings, these colors have bleached and faded, leaving behind only yellowish or brownish traces. If Seeberg’s only accomplishment were to teach the reader to imagine the original state of these reduced-color images, it would be impressive. This volume, however, has much more to offer.

In her first chapter, Bildwerke in Leinen (Pictorial Images in Linen), Seeberg establishes the presence of color in so-called white work, examines the place of embroidery in the daily work of cloistered nuns, and demonstrates that the plainness of reduced-color embroideries would have particular appeal for nuns of the Cistercian and Premonstratensian orders. Textile working was important holy labor for medieval nuns, equivalent to manuscript illumination for monks, and Altenberg was particularly known for its reduced-color embroideries. Seeberg describes the methods and means by which these embroideries were produced, using both primary sources and the works themselves as evidence.

In this first chapter, and throughout the volume, Seeberg carefully weaves together a general art-historical narrative with specific details about the situation at Altenberg an der Lahn. For example, it was common practice for young women, particularly ones from wealthy families, to present gifts of expensive textiles (including clothing) upon entering cloistered life. This act symbolized their rejection of worldly excess in favor of poverty and humility, as well as the presentation of their gifts to the Church, to Christ, and to the saints. At Altenberg the practice was particularly significant, due to the strong ties between the convent and the family of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia (Saint Elizabeth of Hungary). Elizabeth was celebrated for her charitable acts and for her adoption of a simple, nearly conventual lifestyle. Her daughter Gertrude was just a child of eight when Elizabeth (d. 1231) was canonized in 1235. Gertrude had been presented to the abbey of Altenberg at age two, and her mother bequeathed rich textiles to the abbey at that time. Wealthy young women and girls entering this Premonstratensian convent thus emulated Saint Elizabeth and Gertrude (who later served as abbess, 1248–97) when they gave their own gifts of secular textiles to Altenberg.

In her second chapter, Seeberg discusses the architectural spaces of Altenberg an der Lahn as they were rebuilt during the time of Abbess Gertrude of Thuringia. Again weaving together both the general and the specific, she illuminates the layout and function of each space in a thirteenth-century convent, with specific attention to the situation at Altenberg. Of particular interest is the discussion of the groups and individuals, male and female, religious and secular, who used each space at different times throughout the liturgical year. Although Seeberg’s plans, diagrams, and descriptions are effective, I found myself wishing for the color-coded diagrams found in the work of Clemens Kosch (e.g., Clemens Kosch, Kölns Romanische Kirchen: Architektur und Liturgie im Hochmittelalter, 2nd ed. [Schnell and Steiner, 2005]). This is a minor drawback, however, in an illuminating and thorough discussion of the architectural space.

Seeberg’s third and fourth chapters deal primarily with the reduced-color embroideries produced at Altenberg an der Lahn in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. She introduces each work with an analysis of context. Discussion of the earliest work (ca. 1265), which presents scenes from the lives of Saint Elizabeth and her husband, Louis IV of Thuringia, begins with a thorough examination of the building and decorating campaigns that occurred while their daughter Gertrude was abbess. These are the spaces in which this work was originally displayed, first as a wall hanging behind the high altar and then, following the creation of an elaborate altarpiece (ca. 1270), as a hanging within the nun’s choir. Finally, after the nun’s choir was decorated with wall paintings (after 1300), a second Abbess Gertrude (most likely from the house of Nassau), ordered this work to be transferred to the refectory. Petrus Diederich, who wrote a history of the abbey and documented instructions for its küsterin (female sacristan) in the mid-seventeenth century, indicates the embroidery was still displayed as a vita of Saint Elizabeth in his day. Synthesizing archival material, Diederich’s descriptions, and close examination of the architectural spaces and surviving works, Seeberg skillfully reconstructs the context and function of the embroidered vita in each of the spaces that it occupied in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. She also demonstrates the close ties between the iconography of the Altenberg embroidery and works (e.g., stained-glass windows) produced less than twenty years earlier at Saint Elizabeth’s in Marburg, the center of Saint Elizabeth’s cult.

Seeberg’s treatment of the second work, a catafalque cloth representing male and female nobles standing within arcades, is just as meticulous and complete. She demonstrates that this embroidery, produced ca. 1270, was displayed as part of the memorial masses celebrated for the dead at Altenberg throughout the liturgical year. Diederich lists several memorials in his instructions for the küsterin, including the feast of Saint Lawrence (August 10), established by Abbess Gertrude to remember the counts of Hesse, and the feast of Saint Hippolytus (August 13), when Gertrude herself was remembered. In addition to expensive candles and liturgical vessels, costly textiles were displayed on such occasions as these. The Altenberg catafalque cloth, with its rather generic assembly of nobles, was not specifically linked to Gertrude’s family and could thus be used in memorials for members of other notable families.

The next three works, early-fourteenth-century altar cloths (one now lost), are discussed in the context of the refurnishing of Altenberg’s high choir and crossing (ca. 1320–30). The two extant altar cloths have similar dimensions and related pictorial programs, and the lost cloth receives a lengthy description from Diederich, who considered it to be the earliest and most important of the three. Seeberg skillfully demonstrates the iconographic and functional relationship between the altar cloths and the winged altarpiece from Altenberg an der Lahn (ca. 1330, pieces now scattered among Braunfels, Munich, and Frankfurt). She also relates the iconographic programs of the altar cloths to the particular religious and political situation in Marburg and Altenberg during the fourteenth century. Using Diederich’s instructions to the küsterin, Seeberg explains why three altar cloths would be necessary at Altenberg. Just as the high altarpiece could be opened in varying configurations during the liturgical year, so too were these altar cloths used to change the imagery associated with the altar and Christ’s sacrifice.

Seeberg finishes chapter 4 with two altar cloths, a well-preserved example in Cleveland and a more fragmentary work in Braunfels. Both were created in the late fourteenth century and appear to have been made for use with a new retable altarpiece. Seeberg is hampered here by limitations in the surviving material and in Diederich’s descriptions but still convincingly reconstructs the context, function, and patronage of these final embroideries.

In her concluding chapter, Seeberg unites the many strands of her study, explaining the ways in which spaces, images, decorations, and objects all worked together within religious spaces such as Altenberg an der Lahn to present powerful messages, religious and secular, to a variety of audiences. A catalogue of the surviving embroideries follows the conclusion, and Seeberg also provides excellent appendices on traces of color, embroidery stitches, and key passages from Diederich’s advice to the Altenberg küsterin. This is a remarkable work of scholarship, anchored throughout by Seeberg’s careful attention to these objects and their place at Altenberg an der Lahn. It is at once specialized and readable, scholarly and clear, and I hope this is the first of many monographs by this author.

Heather McCune Bruhn
Assistant Teaching Professor, Department of Art History, Pennsylvania State University