Needlework by Nuns: A Medieval Religious Embroidery
By Bonnie Young
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 29, no. 7 (1971)
“Nuns with their needles wrote histories also,
that of Christ his passion for their altar cloths, …
as other Scripture Stories to adorn their houses.”
The quotation on the opposite page – words of a seventeenth-century church historian – might easily refer to a rare embroidered hanging recently given to The Cloisters by Mrs. W. Murray Crane and her daughter, Louise Crane and believed to be from one of the many medieval religious houses in Lower Saxony. That writer’s association of needlework and nunneries may derive from the acceptance of needlework as a proper occupation for ladies of gentle birth, and from the preponderance of well-born women among medieval nuns. Although there were certainly nuns who had a true vocation for the religious life, the convent was a refuge for many girls of the higher classes for whom a suitable husband could not be found. An agricultural laborer or a tradesman could always find work for his superfluous daughters, but for the unmarried daughters of the upper classes only the convent provided an honorable profession. Consequently, the atmosphere in convents was apt to be less “cloistered” during the Middle Ages than what we expect today.
Much embroidery of the Middle Ages was the work of trained craftsmen, sometimes referred to as “needle-painters.” In England, for instance, the bulk of the famous embroideries of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was carried out in professional workshops where artisans, both men and women, were expected to serve an apprenticeship of seven years. From Germany, however, there is considerable evidence, including inscriptions, that important embroideries were made in convents. The Metropolitan Museum has a fourteenth-century inscribed embroidery from Altenberg, on the Lahn River; another embroidery from that same convent, now in the Cleveland Museum, was made during the thirteenth century while Gertrude, the daughter of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, was abbess. Two convents, Wienhausen and Lune, still posess a number of embroideries made early in their history: at Lune is a series from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries whose inscriptions indicate they were made by the nuns under the direction of Sophia von Bodendike, prioress and later abbess of the convent.