Late Medieval Women’s Communities in Conflict with the Secular Authorities: The Case of the Convent of Wienhausen
By Sabine Koehler-Curry
Bachelor’s Thesis, University of Arizona, 2009
Introduction: The visual art today on display at the convent Wienhausen is unique and important as it serves as evidence of the importance of artistic expressions in the life of people and nuns during the Middle Ages. This suggests a necessity of humans to have a different outlet for sorrows, expression of joy, beauty, and problems presented only by verbal communication amongst each other. In the spotlight of attention, we find the Tristan tapestry and the fresco in the north chapel of the convent. Scholars have written and analyzed the art and crafts that can found in forms of paintings, chests, frescoes and religious text for songs. The visual expressions are without question beautiful, and from an artistic esthetic point of view, rare and unique in quality and quantity. These expressions have a historical and cultural value and are therefore important to art historians, and Germanists, since the treasures of Wienhausen can be found in visual the artistic expression, the architecture of the monastery and the literature of texts left behind. But of a higher importance are the writings left behind by the nuns. These texts are evidence of how they understood the world, their political and religious opinions and how they interacted with the world outside the convent.. The reformation of Otto der Siegreiche in 1469 and the Lutheran Reformation in 1529 along with the devastating thirty-years war, passed by the monastery almost as it was touched by a fairy, a magical creature who made the structure and its inhabitants invisible and untouchable. Almost not recognized by scholars and residents in the surrounding villages and cities for almost 600 years the fairy tale spell was lifted with the discovery of the Wienhausen treasure in 1953. This coincided with the over 1000 reading glasses, some being over 400 years old, that corrected reading disabilities being found in the nunnery. Suddenly attention was drawn to the Gothic frescoes, which are vivid and bright in color, as if they were painted on the ceiling plaster just yesterday. The collection of nine tapestries telling secular and religious stories, originally used to keep the rooms warm during the winter, today are evidence of a rich cultural life in the convent. These tapestries have become another attraction today, celebrated during the convent’s annual Tapestry Week when the nuns take out the tapestries to present them to the public. Art historians found that only small parts of the monastery were purposely destroyed, in order to oppress the nuns to accept reforms, with almost no art work being destroyed due to the resistance and rebellion of the nuns, along with their wisdom and values. This treasure of German cultural heritage was sleeping under the fairies touch, only to be awakened in 1953 when the treasure of Wienhausen was found and scholars started to show interest in the old religious artifacts and literature text. What makes the nuns from the convent of Wienhausen such an outstanding and interesting example of taking control over their own lives results from their religious, political, social, and individual life in relation to the secular world outside the convent. All this becomes crystal clear when their relation to the secular world and changes within the political and religious paradigm are being analyzed.