The Nun’s Crown
By Julie Hotchin
Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol.4 (2009)
Introduction: The nun’s crown, a white linen circlet with overlapping bands forming a cross worn over her veil, formed part of the dress of monastic women in northern Germany. Each woman received her crown in a ceremony of consecration, or coronation, in which her virginity was dedicated to Christ. This distinctive headdress symbolized—more so than the veil and ring—her privileged status as a Bride of Christ.
The crown has a long tradition in Christian iconography as a symbol of the rewards due to the faithful in heaven. This held special meaning for religious women, for whom the crown they received in this world presaged the celestial reward granted to virgin brides of Christ in the next. The nuns at Rupertsberg under Hildegard of Bingen’s leadership wore long, white, silk veils and golden crowns adorned with crosses on both sides and the back, with a figure of the Lamb on the front. Hildegard was forced to defend this practice against criticism, arguing that the white garments symbolized her nuns’ betrothal to Christ, while the image of the Lamb signified that they followed him wherever he goes, likening her nuns at Rupertsberg to the virgins called to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Gertrude the Great composed a lyrical meditation on a nun’s coronation as the spiritual marriage of the soul with Christ in her Spiritual Exercises, and Birgitta of Sweden incorporated the linen crown into the distinctive habit worn by nuns of her order, adding five dots of red cloth sewn onto the linen bands where they joined to represent the outward signs of Christ’s Passion.
Similarly, in northern Germany, red crosses embroidered onto the linen crown were, in the words of one young nun from Ebstorf, “worn as a sign of Christ’s wounds upon our heads, so that we always remember our spouse as in the Canticle, where he says, You have wounded my heart, my sister, my bride [Cant. 4,9], namely through love.” This ornamentation on the crown also carried associations with the crown of thorns, strengthening the symbolic identification of the wearer with Christ’s suffering at the passion. Nuns also likened their crowns to “the aureola which [Christ] is accustomed to give to martyrs and virgins.” By the later Middle Ages the aureola was understood as a reward reserved to special categories of the blessed, and the nuns at Ebstorf saw themselves as meriting reward both for their virginity and for martyrdom through their penitential sufferings within the cloister in imitation of Christ.