“Crowned with Many Crowns”: Nuns and Their Statues in Late-Medieval Wienhausen
By Caroline W. Bynum
The Catholic Historical Review, Vol.101:1 (2015)
Abstract: The crowning of statues was a common practice in medieval cloisters, but at the north German convent of Wienhausen, the golden crowns of statues were confiscated by Observant reformers after the reformation of 1469. The nuns voiced distress at the loss of these crowns and made new Marian statues with elegant wooden crowns that were irremovable. The author puts the crowns worn by Mary in the context of the crowns worn by the nuns themselves and argues that such elaborate headdresses carried for the sisters many meanings; they include shaping female identity, signaling monastic commitment, and foreshadowing the rewards of heaven.
Introduction: In the Lüneburg Heath in Lower Saxony lie the foundations of Ebstorf, Isenhagen, Lüne, Medingen, Walsrode, and Wienhausen, six Protestant female communities in the area of the former duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg now under the supervision of the Klosterkammer Hannover, a state authority. For art historians, the most important of these is Wienhausen. A backwater in the twenty-first century, Wienhausen was anything but in the medieval period. Altcelle, close by, was the ducal seat in the thirteenth century, and Wienhausen was the ducal house cloister. Founded as a monastery for nuns in the 1220s, affiliated with but not incorporated into the Cistercians, Wienhausen was reformed in 1469 by Johannes Busch according to the Observant reform emanating from Windesheim, a first reformation that ushered in a cultural flowering. But Wienhausen’s buildings and properties were partly destroyed in the midsixteenth century by the efforts of Duke Ernst the Confessor to impose the Lutheran reformation. Like other women’s houses in the area, Wienhausen survived, changing only slowly over the course of the next two centuries. The nuns resisted Communion under two species and avoided the required suppression of the Salve regina until the late 1530s. Catholic abbesses were elected until 1587. The Cistercian habit was put off only in 1616; the Latin Hours ended only in 1620; as late as 1722, we find the Prince Elector of Hannover still trying to put a stop to the adorning of images with jewels and clothing.
Today, the women’s houses of the Lüneburg Heath, securely Protestant in commitment, work to preserve the cultural heritage of the area, a sense of vocation that emerged only in the twentieth century, fostered especially by the success of the 1928 exhibit of tapestries and embroideries made by the nuns of Wienhausen and Lüne. What is astonishing to the Anglophone world, used as it is to the results of the iconoclasm of the British Isles, is that Protestant Germany—and more than any other single place Wienhausen, with its collection of statues, the remarkable “Find” under the choir-stalls in 1953 of small devotional objects, and the vibrant paintings of the nuns’ choir itself—is the place where historians, the devout, and the curious public can best still see the art of the Middle Ages, undamaged and sometimes even in situ.