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Magdalene Gärtner: Römische Basiliken in Augsburg. Nonnenfrömmigkeit und Malerei um 1500 (= Schwäbische Geschichtsquellen und Forschungen; Bd. 23), Augsburg: Wißner 2002, 304 S., 135 Farb-, 17 s/w-Abb., 1 CD-ROM, ISBN 978-3-89639-351-7, EUR 28,00
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Rezension von:
Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Department of History, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Hubertus Kohle
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Merry Wiesner-Hanks: Rezension von: Magdalene Gärtner: Römische Basiliken in Augsburg. Nonnenfrömmigkeit und Malerei um 1500, Augsburg: Wißner 2002, in: sehepunkte 3 (2003), Nr. 11 [15.11.2003], URL: http://www.sehepunkte.de
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Magdalene Gärtner: Römische Basiliken in Augsburg

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This is a beautifully-produced book, complete with CD-Rom, analyzing six large multi-part paintings in oil on wood panels produced in Augsburg around 1500 by three different artists, Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Burgkmair the Elder, and the monogrammist L.F. The paintings were produced for the Dominican convent of St. Katherine, and were paid for by five different nuns, several of whom arranged to have their portraits or their family's crest or at the very least their patron saint included in one of the painting's many scenes. Gärtner situates the production of these marvelous paintings within the context of the development of painting in southern Germany at the turn of the sixteenth-century, noting that earlier studies often separated them by artist rather than considering them as a group. She highlights the ways in which they interweave motifs, subject matter, and techniques often viewed as late gothic with those of the early Renaissance, and includes a very detailed discussion of the technical and aesthetic issues surrounding these paintings. (The art historical content of this book will be considered in a separate review.)

Gärtner also situates the circumstances of the paintings' production and the scenes they depict within the context of popular piety and religious practices. In 1487, the confessor of St. Katherine arranged for the convent to be granted a special papal indulgence privilege from Innocent VIII, which granted to all sisters, professed and not, the same release from temporal punishment that they would have received had they gone to Rome and visited the seven main churches there. (An actual pilgrimage to Rome would have been unthinkable for a cloistered nun from a high-status family, such as the residents of St. Katherine.) This indulgence was originally to be granted if a nun said specific prayers at certain locations in the convent, but shortly after the privilege was granted, several nuns decided (perhaps with the encouragement of their confessor, who was related to several of the convent residents) to arrange for a much closer duplication of such a pilgrimage through paintings that each showed one of the seven Roman churches. These appear in the central panel of each of the seven paintings, so that a convent resident could contemplate the glory of these churches, along with crucifixions, saintly martyrdoms, miracles, the wonders of the natural world, street scenes, and portraits of holy people, while safely within the walls of the convent. Plus she could gain release from earthly penance while doing so!

The granting of indulgences, which were documents issued by the papacy giving a person release from penance - initially earthly penance and by the early sixteenth century also penitential time in purgatory - is often described as one of the sparks of the Protestant Reformation. Studies frequently mention that indulgences were granted for making pilgrimages and for making donations to the church, but these two activities are rarely as closely linked as they are in this instance. The original indulgence privilege allowing the nuns to substitute prayers in their convent for a pilgrimage to Rome was certainly not issued for free, although, as Gärtner indicates, the exact circumstances of its issuing are not clear. Other convents had similar cycles of images, sometimes representing holy places in and around Jerusalem, so this was clearly an innovative way to combine the late fifteenth-century emphasis on the importance of cloister for nuns with the simultaneous emphasis on pilgrimage as a proper expression of piety. (The emphasis on cloistering is sometimes seen as a product of the Catholic Reformation and the Council of Trent; recent research is showing that reform efforts within Catholicism beginning with those of the twelfth century always advocated stricter claustration for nuns.) The churches in the paintings are not exact replicas of the churches in Rome - for which there were excellent descriptions available in pilgrims' manuscript and printed guides that circulated widely - but they are integrated into the story the artist (and perhaps the patron) chose to portray.

Gärtner thus blends artistic and religious history in her analysis - the Malerei und Frömmigkeit of her subtitle - but what is lacking is much consideration of what these paintings might tell us about the nuns who ordered and paid for them - the Nonnenfrömmigkeit of the subtitle. Over the last ten years, there have been many studies of artistic patronage by female convents. Art historians have explored how convents acted as patrons of the visual arts, ordering paintings and sculpture with specific subjects and particular styles for their own buildings and those of the male religious institutions they supported, thus shaping the religious images seen by men as well as women; music historians have shown how women sang, composed, and played musical instruments, with their sounds sometimes reaching far beyond convent walls; religious historians have examined the ways in which women circumvented, subverted, opposed, and occasionally followed the wishes of church authorities, and then expressed their own ideas in art, architecture and music. More importantly, scholars in all these fields have thought about the ways their stories intersect, as art and music both shape devotional practices and are shaped by them, as family chapels and tombs - often built by women - represent and reinforce power hierarchies, as artistic, literary, political, and intellectual patronage relationships influence and are influenced by doctrinal and institutional changes in the church. This scholarship includes: Craig Monson (ed.), The Crannied Wall: Women, Religion and the Arts in Early Modern Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992); M. Dunn, "Piety and Patronage in Seicento Rome: Two Noblewomen and their Convents," Art Bulletin 76 (1994), 644-63; Jeryldene M. Wood, Women, Art, and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Ann Matter and John Coakley, Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997); Robert Kendrick, Celestial Sirens: Nuns and Their Music in Early Modern Italy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996); Craig Monson, Disembodied Voices: Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Cynthia Lawrence (ed.), Women and Art in Early Modern Europe: Patrons, Collectors, and Connoisseurs (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

As this list points out, most of this scholarship has focused on Italy, and I was very much hoping that Gärtner's book would provide a welcome German perspective on these issues. It does not, nor does it address any of the theoretical or methodological questions posed by this new scholarship on convents and the arts. This may be because there are few sources detailing the specific relationship between the nuns who paid for these paintings and their artists, or because the book began as a doctoral dissertation, so that Gärtner did not feel it appropriate to push her evidence. She does speculate about other issues, however, and judging by the paintings themselves, the influence of the patron varied; some paintings include portraits of the nun and many scenes from the life (and martyrdom) of her patron saint, while others include much less that might be understood as personal or biographical. I hope that in the future the author will use her rich knowledge of these spectacular paintings and their origins to help us think about ways in which the nuns of Augsburg might have differed from those of Rome in their piety and patronage, especially as they were so intent on recreating a vision of the churches of Rome in their midst.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks