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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  June 1999

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION June 1999

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Subject:

secular images in convents

From:

"Patricia McGurk" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Fri, 11 Jun 1999 12:45:13

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Dear Sarah,
Your e-mail was a pleasant surprise. Am in the process of planning to go to 
Wienhausen and look at the Tristan tapestries myself this summer. 

My hypothesis is that the Tristan tapestries, as part of the larger Tristan 
text-image production, are somehow connected with Catharism. It sounds 
preposterous, but the iconography may provide a clue.  My dissertaion topic 
is an interpretation of Gottfried's _Tristan_ through the lens of the 
Cathar heterodoxy. 

1) Do you know of very recent work on the Wienhausen tapestries? Have you 
published on the subject? It sounds like you have been there. How are you 
approaching the topic? 

2) I am intrigued by the following and would like to know where to find out 
more:

The arms depicted on the Wienhausen I Tristan are those of various kingdoms
>of Europe, fictional arms of people like King Arthur (which isn't
>surprising) and some of local noble families, as well as a few which
>haven't been identified.  While it is possible that the embroideries were
>commissioned for the noble families, it is also likely that these arms
>appear in the textiles because there were nuns from these same families in
>the convent.  My feeling is that the arms are chosen, at least in part,
>because they fit iconographically with the images depicted in the
>narrative, which makes it difficult to use them as an indication of
>attribution for either their makers or potential owners.

Contextualizing the tapestry within the larger Arthurian narrative would 
make the tapestry appear "secular" if it were in fact subversively 
heretical. But I know most people would not agree and it is a long, long 
way from being provable.

3) You wrote:
However, I think that the embroideries were made in Kloster Wienhausen, and
>that it is quite possible that they were made for the nuns' own purposes,
>although it is also possible that they were made for parts of the convent
>to be used by people other than the nuns (e.g. lay sisters, visitors,
>pilgrims).
>
At the recent Kalamazoo Conference, Stephanie Van D'Elden presented a talk 
on "Tristan in the Dining Room?" She observed that the frescoes at 
Runkelstein etc. and the large tapestries of Tristan appear to have been in 
dining areas. Are you familiar with that idea? 

Secondly, in one of the talks, I heard that some of the large religious 
tapestries were hung in the chapel. It is clear, however, this could not 
have been the case for Tristan tapestries with the theme of adultery.

Could the Tristan tapestries have been in parts of the convent where "lay 
sisters, visitors, pilgrims" came that served a purpose which was quietly 
subversive and even heretical? In Fichtenau's book on _Heretics and 
Scholars_ he mentions that there were often reports of heretics who were 
former priests, clerics and nuns, who were living in heretical milieus. 
Could an unobtrusive group of women, whose families donated large enough 
sums to the convent, have been tolerated, even though they were 
non-conformists?

The beginnings of the convent in Wienhausen are murky. I got the following 
info from the Wienhausen website. The convent was founded through an 
endowment by Agnes von Landsberg, daughter-in-law of Henry the Lion Heart, 
then Duke of Saxony. The first documentary evidence for the convent dates 
from 1229.  However, the Wienhausen chronicle tells of early beginnings in 
1221 in Nienhagen. According to the chronicle, in 1231 the convent in 
Nienhagen was moved to Wienhausen due to "the swampy site" which "did not 
have any healthy air." In 1229 there is already documentary evidence for 
the existence of a nun's convent in Wienhausen involving Bishop Conrad II 
of Hildesheim. He testified officially to the founding of the convent in 
1233.

Henry the Lion Heart was also the son of Eleonor of Aquitaine, who had 
encouraged the arts in her court in England when she was married to King 
Henry. She brought troubadours to her court in England, in the legacy of 
her father, Guillaume IX, the first known troubadour. She was also the most 
likely patroness for Thomas' _Tristan_, upon which Gottfried claims to have 
based his _Tristan und Isold_. This is admittedly a house of cards at this 
point. Eleonor was clearly exposed to a Cathar milieu when she was growing 
up, and her predilection for the East is well-known, but that doesn't prove 
anything to a sceptic. If my hypothesis were right, however, "the swampy 
site" without "healthy air" could be seen as a euphemism for heresy. There 
probably is no way of proving it one way or the other.

>But that still leaves me with the issue of adultery as the central topic,
>and while I think that the first narrative could be read as disapproving,
>such a tone is not so clear in the third one, and there's not enough of 
the 
>second one to be sure.  So I'm still stuck with the problem - what were
>nuns doing making these things?

I agree that this is the central problem to any explanation.

Hope to hear from you again soon.
Patricia McGurk
Patricia McGurk    Tel. (Home) 1-612-784-8710
Dept. of German, Scandinavian and Dutch
University of Minnesota
205 Folwell Hall
9 Pleasant St. S.E.
Minneapollis, MN 55455




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