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A nun's story lives through windows and letters

August 02, 2010

In 1998, German musicologist Volker Schier was in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum doing research on music in Nuremberg before the Reformation.

He had asked the librarians to bring him all the archival material available from the period of 1450 to 1525, and was sitting at a table with boxes and piles of folders surrounding him.

In one box was a dark gray, tattered paper folder with “a stack of what were immediately recognizable as letters,” Schier said. “It was apparent that the same person had written all of them. Since the early 16th century handwriting was readily legible, it was fairly easy to speed-read them.”

What Schier had stumbled on was a collection of the only surviving letters of Katerina Imhoff Lemmel, a wealthy widow who had become a nun.

In his quick scan of the letters, which Katerina Lemmel wrote to her cousin Hans Imhoff after she entered the Birgittine monastery Maria Mai in Maihingen, southern Germany, Schier noted that Lemmel talked about stained-glass windows, music, praying and the scents and tastes of food and spices.

Schier, now a research associate at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, knew immediately that his colleague and collaborator Corine Schleif, professor of art history in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU, would be interested in the letters, so he called her at her home in Arizona.

Within two years Schleif and Schier had begun working on a book about Katerina Lemmel that would take nearly 10 years to complete, turn out to be 579 pages, and require vast amounts of research and interpretation to synthesize.

The collaborators were surprised that the life of Katerina Lemmel was virtually unknown in the world of 16th century scholarship.

Schier said, “When I told Corine about the material she at first cautioned me and said that sources like these must surely be known. Stained glass is very well researched. We were both surprised that they were not and wrote our grant proposal right away since the material was ‘dynamite.’”

Schier and Schleif have combined the translated letters, which begin in July 1516 and end in July 1522, with commentary about the customs of the times, the life of the nuns, art history, family relationships and much more.

Though “Katerina’s Windows: Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen Through the Writings of a Birgittine Nun” is scholarly, it is accessible to the reader who is interested in history, the arts, music or religious vocations.

The lavishly illustrated book tells the story of Katerina Imhoff Lemmel, a member of a wealthy Nuremberg family that ran an international trading company who is widowed at age 50 and decides to enter the Birgittine monastery. In doing so, she relinquishes her freedom to travel, to be seen, and to spend time with her family.

But she doesn’t give up her investments, or her financial connections to the outside world.

Most of the letters are to Katerina’s cousin Hans Imhoff, in which she frequently asks him to advance money to the monastery, check up on her accounts, and help her in other financial transactions.

Katerina wrote her first letter to Hans five weeks after she took her first vows. Schier and Schleif write, “From the outset, Katerina finds it necessary to convince Hans that she made the right decision in joining the monastery, implying, as we shall observe more clearly later, that she had to overcome the resistance of family and friends in order to do so.”

In many of her letters, Katerina apologizes over and over to Hans for putting him to such trouble, but she reassures him that all of the nuns will be praying for him and his family.

She also frequently places orders for saffron, nuts, raisins, fabric and other foods and goods, and must find someone who is traveling from Nuremberg to Maihingen to bring them to the sisters. Often, money is tucked amidst the goods to be transported in secret.

Soon after she settles in at the monastery, Katerina begins a building campaign to improve Maria Mai, including the commissioning of stained-glass windows for the cloister.

In letter 29, written on April 13, 1518, Katrina begins discussing her window project.

She informs Hans that she has written to her brother-in-law to ask him to present the idea of donating windows – “eternal memorials” – to her cousins.

“They (the windows) are not going to be very large, but whatever is to your liking and to that of each of the others. No one should do it just for me, but first and foremost to the praise and honor of God and in order that you ill all partake of the goodness that will be wrought through this when, on all holidays, the sisters will process past them chanting songs of praise and continually every day when they have to pass through it, they will commemorate the people whose coats of arms they see.”

The stained-glass windows would replace very small windows, which Katerina described as “pitiful tiny little holes for windows,” which did not allow much light.

Katerina’s windows are finally completed, and life continues normally in Maria Mai until the peasant uprising begins in 1525.

The nuns’ story of living through the peasant war is told through their House Book, which Schleif and Schier have partially translated and included in “Katerina’s Windows.”

At the conclusion of the peasant rebellion, which was partly aimed at women’s monastic communities such as Maria Mai because the peasants believed that the nuns were rich and living privileged lives that they could not enjoy themselves, the monastery has been ruined, the nuns scattered, almost insurmountable damage done to the holy furnishings and statuary, the community’s cattle killed, their vineyards destroyed – and all the stained glass windows broken.

However, Katerina is able to live the remaining years of her life at Maria Mai as she helps rebuild it to the best of the nuns’ ability.

So why are Katerina’s letters important?

According to Schleif and Schier, they “allow glimpses into the materiality of monastic life; views of the interconnected workings of art, music, liturgy, and literature; evidence of the persuasive powers of a nun who functioned as negotiator; accounts of one woman’s struggles on behalf of other women; and data on women’s networks.”

The letters also offer an “insider’s perspective on the spiritual economies later scorned by Protestant reformers.”

The reformers did not believe, for example, noted Schleif and Schier, that prayer was a charitable endeavor or good work, nor that the religious orders’ gifts of their surplus items were truly “sacrificial.”

Schleif and Schier said the letters also offered a “very particular personal and human perspective” on Katerina and her time in history that cannot be gained in other ways.

“The letters put flesh and blood on the history of art and music, religion and war. They also show us how limited we are when we only have formal documents or only the works themselves,” they noted.

“We were both very surprised about the family intrigue, the difficulties, the joys and disappointments, the manipulations – including Katerina's request to have a legal document predated.

“Also, Katerina is one of few sources that allows us to perceive human relationships behind the art, the anticipations, the disappointments, the surprises, the intrigue -- things that usually only occur in novels.”

As part of their research, Schleif and Schier “looked for” Katerina as they traveled in Nuremberg and Maihingen on their working journeys.

“When we viewed stained glass that survives in Nuremberg we knew she had seen it, too. When we stood at the brides' portal of the church of St. Sebald where she had married we looked at the sculptures, thinking that she probably also had pondered their meaning.

“We traveled to the small villages and hamlets with farms, orchards, and vineyards owned by Katerina and her husband, Michel, and found the remnants of the hammer mill that Katerina and her sister had repossessed.”

The only thing missing, besides images of Katerina’s windows, was a representation of Katerina herself.

But that changed when Schleif became the first scholar to pick out Katerina standing among other family members in a prominent epitaph in the church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg.

Schleif began to suspect that she had, indeed, found Katerina when she studied the coat of arms in the epitaph.

“The coat of arms of Katerina Lemmel on the epitaph were misidentified in the inventories of the furnishings of the church of St. Sebald. I realized that it was Katerina Lemmel – not a person from the Loeffelholz family – when I looked at a family tree that was published in the 18th century, where an epitaph in the church of St. Sebald was mentioned in the fine print,” Schleif said.

“When I took the diagram of the family from the tree into the church it matched this epitaph. Then all the pieces began to fall into place.”

And is the representation of Katerina in the St. Sebald epitaph a fair likeness of the Birgittine nun?

“We of course have no idea what she really looked like,” Sehleif said. “But since this image makes the claim to show us her face and the clothes she wore it gives us an opportunity to project our thoughts about her onto this image.

“For me, this is Katerina.”

“Katerina’s Windows” was published by Pennsylvania State University Press with the aid of the Millard Meiss grant awarded by the College Art Association of America and the Otto Kinkeldey grant from the American Musicological Society.

For more information about the book, go to