An Artistic Habit

by Jessie Roberts

Whitney Burkhalter sheds light on the medieval artistic tradition called Nonnenarbeiten, or Nuns’ Works:

There is a large body of frankly weird artwork made by medieval nuns, almost all personal devotional drawings or paintings of broken and bloody Jesus, flaming hearts, dish_Hildegard and the like. To modern eyes, they do look childlike. They’re often disturbing. Something you might have going for you that medieval scholars don’t is that right now you’re probably thinking, Doesn’t all medieval art look childlike and disturbing? Entire websites (and entire scholarly careers) are devoted to bizarre details from medieval manuscripts. It’s called marginalia, which basically means doodles, and it ranges from the bizarre (rocket cats?) to the offensive (for example, nuns picking penises off a penis tree.) … While we don’t really know why some nuns made art like Nonnenarbeiten, there are a lot of theories…. Jeffrey Hamburger is a professor at Harvard who writes beautifully about the conditions medieval nuns lived in, which is called enclosure, and how enclosure may have influenced their artwork. Theories on why Nonnenarbeiten look so strange, even against the background of generally strange medieval art, usually revolve around issues of access and agency acting on the nuns externally, such as their lack of formal artistic training or dialogue with the outside world. Not much consideration is given to what the nuns were thinking or how much of their isolation was self-imposed. For example, a convent in Wienhausen painted their own choir rather than allow men to enter their sanctuary. Hamburger argues that the Nonnenarbeiten style indicates a conscious choice on the part of the nuns to express their devotion in an unconventional yet deeply personal artistic vocabulary. Their art isn’t crude, it’s emotional; it’s not naïve, it’s intentional.

(Image: Liber Divinorum Operum by Hildegard von Bingen via Wikimedia Commons)