Cover image for Katerina's Windows: Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen in the Writings of a Birgittine Nun By Corine Schleif and Volker Schier

Katerina's Windows

Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen in the Writings of a Birgittine Nun

Corine Schleif and Volker Schier


$113.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03369-3

624 pages
8" × 10"
53 color/195 b&w illustrations/4 maps

Katerina's Windows

Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen in the Writings of a Birgittine Nun

Corine Schleif and Volker Schier

“This is an outstanding scholarly undertaking. Two scholars, one in the history of art, the other in the history of music, have focused on the translation and contextualization of an extraordinary trove of letters of the Birgittine nun Katerina Imhoff Lemmel. As unusual for its wealth of documentation as it is for its meticulous and balanced analysis, the volume is immensely rewarding. The reader is hooked, enveloped in the reality of the author’s historic voice and the tangibility of the world in which she functioned.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The wealthy Katerina Lemmel entered the Maria Mai monastery in 1516—and rebuilt it. In Katerina’s Windows, readers can observe how stained glass was donated and commissioned and witness spectators’ reaction to it, ranging from critical aesthetic assessments to iconoclastic acts.

The book presents historical texts and interpretive analysis. Katerina Lemmel and those around her are given voice through translations of seventy-three sources, including personal and business letters, chronicle accounts, and legal documents, most of which have never been transcribed or published before. Necessary explanations as well as theoretical considerations and critical insights are provided through the voices of the authors.

Katerina Lemmel’s letters 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 sources provide insiders’ insights into the spiritual economies later scorned by Protestant reformers. They also offer an eyewitness account of the social challenges to this system that erupted in violent clashes during the Revolution of 1525.

The material offers a fresh look at art and music made by and for nuns. Much previous literature has focused on nuns as mystics and visionaries, and on their art as primitive or mundane. This book demonstrates the roles of nuns as active agents for sophisticated art and innovative liturgical music.

“This is an outstanding scholarly undertaking. Two scholars, one in the history of art, the other in the history of music, have focused on the translation and contextualization of an extraordinary trove of letters of the Birgittine nun Katerina Imhoff Lemmel. As unusual for its wealth of documentation as it is for its meticulous and balanced analysis, the volume is immensely rewarding. The reader is hooked, enveloped in the reality of the author’s historic voice and the tangibility of the world in which she functioned.”
“This full presentation of Katerina Lemmel’s letters is remarkably good reading. After a swift introduction of Katerina, in which the authors demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the archival resources, topography, and family histories of Nuremberg and its mercantile families, their literal translation of the letters provides a ‘thick history’ that is reminiscent of the now famous history of Montaillou, or the late medieval Paston letters. Yet this is not a correspondence—with few exceptions, we hear only Katerina’s voice, addressing her cousin Hans Imhoff, with whom she has to plead for help in ensuring a sound financial base for her house. Even so, with the help of the authors’ commentary, which contextualizes the letters, a vivid autobiography emerges, and with it an extraordinary view into her cloistered life. This is not only an erudite book, based on the authors’ own transcription of the German letters rather than on an older edition, but it is so well written that the density of facts (such as the quantities and cost of the spices used in the monastic kitchens) becomes part of the larger texture of social exchange. The commentaries are well balanced between theoretical interpretation of the economy of prayer and donation and material explanations of commerce, often drawing examples from the locale and illustrating Katerina’s visual environment with works of art in a variety of materials.”
“Schleif and Schier’s book is truly stellar. Thanks to their sensitive understanding of the era’s social and religious dynamics, they have authored one of the finest studies in recent years about early modern Germany. They have added the articulate voice of Katerina to our dialogue about this period.”
“The significance of these letters is substantial, for they are a rare group of primary texts written by an enclosed nun herself, without the filters or biases one usually finds in much of the convent literature, most of which was written by men.

Art historians and historians interested in monastic economics will find the present study of greatest interest and use. For art historians, the reader is granted a rare, documented account of artistic patronage by nuns.”
“Katerina Lemmel’s letters, especially in combination with the authors’ critical assessments of them, shed new light on the cultural and economic impact of women as donors, fund-raisers, patrons, administrators, and art critics. This well-crafted, beautifully illustrated study helps to adjust readers’ perceptions of female self-determination in medieval and Renaissance Germany, and of the complex ways in which the visual was inextricably linked to other sensory experiences such as music and literature.”
“This is a book of profound importance to . . . anyone interested in late medieval life and religion. The book is nothing less than a 500 page epic—a magnificent, utterly engrossing, splendidly illustrated, five-star achievement which brings a lost world to life and represents a major contribution to medieval stained glass studies and much more.”
“This is a profoundly important volume for the study of stained glass, sixteenth-century female spirituality and early modern cultural history. It has been meticulously and lavishly compiled and the illustrations alone are excellent sources of information. The authors and publishers are to be congratulated on an outstanding achievement.”
“There is a wealth of material here . . . to be mined by economic, social, and church historians as well as feminists. The book provides a welcome shift in focus from the scholarship on individual piety, private interaction with images, and mystical experience that has constituted much of the recent interest in nuns. . . . The disciplinary expertise of the authors, an art historian and a musicologist, give readers a nuanced and multifaceted view of the interactions of art and music, donation and liturgy, and sadly also the motivations for iconoclasm and very different perspectives on the ‘poverty’ and value of religious life in its contemporary society. The book is richly illustrated with black-and-white and color images interspersed.”

Corine Schleif is Professor of Art History at Arizona State University.

Volker Schier is a musicologist and research associate with the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University.


List of Illustrations





1 Looking Through Words, Numbers, Images, Buildings, and Melodies: Glimpses of Childhood and Marriage, Investment and Donation, in the Nuremberg of Katerina Imhoff Lemmel, 1466–1516

2 Disappearing Behind Veils and Walls with Windows: Katerina’s Rituals and Rhetoric of Passage in June 1516

3 Opening Windows of Communication: Building and Business: Letters from 1516

4 Sitting at the Window: News of Shattered Promises and Bad Returns: Letters from February Through July 1517

5 Windows of Opportunity: Bad Times, Singing for Saffron; Sights and Sounds, Scents and Tastes, of Commemoration: Letters from August Through December 1517

6 Writing by Window Light, Singing by Candlelight: Benefactions Through Windows to the World Outside: Letters from 1518

7 Windows Under Scrutiny: Letters from 1519

8 Some Good Eyeglasses: Letters from 1520–1522

9 Breaking Windows: Violent Clashes in the Peasants’ War of 1525

10 Now Through a Glass Darkly, but Then Face to Face: Katerina’s Last Letter, Last Words, and Last Will

Conclusion: Moving Forward with a Glance in the Rearview Mirror

Genealogical Tables




Why Listen to Different Voices?

The goal of this project is to reactivate and re-intone Katerina Lemmel’s quiet voice of power, protest, and resistance and enable it to resound within the larger acoustic spaces of the present in order to make these spaces accessible to different voices today and habitable for ever-changing Other discourses. Our endeavor now, like hers then, has its own microhistory full of accidents, incidents, and intentions of individuals and institutions. It is replete with their machinations and foibles. We should like to begin by telling readers, with our separate voices, how this project began.

In many ways it was initiated by Volker Schier:

When conducting research for my study about music cultures in the imperial city of Nuremberg before the Reformation, I, unlike most historians of music, determined to work my way through as much archival material from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as possible, whether or not the often short and unspecific references in the catalogues promised any finds that I could use for my project. I chose this time-consuming approach for several reasons: Very little has been written about the music of the pre-Reformation period in Nuremberg, so published sources or even references to unpublished sources are scarce. Indeed, material relating to music in Nuremberg in the late Middle Ages is rare, and uncovering new sources, as well as finding ways to deduce useful material from hitherto untapped administrative documents and records, called for unusual strategies. I found myself in the role of a detective trying not to leave any stone unturned. The cumbersome method brought results, but in the process I came across many more references that seemed more promising for an art historian than for a musicologist, and so I began to share material with my American colleague Corine Schleif. The Imhoff Archives, deposited in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, are the largest of the Nuremberg patrician-family archives. They preserve a wealth of documents not only relating to the Imhoff family but also to the Imhoff Trading Company. The only way to obtain an overview is through a so-called Findbuch, literally a “finding book,” compiled in the nineteenth century. The descriptions in this book tend to be very short, but they generally state a time frame for the material contained in every carton, box, or drawer. I therefore had brought to the reading room every single container that matched the time frame of my study, roughly from 1450 to 1525. After many days of assessing these contents as well as several privileged trips into the underground vaults in the company of the archival assistant Herr Leykauf, I came upon a box containing, among other items, a dark gray paper folder with a large stack of what were immediately recognizable as letters. It was apparent that the same person had written all of them. Since the early-sixteenth-century handwriting was readily legible, it was fairly easy to speed-read them. I found them to be very different from the many business documents, charters, contracts, and formal letters I had seen before, since they were personal in tone. In fact, many of the passages were not only interesting but even amusing: I smiled when the writer, Katerina Lemmel, chided a family member for having enjoyed himself too much during a carnival in Nuremberg. As I read, a complex story unfolded, a story that I could only partly follow, due to the complexity of the arrangements and negotiations and the great number of “players” with whom I was unfamiliar. Searching for references to music, I happened upon Katerina’s various pleas for donations of stained-glass windows in which she stressed that these windows were necessary; without them the sisters would not have enough light to sing from their processionals. The recurring theme of the windows and the manner in which she interwove singing not only with praying but also with seeing, smelling, and tasting, as well as with donating and remembering, reinforced my belief that music cannot be considered in a vacuum separated from the other arts and from historical contexts. That very evening I placed a transatlantic call to Corine Schleif, because I knew she had examined many specific cases in order to analyze donors and donations in late medieval Nuremberg.

Upon beginning our collaborative work, we discovered that at the end of the nineteenth century Johann Kamann had published an edition of the letters in a series of three articles. A closer look revealed, however, that he had slightly altered the texts to make them conform with the German of his day and that he had abridged the material without indicating where the often long ellipses occur. Although his introduction gives evidence of considerable local primary research in Nuremberg, the edition does not provide all of the insightful passages on any one of the important topics interspersed throughout the letters, nor does it provide readers access to the related documents that proved to be so plentiful in the Nuremberg archives. Most remarkable is the fact that the voice of these letters’ author, so significant within Nuremberg society and such an important donor of art and architecture beyond the confines of the city, was so seldom heard. Even in their published and extracted form, her letters are hardly ever quoted.

In other ways the present endeavor began with Corine Schleif:

In the 1980s, when I wrote my book Donatio et Memoria, which focused on religious art in Nuremberg and attempted to understand it from the standpoint of donors and those for whom it was donated, I had to piece the information together by holding up donor images against donation charters while teasing out incentives from legal documents and impulses from biographical writings or estate inventories. For the study of donors and donation, Katerina Lemmel’s letters are almost too good to be true. Katerina Lemmel articulates more clearly than any other lingering voice the motivations behind donations as well as the strategies that perpetuated and the structures that supported the medieval system of donation, and all of this when it had reached its fullest development, in fact during the very moments before that overextended structure would break asunder.

In other ways as well, the writings of Katerina Lemmel have presented an unsurpassed opportunity for me to further goals I had set for my research and writing, since her letters demonstrate the many ways in which women have been involved with art and its history. In earlier studies, particularly those on Agnes Frey Dürer, I had to work painstakingly to collect references, be they ever so brief, that substantiate women’s roles in the making of art, particularly as donors and patrons, workshop wives and widows. Katerina Lemmel’s letters thoroughly document the negotiations of a businesswoman and the financial power of a daughter, wife, and widow. Her documented contributions conflict with the accepted narrative art history has chosen, one that has set its sights on artists, even when this has meant that some artists have had to be invented now and then for these earlier centuries. This narrative path has required its travelers to wear blinders, not permitting them to look to the right or the left and be distracted by the roles of patrons, sponsors, fund-raisers, or audiences. It has also encouraged those desiring safe passage to look into the art, seeking and finding guidance in singular genius creators rather than to listen to the ever-present lilting or whispering voices of the sirens who would lure them from the well-traveled path.

My work on the reception of the sculptor Adam Kraft has brought me to search for evidence of disparate audience reactions to his works—reactions that were often merely implied or expressed indirectly. Katerina Lemmel and Sister Anna, the author of the chronicle of Maria Mai, clearly articulated their own points of view and transmitted the views of others, thus providing ample opportunities to analyze the various lenses and filters through which the objects were (re)viewed and voices (re)produced. The reactions voiced in word and deed ranged from utmost reverence to complete disdain. Indeed, these diverging and sharply—even violently—articulated points of view came to include even deadly bloody clashes over the roles and meanings of sacred art.

The (re)discovery of Katerina’s letters comes at a point when popular documentaries and academic studies are returning to great men as the heroes of history, the creators of culture, and geniuses of art. At a time in which it is (again) difficult for a woman to publish, especially on complex issues involving women, donors, and audiences, I am particularly grateful that both Katerina’s voice and mine can be heard.

The book we are introducing experienced a smooth and rapid gestation but difficult and painful birth. After the Getty Grant Program enabled us to undertake collaborative research, traveling and writing for an entire year (2000–2001), the text progressed steadily, our preliminary results were well received at conferences, and our efforts were rewarded by the enthusiasm of a series editor, as well as by the eagerness of a publisher, with whom we worked for three years, revising, editing, and acquiring publication subsidies. However, shortly before the book was to go into production, publication plans were canceled, the publisher then indicating interest only in the translations of sixteenth-century texts, without historical explanations or commentary. Immediately we sought another publisher and were gratified when Pennsylvania State University Press and several other houses welcomed our project and accepted not only Katerina’s critical voice from history but also our critical voices of today.

Why Katerina?

Why, at the risk of appearing familiar, familial, or perhaps even trivial or infantile, have we chosen to call an important and hitherto unknown woman from history by her first name in the title of a book? The reasoning is simple. We wish to suggest that this rare case of documentation might stand for many “undocumented” women (and men) who have remained anonymous and whose efforts and activities as donors, patrons, administrators, fund-raisers, critics, and viewers have never been legitimated. By this usage we wish to imply that, ironically, such roles may indeed have been as ubiquitous as this first name. Further, through these detailed documents, Katerina Lemmel allows us the opportunity to view her and her doing, her thinking, and her feeling from an intimate distance over a period of time, so that only a given name seems appropriate. Nonetheless, let there be no mistake: Katerina Lemmel herself always signed her letters with her first and last names, even those to her closest friends or relatives, whom she addressed using familiar pronouns and verbs. Similarly, in the chronicle of the monastery from which the text of the chapter on the Peasants’ War is drawn, the writer, who identifies herself simply as “Sister Anna,” refers to Katerina Lemmel as either “our dear sister Lemlin” or “Frau Lemmel.” These matters are discussed at greater length in the pages that follow.

Why Windows?

We have many reasons to use “windows” in the title of this book. As objects, stained-glass windows provide a focus for the book, since many of the writings document the events and negotiations leading to their making as well as various subsequent reactions to them, including their destruction. Also, the Rule of Saint Birgitta stresses the contradictory character of windows between various parts of a monastery, particularly that in the room from which the nuns could have contact with visitors. But windows are far from the only subject matter in the documents we present or in our study of them, and thus the term in the title is meant to function primarily as a metaphor. Admittedly, the metaphor “windows” has today been worn nearly threadbare from overuse. Nonetheless, for our study it appears in many ways apt. For Katerina Lemmel, living as a cloistered nun, writings functioned as the only real window between herself and the world outside. Indeed, windows are thresholds, boundaries between inside and outside, but they also allow for looking—into and out from. On each of the twenty-four days before Christmas, German children open the tiny numbered windows of paper Advent calendars so that they can look into houses and shops to observe festive preparations going on behind the walls. According to another custom, residents of northern European cities allow strangers passing by to glimpse through their windows into their well-kept lighted domestic interiors to admire their furnishings and enjoy their comforts vicariously. More universally, those who are infirm, elderly, or for other reasons confined to their homes stare out of their windows to take part, if only mentally, in the dramas that unfold on sidewalks and streets outside. Windows are then visually permeable borders. They allow visual communication in two directions, but no bodily passage. Likewise, they imply other limitations: mixing metaphors of time and space, we speak of windows of opportunity. Microsoft’s ubiquitous operating system, named Windows because it allows for simultaneous opening of various programs and files, once again implies access—multiple access—but this access is also limited, insofar as it is channeled through well-controlled paths. Metaphorically speaking, we shall approach several such windows in Katerina’s life and work. The book therefore offers windows to and from Katerina. Readers will note that many of these windows pertain to music and/or the visual arts. This of course is no accident, since these were the windows we were able to open. Other windows wait to be opened by colleagues from other disciplines.

In several ways we view this study as a pilot project. Truly, we shall never be able to see through Katerina’s eyes, only into them, and sometimes authors and readers only see their own reflections. Nonetheless, we wish to allow Katerina Lemmel and those around her to speak, and to enable audiences today to hear her and their voices—albeit in translation. We also desire to provide theoretical considerations and critical insights of our own day, in order consciously and honestly to present history not only as we find it but as we find it edifying and useful for today. Our windows are then kinds of hermeneutic windows, a term Lawrence Kramer has coined for arbitrary interpretive opportunities and devices. We wish to accomplish these two tasks simultaneously, bringing to the page the voices from the past and our own from the present day, without permitting the one to take precedence over the other, thus offering neither a critical edition of a text with commentary nor a book about Katerina Lemmel with appendixes and footnotes containing source material. Thus we have elected to present the material through two sets of windows, windows into the early sixteenth century, and windows out of the dawn of the twenty-first. We want readers, however, to perceive themselves as reading simultaneously through two windows, in other words, as if they are seeing Katerina Lemmel and her world through two panes of glass: her writing and ours. Conversely, readers will be seeing themselves and their world through the same two panes of glass. And if these are not enough transparent and reflective surfaces, then readers must also be aware of their own many-faceted eyeglasses through which they will view both texts.

Translation or Interpretation?

Before confronting readers from the printed pages of this book, the fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century texts have already passed through several filters or lenses that have colored or otherwise altered them. The first transformation was the transcription of cursive letters, irregularly formed on paper with ink and quill (see figs. 96, 97), into uniform printed letters appearing on a computer monitor. In cases in which letters were not easily decipherable, arbitrary decisions had to be made. The second, almost immediate transformation was the imposition of some intralingual conformity, following the “rules” established by German historians for editing early modern German sources. These include adding capitalization and punctuation to form sentences, a necessary precondition to pursuing an interlingual translation. This important interpretive act involved many choices as to whether a relative clause was intended to modify the material that preceded it or that which followed, each decision invariably having a significant impact on the meaning of a passage. A subsequent step of translating into contemporary German usually took place only mentally, except in those cases in which we encountered terms no longer in use and unfamiliar and therefore consulted the thirty-three-volume dictionary begun by the brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century or additional regional reference works. Also in instances in which uncertainties arose due to syntactical ambivalence or grammatical problems, we found ourselves verbally articulating variant, more modern readings aloud to each other. With words of particular import we delineated their meanings by including this interpretive step in the commentary. Likewise at this level we painstakingly identified and located all of the persons and places, working from names variously referenced through a wide range of orthographies and historic colloquialisms, almost always differing from today’s nomenclature.

Our greatest leap took place in the interlingual translation into English. Generally, we strove to be as faithful to the source language as possible, which meant walking a tightrope, balancing the acts of carrying over style and levels of language from the older source language into their rough equivalents in the contemporary target language while employing enough older or archaic vocabulary to maintain the same historic distance that manifests itself in the content and subject matter of the source. The exercise made us ever aware that while it is difficult enough to find adequate translations of vocabulary, it is impossible to find translations for inflections governed by rules of decorum that provide distinctions in one language that are not made in another. For example, Katerina refers to servants and other lower-level employees using only their first names. When referring to married female relatives, even very close family members, she calls them by their married surnames in some cases, adding their husbands’ first names, but always affixing the feminine ending -in. For instance, her sister Margarete Tucher is Tucherin, and the wife of her cousin Hans Imhoff is Hänsin Imhoff. To preserve some of the original decorum and also show the cultural unfamiliarity of these formalities, we either opted for an intralingual translation—for example, Frau Jäger for Jägerinor, in instances in which the relationship was very close and the surname would therefore have been too distracting and disruptive, employed the last name and placed the first in brackets: for example, [Margarete] Tucher. In an article on Katerina Lemmel published in German in 2002, Britta-Juliane Kruse took a different approach to the problem and retained the -in suffix that Katerina consistently attached to her own surname. Accordingly, in Kruse’s essay Katerina’s husband’s name is Lemmel and her name Lemlin. Although, needless to say, this practice creates indexing problems, it in some respects follows efforts by feminists writing in modern inflected languages to retain or recuperate feminine endings in singular and plural nouns and pronouns in order to underscore the participation of women. English-writing feminists have conversely dropped feminine referents such as the suffix on “poetess” or the qualifier “woman” preceding “artist” in order to counter the notion that the masculine gender denotes the norm, the feminine addendum the aberration.

Early-sixteenth-century German follows no uniform orthography, which results in numerous spellings for given names and surnames. For the sake of expedience, we chose to assign a different variant to each of the several main characters who share a name, for example: Katerina Lemmel, Katharina Imhoff, Katherina Fürer.

Translating made us aware of certain dangers. Initially, when reading these distant texts, we had been confident that we understood them; it was only through the struggle of the translation experience that we gained a healthy respect for the various cultural gaps that separate sixteenth-century Nuremberg German from twenty-first-century American English. Moreover, when we as musicologist and art historian put words together about old music and art, in our own verbal languages, we also become aware of our level of understanding—and lack thereof. By pulling anything from one distant semiotic system into another in which we participate, we are not only appropriating these verbal, visual, or auditory signs into our own discourses, but we are also taking them home and allowing them to confront us in our own day with our own previously tenaciously held notions.

Katerina Lemmel, the various abbesses, and the prioress Anna had already accomplished transformations from one semiotic system to another in those instances in which they discuss music and more frequently visual art. When we in our conversations, explanations, and commentary have attempted to transform their verbalizations back to music and art by identifying appropriate illustrations that we believe may correspond to the examples they had before them, we are effecting yet another translation.

As Umberto Eco and others have demonstrated, all of these steps in translation are really transmutation and interpretation. Stated negatively, none of these attempts to carry something over from one (older) language or semiotic system into another (newer) language or semiotic system can result in complete accuracy. Stated positively, all of these interpretive transfers add something to the original text.

Interestingly, although we have just outlined a step-by-step linear procedure for translating, the endeavor was in reality quite circular. Context can never be overestimated within any semiotic process. When deciphering a letter of the alphabet, it was necessary first to speculate as to the possible identity of the word of which it might be a part. When identifying a word, it was necessary to conjecture as to the meaning of the entire phrase or thought of which it was a part. As more contours within the narrative took shape, we were forced to return to the facts and ideas in our earlier translations and make changes in keeping with the larger context. In fact, in a few cases in which we were able to analyze and make sense of certain passages in the course of our commentary, we were led not only to revisit the translated texts but also at times even to rescrutinize the handwritten letters to examine the possibilities for the formation of other words, eventually bringing us to make adjustments on the most rudimentary level of transcription. The longer we worked, the more loose ends and inexplicable details that fell into place.

In the end, since some questions had held us in suspense for so long, we decided, for the sake of the reader confronted with the material for the first time, that we should allow the narrative within the letters and the chronicle to unfold like a story rather than adopt the position of the omniscient narrator by explaining uncertainties before they were known and outcomes before they had taken place. Thus, readers can more easily identify with Katerina Lemmel as she faces momentary financial challenges and with the nuns as they fear the impending violence of the peasants. Only now and then do we intentionally break our rule, in order to provide information from a future date after a narrative thread has run its course or when a flash forward will help to carry the readers through the cumbersome details of the texts and the historical and linguistic complexities laid out in the commentary.

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