Wienhausen, a convent near Lüneburg has preserved a remarkable heritage of religious art in the form of murals, sculpture, texts and textiles. Touching the Risen Christ was the high point
The narrative of the resurrection of Christ was obviously central to the nuns living at Wienhausen. who had their newly constructed choir painted with scenes from the passion and resurrection of Christ in 1335. High above were a series of roundels depicting the different scenes from the gospels. Central to these were the roundels depicting the Passion. And right at the centre was the meeting between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – the so-called Hortulus scene.
However, the banderol belonging to the Risen Christ does not say – as should be expected – ‘Noli me tangere’ (do not touch me) but instead renders the words of Christ to Mary: Maria ecce fides tua te salvam fecit, Luke 7:50 (Maria, your faith have saved you). Thus right here in the centre of the convent we find the key to unpack the very special late medieval piety and devotion, which obviously characterised the atmosphere.
In short: certain features were apparently subdued – the ‘don’t touch me’ – in order to give room for a more positive and including atmosphere which even allowed for probably extensive ‘touching’. This becomes evident from a closer scrutiny of another famous object from the collections at Wienhausen: the Wienhausen Sepulchre
The Wienhausen Sepulchre and the Risen Christ
The Holy Sepulchre is a ‘prop’, which played a significant part in the Easter celebrations. It consists of a chest with a folding garbled roof and four pinnacles in the corners. The outer surface is embellished with a series of guards, while the inner surfaces are painted with various scenes from the life of Christ. The sepulchre was consecrated in 1448 by the Abbess, Katharina von Hoya. It is told that she acquired the sarcophagus after a severe illness, which she believed to recover from through the prayers to St. Anne. Thus the sarcophagus was intended to be placed in a newly dedicated St. Anne Chapel. Eventually, however, it was moved to the choir of the nuns. At which point the nuns decided to reuse a 13th century wooden effigy, we don’t know. However this does signal that the tradition of a sepulchre was already an old tradition at that point.
Perhaps the chest was only opened at Easter. However, small doors at Christ’s head and feet allowed the revelation of parts of the bloody and maltreated body of Christ to be seen and may signal that the dead Christ was used as a devotional tool outside Holy week. Holes in his head and the soles of his feet were used to hold relics and may have invited to year-long contemplation and perhaps even pilgrimages. But it is probable that the sepulchre played a special role during Easter from the deposition on Good Friday, where a host may have been tucked into his side wound in order to be retrieved on Sunday. Residue of oil points to the fact that the nuns at some point also enacted a ritual whereby they tended to the body of the dead Christ, rubbing his sores and wounds. On Easter morning, though, the nuns probably removed the effigy of the Dead Christ and substituted it with the sculpture of the Risen Christ.
The statue of the Arisen Christ in Wienhausen is perhaps slightly earlier than the figure of the Dead Christ. However both are dated to the late 13th century. The original painting of this statue is nearly intact showing vivid colours. It is believed this statue housed the vial with the holy blood, which was the most important relic at Wienhausen and the object of pilgrimages from afar. The original figure would have held a standard and worn a crown. It is disputed where the figure was habitually exhibited. It may also have been used in processions. This figure was habitually clothed and an inventory from 1685 lists robes for the figure of Christ and his angels, a silver crown and three different standards. Recently some of these vestments were restored.
The Easter Liturgies
In 1953 the floorboards of the Nun’s choir in the convent of Wienhausen near Lüneburg were lifted, revealing a famous host of small objects from spectacles to small devotional pictures. Part of this cache were also two small and seemingly insignificant booklets, with dramatized versions of the Easter story.
One of these is a small booklet, which measures a mere 7 x 5 cm. It holds eleven leaves of parchment of low quality, which is probably recycled. The script is plain, but includes five-line Gothic choral notation. The other booklet is larger 11 x 8 cm, but consists of only three double leaves of parchment.
Recently this was supplemented by a discovery of fragments of other early texts, which had been sown into the garments used to dress the sculptures during liturgical feasts. Together, these three texts present us with a glimpse into a varied and probably malleable tradition of the Easter celebrations at Wienhausen
Of special significance is the fragment of the Latin Ceremonial, which also details the relevant scenes: The procession of the three Marys to the tomb, the Hortulus scene with the Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene and the Race of the Apostles. But the Latin Ceremonial also includes a scene not often found, the purchase of the ointment. This scene may also be found as a painting in one of the roundels in the vaulted ceiling of the choir.
In late medieval Wienhausen, Christ – dead or arisen – was obviously allowed to be both touched, dressed and rubbed in oil during the Easter celebrations.
Another touchy-feely motive at Wienhausen was apparently also beloved: the pericope of the Doubting Thomas. We find this motive both prominent in a roundel next to the scenes, where the women are bringing ointments and the hortulus scene with Mary Magdalene. But it is also present in one of the Gothic tapestries, for which Wienhausen is so famous.
The Thomas tapestry from around 1410 is embroidered in wool upon linen and consists of three rows of interconnected scenes from the life of the Apostle as told in The Golden Legend. The opening scene is of Doubting Thomas touching the wound of Christ, after which Christ sends Thomas to India. In the end Thomas, after he dies the death of a Martyr, takes part in a mass and receives communion. The border is filled with dragons, a griffin and a lion plus heraldic escutcheons.
The Convent in Wienhausen
Wienhausen belongs to a group of six convents, the so-called ‘Lüne-convents’ or ‘moor-convents’ (Heide Klöstern); all are located in the neighbourhood of Lüneburg, south of Hamburg in Northern Germany. Another famous one is the one found in Ebstorf, where the Ebstorf Map is kept.
The particular Lüne-convent in Wienhausen was founded in the 13th century by Agnes of Landsberg, a daughter-in-law of Duke Henry the Lion. She became a widow in 1225 and “still in blooming age, she thought of building a spiritual convent to the honour” of the lord”. In 1233 the Cistercian foundation was confirmed and a building phase was commenced. The first mentioning of the convent is from 1229. Originally it was established in Nienhagen, but in 1231 it was moved to its present location due to ‘mosquitoes, poisonous worms and bad air”. From 1244 it was incorporated into the Cistercian order.
As with the other convents nearby the buildings were constructed in the style commonly known as Brick Gothic (1330). Today it still witnesses to the architectural craftsmanship of local builders in this period. As was the case with the other convents in the area the nuns succeeded in amassing a huge amount of land as well as arts and crafts. Some of this wealth was channelled into decoration of the convent, for instance the very beautiful wall paintings in the choir of the nuns from 1335.
Even today the convent owns an extraordinary collection of medieval Christian objects of art, some of which have been in continuous use while others have been rediscovered in the last 150 years. A few of these are mentioned above. Another important collection are the medieval chests, which accompanied the women, who entered the convent. Many of them are still marched up in the long hallway outside the former cells.
‘Fund im Nonnenchor’
The latest find though is the so-called ‘Fund im Nonnenchor’- the find in the choir of the Nuns from 1953. Restoration uncovered more than a 100 artefacts. Amongst these are the earliest medieval spectacles from the 14th century, devotional pictures, as mentioned above: small booklets and other trivial objects stemming from the daily life in a medieval convent
Another treasure is the Wienhäuser Liderbuch – the songbook from Wienhausen. Dated from 1470 it holds 59 songs of which 55 are religious, while 4 are secular. 17 are in Latin, 6 are in a mixture of Latin and vernacular, while the rest are in the vernacular (Low-German). The song-book was found in 1934. In 2007 the Ensemble, Devotio Moderna, recorded the songs.
Of particular interest is the collection of old textiles, woven or embroidered by nuns in the 14th and 15th century. Some of of these are the famous “ Tristan-Tapestries” telling the story of the legend of Tristan and Isolde; the eldest is from the 14th century.
Today the Convent is inhabited by a group of single women living an evangelical life together, while caring for the medieval treasures in the collections
An der Kirche 1
Liturgy and Performance in Northern Germany: Two Easter Plays from Wienhausen
By Tanja Mattern
In: A Companion to Mysticism and Devotion in Northern Germany in the Late Middle Ages. Ed. by
Elizabeth Andersen, Henrike Lähnemann and Anne Simon
The Convent of Wienhausen. An Introduction to its History, Architecture and Art.
By Konrad Maier
Celle, Teske Verlag 2001
Der Fund im Nonnenchor
By Horst Appuhn
Kloster Wienhausen (1973)
Die Wandmalereien im Nonnenchor
By Wibke Michler
Series: Kloster Wienhausen, Bd. 2
Die gotischen Bildteppiche
By Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai mit Aufnahmen von Ulrich Loeper
Series: Kloster Wienhausen, Bd. 3
By Ulf-Dietrich Korn
Series: Kloster Wienhausen, Bd. 5
Das Wienhäuser Liederbuch
By Peter Kaufhold
Kloster Wienhausen, Bd. 6
Heilige Röcke: Kleider für Skulpturen in Kloster Wienhausen
By Charlotte Klack-Eitzen, Wiebke Haase and Tanja Weißgraf
Schnell & Steiner 2013
‘Danck unde Loff’ (Dank und Lob)
Ensemble „devotia moderna“
Musik aus dem Kloster Wienhausen mit Liedern
Producer: Cantate (Klassik Center Kassel)