Nuns at Work: The Poor Clares as Makers of Books in Gothic Cologne

Date: 19 July 2023
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Location: The Grolier Club (New York City)
Lecturer: Joshua O'Driscoll - Associate Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, The Morgan Library and Museum

A newly emerged fragment from an otherwise lost deluxe choir book serves as the point of departure for this talk, which examines the manuscripts of the Poor Clares of Cologne. Between approximately 1320 and 1360, these nuns—who were by no means poor—operated a prolific workshop that produced sumptuous illuminated books primarily for local monastic use but also for wealthy civic patrons. Inscriptions and marginal portraits in several of the surviving manuscripts indicate that the Poor Clares were active not only as scribes but also as painters. Women like Petronilla von Scherve, Gertrude van dem Vorst, and Loppa vom Spiegel documented their activities as both patrons and producers of manuscripts, which in turn formed part of a larger practice of memorialization and devotion. Scholars have even suggested that the nuns used a system of crypto-signatures (small red discs with distinctive patterns of white lines and dots) to distinguish one painter’s work from another. If true, these signatures may have served a logistical role in the production process, as the manuscripts were often illuminated collaboratively. Because of their well-documented historical context, along with the potentially innovative use of artistic crypto-signatures, the manuscripts produced by the Poor Clares of Cologne vividly testify to the central role of female patronage and production in the history of medieval art—particularly that of the early fourteenth century, a period characterized by rapid urbanization and immense social upheavals.