MONASTIC LEARNING AND REFORM
The Mirror of Virgins, a book instructing clerics in the spiritual care of nuns, exemplifies the changing status of visual imagery within monastic reform movements. The “mirror” of the title defines the text as a place where readers can examine the “face of their hearts.” A dialogue between a monk (Peregrinus) and a nun (Theodora), the work contains a dozen narrative, allegorical, and diagrammatic images that serve as instruments of pastoral care. The Trees of Vices and Virtues dominate one opening to the near exclusion of text. The text directs “novices and the untutored” toward these “two little trees,” so that “anyone studying to improve himself can clearly see what things will result from them.”
Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Literature, Harvard University
No work better exemplifies the changing status of visual imagery within monastic education than the Mirror of Virgins, a book of spiritual instruction for nuns written between 1130 and 1140. The manuscript’s use of tinted line drawings is characteristic of didactic works of monastic instruction within the context of twelfth-century efforts to reform monasticism by raising educational (and moral) standards. The author of the text, who was most likely from Hirsau, an important center of reform monasticism, refers to the mirror of the book’s title as a place where readers can examine the “face of their hearts.”
This early thirteenth-century copy was created at Himmerod, a monastery founded in 1134 by Bernard of Clairvaux. Despite Bernard’s well-known hostility to images, the monks there quickly came to consider them indispensable in certain contexts such as the pastoral care of nuns.
Constructed as a dialogue between a monk (Peregrinus) and a nun (Theodora), the Mirror includes a dozen narrative, allegorical, and diagrammatic drawings that aid in spiritual guidance and education. The Trees of the Vices and Virtues dominate the opening displayed here to the near exclusion of the main text. Whereas the branches of Vice, on the left, hang downward toward the Whore of Babylon, the Virtues, on the right, rise up from Jerusalem and Humility. Atop the Virtues, Christ stands as the “New Adam,” in contrast to the “Old Adam” whose fall was rooted in pride.
Underscoring the identification of the Tree of Vices with the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, two serpents coil around the trunk. The text directs “novices and the untutored” toward these “two little trees,” so that “anyone studying to improve themselves can clearly see what things will result from them.”