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About Research Notes

Did you know that we are always trying to learn more about our art collection? The Barnes has a team of curators, scholars, conservators, and archivists who actively research the treasured works on view in our galleries. We work continually to link collection objects to their original histories, and almost every day we uncover something new—from small details like when a piece entered the collection, to larger discoveries like unknown sketches on the backs of two Cézannes!

We also study our own history as an institution. The Barnes archives, with material dating back to 1902, is a wealth of information about works in the collection—and about the ideas and people that formed it.

Research Notes presents some of our most recent discoveries and interpretations. Read the newest entry below, and keep scrolling for past notes.

Medieval Nuns at the Barnes

By Amy Gillette, research associate

“We know that our own human spiritual life is tied to the body in diverse ways,” wrote Saint Edith Stein (1891–1942), a philosopher and Catholic nun of Jewish origin who died at Auschwitz.¹ Though this tie may be experienced as a “burdensome chain which impedes the flight of the spirit,” she continued, the nature of the body isn’t to impede the spirit. Instead, Stein said, the body can be an instrument of spiritual self-expression.

Stein’s great intellectual achievement was bridging phenomenology (the study of how we experience things) and Christian theology (especially the works of the Dominican friar Saint Thomas Aquinas, d. 1274).² Her perspective is a compelling one for looking at a small group of religious objects in Room 16 of the Barnes collection. Displayed in frames along the east wall, these colorful manuscript miniatures from late medieval Germany were made by and for nuns (Fig. 1). Dr. Albert C. Barnes bought all seven together in Munich in 1930.³


Fig. 1. The east wall of Room 16 of the Barnes collection.

The miniatures are in two sets: the first, five scenes of Jesus as a baby (Figs. 2a–e); the other, two of his Passion (Figs. 3a–b).

Medieval nuns treasured devotional images, using them privately and when performing the Divine Office (the daily prayer cycle).⁴ How did they interact with these images? It may be helpful to engage Stein’s view of an artwork as an idea that an artist brings into Dasein, or “being-there,” an active mode of existence characterized by an ongoing involvement with one’s surroundings, distinct from the passive existence of other objects.⁵ Once brought into Dasein, the artwork can be an agent of spiritual growth. It can provide a structure to understand transcendental being, as well as ethical or mystical content to emulate (in Stein’s words, “with the production of the external expression will the inner image be fully formed and interiorly adopted, [urging people] to effectively reproduce it in action”).⁶ The idea informing both sets of miniatures is the mystery of Jesus’s human body, and both sets uphold the body (his and the viewer’s) as an instrument of spiritual self-expression.

Christ’s Infancy
The Infancy miniatures (Figs. 2a–e) date to the late 1300s. The somewhat patchy painting indicates they were made by nonprofessional artists, most likely by nuns in their convent.⁷ There are three scenes of Jesus’s Nativity and two of the Virgin and Child Enthroned. Stitching along the sides suggests the works were bound into prayerbooks at some point—likely different ones, given the repetition in subject. The miniatures might have been made as standalone devotional items—gifts that the nuns made for one another.

Let’s look first at one of the Nativity images (Fig. 2a). Under a fanciful arched structure, the newborn Jesus lies swaddled in a manger, and his mother, the Virgin Mary, kneels in prayer on a multicolor flight of stairs. Such a building would have constituted a “structure to understand transcendental being.”⁸ Above, a star shines between two angels, who pray and play a viol (medieval violin). The scene captures what was, at the time, a very recent event: a vision of Christ’s birth that Saint Bridget of Sweden (founder of the Bridgettine order of nuns) experienced in 1372 at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. She described Mary’s kneeling posture, a candle on the wall, and the “sweet and most dulcet songs of the angels”:

When [Joseph and Mary] had entered the cave, and after the ox and the ass had been tied to the manger, the old man went outside and brought to the Virgin a lighted candle and fixed it in the wall and went outside. . . . And when all these things had thus been prepared, then the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer . . . and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable light and splendor that the sun could not be compared to it. . . . And then I heard the wonderfully sweet and most dulcet songs of the angels. . . . When therefore the Virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to him: “Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!”⁹


Fig. 2a. German. The Nativity, late 14th century. BF1046

Another work of art that captures tender devotion to the baby Jesus—and expresses it explicitly as a multisensory experience of mothering—is a 15th-century cradle from the Grande Béguinage of Louvain, Belgium, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 4). Created to hold a doll of Jesus, the crib has the pointed windows of a Gothic church. Witness, too, the angel musicians and the garlands of bells strung between them to play their “dulcet songs” of comfort and joy.¹⁰


Fig. 4. South Netherlands (made in Brabant for the Grande Béguinage in Louvain). Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1974.121)

The theme of the Virgin and Child Enthroned meditates further on Jesus’s simultaneous babyhood and divinity. In Enthroned Virgin and Child (Fig. 2b), Mary holds Christ on her lap on an otherworldly throne. The throne’s ornate bandwork evokes metalwork casket shrines (containers for relics), such as the bejeweled Limoges Adoration shrine at the Hermitage (Fig. 5).¹¹ Its flowering vines allude to the Tree of Jesse, a prophecy of Jesus’s human ancestry through Mary, and, poignantly, to Jesus’s eventual self-sacrifice on the “living Cross,”¹² a scene also depicted in the Psalter of Abbot Robert of Lindsey, where the Cross blossoms with roses and lilies.¹³ The scriptural reference here is Canticles 2:1—“I am a rose of the field, a lily of the valley”—interpreted as a song of mutual love between Christ and Church, as groom and bride. This yearning for spousal union with Christ is also depicted in the Rothschild Canticles (c. 1310–20, likely made for a nun), with surprising sensuality; the accompanying text excerpts the Confessions of Saint Augustine (354–430): “I call you, my God, into my soul, that prepares to seize you out of the desire you have inspired within it” (Fig. 6).¹⁴

Fig. 5. French (Limoges). Reliquary Casket with Scene of the Adoration of the Magi, 13th century; completed 19th century. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Fig. 6. Flanders or the Rhineland. “I call you, God, into my soul,” folio 66r in the Rothschild Canticles, c. 1300. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (Beinecke MS 404)

Christ’s Passion
Christ as the Man of Sorrows and Crucifixion make up the second group of nuns’ miniatures (see Fig. 3a–b).¹⁵ They embody the Central European “Beautiful Style” and must have belonged to a Dominican convent, given the black-and-white habits worn by figures of a friar (Man of Sorrows) and a nun (Crucifixion). The nun is labeled in German Die Suppriorein (“the Sub-Prioress”), and the friar Caiplan (“Chaplain”); he would have performed the priestly duties for the convent, such as confession and Mass.¹⁶ The parent manuscript seems to have been a breviary—a liturgical book containing the text of the Divine Office.¹⁷ This identification is affirmed by some just-deciphered notes on the back of Crucifixion, promising to “keep the above-written anniversary eternally and diligently every year.”¹⁸

Fig. 3a. German. Christ as the Man of Sorrows, late 14th century

Fig. 3b. German. The Crucifixion, late 14th century

In Man of Sorrows, the friar prays beside a book open to Psalm 51 (read in the Office of the Dead, at Lauds): “Have mercy on me, God, according to your great mercy” (Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam). But he gazes instead at the wound that Jesus (standing above an open sarcophagus, and under an altar canopy) holds open for him.¹⁹ The top of the Cross is visible behind Jesus, and all around him float further instruments of his Passion—including the lance that pierced his side, a scourge, a spitting antagonist, and dice that soldiers used to gamble to win his garments.²⁰

In the Crucifixion miniature, the nun kneels beside Christ’s body and reads from an open book. We can see the opening words of the intercessory Requiem prayer, read toward the end of the Office of the Dead: “Give them eternal rest, Lord” (Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine).²¹ Opposite, two small naked souls plead from the flames of purgatory. The adjacent German label translates the first line of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths [we] have called to you [Lord].”²² A third miniature at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, likely from the same set, shows a nun (identified as “the Sacristan”) poised to read the next verse of the Requiem prayer: “And let perpetual light shine on them” (Fig. 7).


Fig. 7. German, Austrian, or Bohemian. Sacristan Lighting an Altar Lamp, 15th century. Staatliche Museen, Berlin (Min. 12834)

Art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, an authority on the visual culture of medieval nuns, connects the Berlin image to an intriguing passage from Abbess Anna von Buchwald's choir book (1471–87), in which she writes about furnishing her church with a mechanical statue of the Virgin Mary that dispenses sacramental wine through a chalice and copper hand!²³ Images of the Crucifixion and Christ as the Man of Sorrows, of course, served as supreme sites of “corporeality in service of spirituality” for nuns (as for all Christians). Gertrude of Helfta (another nun) recorded, for example, “I made a certain person undertake to say for me each day during her prayers before the Crucifix these words: ‘By your wounded heart, most loving Lord, pierce her heart with the arrow of your love.’”²⁴

And at a Bridgettine convent in Altomünster, Germany, nuns prayed before “an image of mercy,” most likely a Man of Sorrows.²⁵ From their prayers, they fashioned “an exquisite [spiritual] fountain with five golden pipes and drains, that flowed so full of grace to wash away sin. . . . [T]he living fountain is Jesus Christ hanging on the Cross.” A quote by anchorite Julian of Norwich (c. 1343–after 1416), in which she compares Jesus to a nursing mother, further illuminates the reference to the fountain: “The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and tenderly, with the blessed sacrament. . . . Our tender Mother Jesus can lead us into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead.”²⁶

To conclude, let’s think a bit more about why the miniatures focus so intently on Jesus’s body. In short, the doctrine of bodily resurrection (including his own) meant that his Incarnation mattered not only historically (through his birth and death) and liturgically (through communion), but also eternally. Thus, Thomas Aquinas stated, “The soul . . . is not the whole person, and I am not my soul.”²⁷ Medieval scholar Caroline Walker Bynum explains that, in the Middle Ages, people understood themselves to be a unity of soul, mind, and body. Even in heaven, their souls wouldn’t quite be "themselves" until reunited with their bodies (which people believed would happen upon Jesus’s Second Coming). And furthermore, during life on earth, the notion that sensory perception involved the three facets of the self “tended to undercut a sharp distinction between [them].”²⁸

The belief in soul-mind-body integrity helps illuminate how nuns would have viewed their miniatures, as active objects of engagement. Edith Stein wrote, “The senses are bodily organs but at the same time, they are windows of the soul through which it gains knowledge of the external world. . . . The senses deliver the matter with which spirit occupies itself,” such as works of sacred art.²⁹ Following this delivery, the process of meditation can make said matter spiritually meaningful, and thereby mold the viewer’s will:

“The occupation in which the spirit interiorly assimilates the content of faith is called meditation. Here the imagination presents itself with images of events in salvation history, seeks to plumb their depths with all the senses, weighs with the intellect their general meaning and the demands they place on one. In this way the will is inspired to love and to resolve to form a lifestyle in the spirit of faith,” including in the face of crises like Nazism.³⁰

The purpose of this Research Note is to understand a collection of medieval miniatures made for Christian nuns, who longed for union with the body of Jesus. But Stein’s phenomenology can apply more broadly. For instance, you might ask yourself: Have your body and senses ever been agents of uplift, or even enlightenment, for you? Have works of art at the Barnes been part of this experience, even to the extent of shaping your inner life? And what would it be like to embrace the body as an integral, positive aspect of being a person?


Past Research Notes

October 2023

Rancor, Returned Letters & Reconciliation: Dr. Albert C. Barnes and Leo Stein’s Correspondence

The story of Barnes and Stein’s friendship, quarrel, and reconciliation.

August 2023

“I Would Like to Paint Happiness” Henri-Edmond Cross, Two Women by the Shore, Mediterranean (1896)

Examine the connection between philosophy, science, and nature in Cross’s work.

June 2023

From Athens to the Barnes: The Travels of a Young Girl

See how this carved bust was originally part of a much larger ancient Greek funerary marker.

March 2023

Flowerpiece in a Glass Vase: A Botanical Investigation

Learn how this still life, recently attributed to 18th-century French painter Philippe Parpette, relates to medieval symbolism and the long tradition of botanical illustration.

December 2022

Digging Deeper into Horace Pippins’s Supper Time

Painted in 1940 at the height of Pippin’s relationship with Albert Barnes, Supper Time marks a transitional moment in the artist's career.

July 2022

Hidden Gems: Tiny Bronze Horses and Bulls from Ancient Greece

Small but mighty, these animal figurines are some of the oldest objects in the Barnes collection. What makes them special, and how did these ancient Greek objects find their way into the Barnes collection?

May 2022

The Life and Death of Tantwenemherti: Reconstructing an Egyptian Priestess’s Coffin

Removing this coffin fragment from its frame led to new discoveries about the object and the woman for whom it was made.

March 2022

The Origin of Room 4's Iron Bands

A fascinating architectural investigation helps us discover the original location of two pieces of French metalwork.

December 2021

Holy Cow! Uncovering an Egyptian Glass Forgery

Nearly any collection of Egyptian objects could have a fake ancient artifact hidden in its midst. Forgeries are intended to deceive—to pass as authentic works by specific artists or belonging to specific cultural traditions. Forgeries of Egyptian objects are common, with a long history that continues even today.

July 2021

Alexis Gritchenko at the Barnes Foundation

New research helps identify previously unknown sites in Gritchenko's paintings.

May 2021

From Thebes to Philadelphia: Tracing the Provenance of an Egyptian Relief

See how a chance discovery allowed us to trace a Barnes relief back to its original context in an Egyptian temple and to uncover more details of the object’s history.

December 2020

de Chirico’s Alexandros

Alexandros marked a stylistic departure for painter Giorgio de Chirico, who was largely known for his metaphysical works. Is there more beneath the surface of this seemingly straightforward scene?

Giorgio de Chirico. Alexandros, 1935. BF960. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

September 2020

Egyptomania and the Barnes Collection

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Egyptomania swept the nation—and had a major effect on Dr. Barnes’s collection.

Egyptian. Relief from the Tomb of Khay, 1279–1213 BCE. A107. Public Domain.

May 2020

Violette before Barnes

Thanks to newspaper accounts, materials in our archives, and her own writings, Violette de Mazia’s impact and legacy are clear. But who was Violette before the Barnes?

Unidentified photographer. Violette de Mazia, Angelo Pinto, and others under Seated Riffian (detail). c. 1930s. Violette de Mazia Collection. Barnes Foundation Archives

March 2020

de Chirico’s The Mysterious Swan

A close look at this enigmatic painting by the prolific Italian artist reveals both a pastiche of childhood memories and his philosophy of metaphysics.

January 2020

Early American Glass in the Barnes Collection

Though sometimes overlooked, the glass objects within the Pennsylvania German cupboard in Room 19 are examples of one of America’s earliest craft forms

November 2019

Dr. Barnes’s Pretzel Tankard

Probably used for beer or cider, the tankard bears the emblem of the bakers’ guild and the inscription: “May God in Heaven bless the field / Bake big bread so that we may make a little money.”

September 2019

Dr. Barnes, Joan Miró, and the Spanish Civil War

If Miró's imagery seems to emerge from the realm of the unconscious, it is at the same time very connected to real-world events.

July 2019

Demuth’s Count Muffat’s First View of Nana at the Theatre

A newspaper critic noted that “whoever enjoys a whimsical imagination will revel in Mr. Demuth’s illustrations of Zola’s Nana... The man who obtains this group of illustrations will be a lucky man.” In March 1922, Dr. Barnes was that lucky man.

May 2019

Tall Case Clock

The sheer number of clocks collected by Dr. Barnes suggests he had an interest beyond timekeeping.

March 2019

Veronese's Baptism of Christ

The Carnegie Museum wanted to know: Did this painting once belong to the Earl of Northbrook's collection of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, and French old masters?

January 2019

Starnina’s Head of an Angel

How did art historians piece together the mystery behind this panel? A quasi-forensic search spanning decades was involved.

October 2018

de Chirico’s Horses of Tragedy

The painting, which depicts a group of horses in a mysterious architectural landscape, is most likely related to images of the Christian apocalypse, which de Chirico may have seen as connected to the rise of fascism after World War I.