Exhibition | 20.03. - 16.08.2020

Nuns. Powerful women in the Middle Ages


Nuns in the Middle Ages were far more than just celibate, ascetic women who only cared about the world inside their convent walls. The convent gave women opportunities that were otherwise hardly available to them: access to higher education, social security and the chance to break away from the conventions of their families. The exhibition shows with reference to diverse individuals what a wide range of life choices were open to religious Sisters in the Middle Ages.

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Nuns. Powerful women in the Middle Ages

National Museum Zurich | 20.3.2020 - 16.8.2020
published on 20.3.2020

The Middle Ages were a rough time. Especially for women and their prospects. Life in a convent was a welcome way out, affording not only greater freedom, but also education, influence and sometimes power.

Medieval nuns – this usually conjures up an image of a group of women living an ascetic life, interested only in a world of seclusion inside the walls of their own convent. But there was another reality that was more diverse, surprising and worldly than people might think.

The first nunneries were founded in Europe from the 5th century onwards. Convents offered women opportunities they would have been unlikely to have otherwise: access to higher education, social welfare provision and the chance to break away from the close strictures of their families. Not infrequently, this decision was also associated with advancement within the monastic community. The highest office was that of abbess, prioress or mistress. Managing a nunnery was challenging, requiring diplomatic skills and a high level of education. Religious centres often had close ties to politics and business, and had a hand in shaping secular affairs.

Examples of this include Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380), who successfully evaded her own marriage, entered a lay order, became a source of inspiration for a growing following, and was ultimately an important voice in discussing matters of church policy with popes. Or Pétronille de Chemillé (1080/90 – 1149), abbess of the double monastery of Fontevrault. She won recognition in a male-dominated world – against massive political resistance, she succeeded in consolidating the young, up-and-coming order. Under Pétronille’s leadership, Fontevrault gained political and economic influence and became a strategically important place for the powerful of France. The order included both women and men, all of whom were under the abbess’s authority. Also worthy of note is the commanding position of the abbess (Fürstäbtiss) of the Fraumünster abbey in Zurich. In the 13th century she was the chief office-holder (Stadtherrin) of the city, appointed burgomasters and judges, and had voting rights and the right to sit in the Imperial Diet of the assembly of Princes of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichstag der Fürstenversammlung des Heiligen Römischen Reichs).

With the help of 15 representatives of this august group and precious exhibits from, among others, the Vatican Library and the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, the exhibition looks at the diverse ways of life of ecclesiastical women in the Middle Ages, and reveals what opportunities were open to them. The exhibition explores the important position of the convents in educational matters and their links to politics and the economic system, as well as the still often underestimated formative influence these women had on theology. Rounding out the exhibition is an installation by Annelies Štrba. Video artist Jürg Egli has amalgamated her photographs of church windows, Madonna figures and magnificent gardens to create a new work which puts women and the female at the centre.


Detail from: convent hanging, Hortus conclusus, Basel, 1480, wool, silk, gold and silver wire, woven Swiss National Museum, LM 1959

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

Swiss National Museum press contact

+41 44 218 66 63 medien@nationalmuseum.ch


The Swiss National Museum would like to thank for the generous support.

Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management: Andreas Spillmann
  • Project direction and curator: Christine Keller
  • Scenography:Martin Sollberger, Ausstellungsgestaltung und Innenarchitektur Zollikon Assistenz: Sonja Koch, Zürich
  • graphic and key visual: Jacqueline Schöb, Helene Leuzinger visuelle Kommunikation, Zürich Assistenz: Sina Scheller-Persenico, Zürich
  • Scientific consultancy and collaboration: Annalena Müller, Universität Fribourg
  • Scientific Collaboration: Roberta Spano, Maja Škrkić
  • Exhibitions Assistant: Regula Moser
  • Advisory committee: Heidi Amrein, Beat Högger, Markus Leuthard, Sabrina Médioni, Andreas Spillmann
  • Controlling of project: Sabrina Médioni
  • Head of Legal Affairs and Contracts: Ursina Geissbühler, Jana Pfyl
  • Cultural Services and Museum Education: Stefanie Bittmann, Severin Marty
  • Technical management: Debbie Sledsens
  • Exhibition construction: Kim Badertscher, Mike Roder, Dave Schwitter, Bachir Ezzarari, Marc Hägeli, Ladina Fait
  • Conservation management: Nathalie Ellwanger, Ulrike Rotenhäusler
  • Conservation and montage of objects: Nikkibarla Calonder, Anna Jurt; Kevin Kohler, Sarah Longrée, Véronique Mathieu, Jürg Mathys, Françoise Michel, Gaby Petrak; Angela Stindt, Peter Wyer
  • Loans: Angela Zeier, Maya Jucker
  • Logistics of objects: David Blazquez
  • Ordering images and clearing image permission: Regula Moser
  • IT / Web: Thomas Bucher, Pasquale Pollastro, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Translations: Marie-Claude Buch-Chalayer, Bill Gilonis, Marco Marcacci, Laurence Neuffer
  • Final editing: Eva Carlevaro, Esther Füller, Christoph Lüthi, Laurence Neuffer, Roberta Spano, Maja Škrcić, Samuel van Willigen
  • Communication and marketing: Andrej Abplanalp, Alexander Rechsteiner, Carole Neuenschwander, Sebastiano Mereu, Anna-Britta Maag
  • Scientific consultancy: Dr. Annalena Müller, Dr. des. Anne Diekjobst, Fribourg, Prof. Dr. Eva Schlotheuber, Prof. Dr. Gabriela Signori, Prof. Dr. Johanna Thali, Dr. Martina Wehrli-Johns, Dr. Dölf Wild, Dr. Claudia Moddelmog, Prof. Dr. Tobias Hodel, Dr. Ruth Wiederkehr, Olivier Morand, Dr. Peter Niederhäuser und viele andere
  • video installation: Annelies Štrba, in Zusammenarbeit mit Jürg Egli, für die Ausstellung «Nonnen. Starke Frauen im Mittelalter», 2020, Musik / musique / musica / music: Samuel Schobinger / Realisation / réalisation / realizzazione /realization: Jürg Egli, Analyze, Zürich

Items generously loaned by

  • Staatsarchiv Aargau, Aarau
  • Archives départementales de Maine-et-Loire, Angers
  • Historisches Museum Basel
  • Kunstmuseum Basel
  • Museum Kleines Klingental, Basel
  • Staatsarchiv Basel
  • Öffentliche Bibliothek der Universität Basel
  • Burgerbibliothek Bern
  • Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern
  • LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn
  • Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels
  • Musée gruerien, Bulle
  • Musée Unterlinden Colmar
  • Stiftsbibliothek Einsiedeln
  • Stiftsbibliothek Engelberg
  • Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt a.Main
  • Historisches Museum Thurgau, Frauenfeld
  • Kantonsbibliothek Thurgau, Frauenfeld
  • Städtische Museen Freiburg, Augustinermuseum, Freiburg im Breisgau
  • Adeva, Akademische Druck- und Verlangsanstalt, Graz,
  • Benediktinerinnenkloster St. Martin, Hermetschwil
  • Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln
  • Museum Schnütgen, Köln
  • Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Köln
  • Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek
  • Bibliothèque francophone multimedia de Limoges
  • Biblioteca Statale di Lucca
  • Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, München
  • Kloster St. Johann, Müstair
  • Musée Diocésain et Trésor de la Cathédrale, Namur
  • TreM.a Coll. Fondation Société archéologique de Namur, Namur
  • Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg
  • Stadtbibliothek im Bildungscampus Nürnberg
  • Erzbischöfliches Diözesanmuseum Paderborn
  • Benediktinerinnenkloster St. Andreas, Sarnen
  • Stadtbibliothek Schaffhausen, Ministerialbibliothek
  • Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena, Polo museale della Toscana
  • Zentralbibliothek Solothurn
  • Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen
  • Textilmuseum St. Gallen
  • Bibliothèque du Grand Seminaire, Strasbourg
  • Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart
  • Sint-Amelbergabasiliek, Susteren
  • Citta del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
  • Dominikanerinnenkloster St. Katharina, Wil
  • Sammlung Emil Bühlre, Zürich
  • Stadtarchiv Zürich
  • Zentralbibliothek Zürich