Because of their exclusive status as the daughters, sisters, aunts, and relatives of society’s most prominent and influential families, convent women had access to wealthy donor support. Drawing on these connections they sponsored and orchestrated production of some of the most beautiful and costly manuscripts created in the Middle Ages, books such as the huge, richly illuminated gradual of St. Katharinenthal (c. 1312). Although the sisters did not make this magnificent work themselves – except for possibly copying the text, they coordinated the production, the financing, and engaged professional illuminators to produce the stunning major initials. The smaller initials and images of nuns (labeled with their names) that are painted into the margins and into the text itself point to a close collaboration. Similar large-scale “town and gown” projects were undertaken at other convents such as Heilig Kreuz in Regensburg and at Wonnental (near Freiburg). Here opulent manuscripts depict in the margins secular donors
Not only did convents and regions develop their own signature manuscript genres; they developed styles of illumination that diverged more and more from the mainstream. Women’s works from the Upper Rhine region appear to have been influenced early on by the style of Strasbourg schools of painters such as that of the Master of the Paradiesg?rtlein (ca. 1410), but thereafter developed a life and a style of their own. Painters such as Sibylla von Bondorf (ca. 1450-1524) enjoyed a reputation that extended beyond their cloister and town. This can be seen in the number of Sibylla von Bondorf’s illustrations that appear pasted into works by other artists, in copies made of her illustrations, and the imitation of her distinctive style in the work of other artists. Through the exchange of manuscripts, convent artists of this region (and others) can be said to have developed a school of their own, a regional "cloister style."
While a monograph on medieval women’s art is only partially completed, some conclusions can be drawn from the data collected so far. These indicate that works from women’s convents are inclined to depict a larger number of women and female saints in their illustrations. Certain themes such as the infant Christ (often alone), images of spiritual intimacy (nuns embracing Christ), nativity scenes with Mary wearing a crown, or crucifixion by the virtues are found more frequently in these works than elsewhere. In illustrating saints’ lives (a favorite genre), women artists tend to insert cult images within the narrative. In liturgical works, they often include banderoles containing phrases from the liturgy as design elements in the illustrations. Not only do some manuscripts contain embroidery for decorative effect, but the images themselves reflect tapestry and needlework motifs in their designs. Images of nuns
these less professional and more varied images present another side of the Middle Ages: one that fills out part of the picture not seen in surveys of masterworks, but one that existed alongside them. These "other" books express the outlook and practices of a large segment of the medieval population – still not the vast silent majority who left no manuscripts at all – but a quantity of books made by women from prosperous burgher families and the lower aristocracy. These women made and illustrated the kinds of books they liked to own and give as gifts: works that expressed their spiritual needs, interests, and outlook. Most contain prayers, collections of meditations, saints’ lives, songs, and sermons in the vernacular.