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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 70-89

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Uta and Isolde:
Designing a Perfect Woman

Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand
Goshen College


Both art historians and scholars of medieval literature have noted the resemblance between the position and pose of the figure of Reglindis and the literary portrait of Isolde in German poet Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan (ca. 1210). 1 Indeed, the fact that Gottfried was an approximate contemporary of the Naumburger Meister suggests a logical parallel. In this essay, I will explore the possible artistic resonances between Gottfried's description of Isolde and the Naumburg sculptures, focusing not only on the figure of Reglindis but also on that of Uta. The comparison with Gottfried's Isolde will provide a unique opportunity to examine the aesthetic parallels between two kinds of "texts" in verse and in stone; the discussion will illuminate the nature of the community for which the texts were created and intended. As Mary Carruthers points out, the process of creating texts, of "textualization," is complex and multi-layered: "Textus also means 'texture,' the layers of meaning that attach as a text is woven into and through the historical and institutional fabric of a society." For Carruthers, the process through which text is imbued with social context and meaning has to do with memory or memoria: "Whether the words come through the sensory gateways of the eyes or the ears, they must be processed and transformed in memory—they are made our own." 2 We can perhaps view the interaction of the visual and the literary arts in our discussion of Isolde and Uta as an exercise in what Carruthers calls the praxis of memory.

A portion of the memory dates back to a letter from the bishop of Merseburg in 1249. 3 Hoping to inspire the generosity of present donors by citing the exemplary patrons of the past, Bishop Dietrich requests prayers and (more importantly) monetary donations to support the completion of the renovations to the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in the prosperous commercial city of Naumburg. Among these exemplary patrons, the letter names Hermann and Ekkehard, the two sons of [End Page 70] Ekkehard I, who was one of the first rulers of the settlement at Naumburg in the early eleventh century. The original cathedral at Naumburg was built upon the site of his grave between 1002 and 1021. Following Ekkehard's murder in 1002, his two sons succeeded him: Herrmann (d. 1032) and Ekkehard (d. 1046).

The success of Bishop Dietrich's campaign almost two hundred years after the deaths of the first Ekkehardiner, and his reverence for the original donors, can be seen in the twelve life-sized stone figures, carved at a height of approximately twelve feet (four meters) that ring the west choir (see fig. 1). The figures are the work of the so-called "Naumburger Meister," of whom little else is known, although there are works attributed to him in France and in the Rhineland: from Strassburg and Amiens to Mainz and Meissen (seven figures in the Meissen cathedral are credited to him). While an exact chronology of his work is uncertain, the sculptor is said to have been active in Mainz in the 1230s or 1240s. The bishop's letter of 1249 is taken as evidence that the sculptures were in progress in Naumburg around mid-century. Each statue appears designed to correspond to one of the donors named in Dietrich's letter; indeed, five of the figures carry shields with their names inscribed on them, as we can see from the example of Dietmar (see fig. 2). 4 One assumes that the sculptor was to craft memorial sculptures for the patrons of the original chapel whose remains were buried in the church (in the cathedral or in the family parish). However exemplary these donors may have been in life, their memorials are grave monuments of a unique sort, the more so because the figures depict members of a secular and relatively minor aristocratic family represented in a context usually reserved for saints or for royalty (Bumke, 2...