Seeing is behaving : Frau Welt and the Fürst der Welt, art and moral messages in the Rhineland ca. 1300
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Frau Welt (Lady World) was a popular German allegory in the Middle Ages, which warned against the false nature of worldly things and desires through a uniquely deceptive appearance: her attractive front side concealed a horrid backside covered with toads, snakes, and worms. While the allegory remains uncommon in visual art, her male counterpart with a similar iconography and warning, the Fürst der Welt (Prince of the World), survives in several sculptural examples. The two allegories, however, appear in very different contexts. While the Frau Welt allegory appears frequently in courtly literature and Minnesongs of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it only appears once in monumental sculptural form, at Worms cathedral. Here the allegory appears with three other female personifications: Synagogue, Charity, and Faith. Surviving only in visual form, the Fürst der Welt appears often with the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The best-known and earliest example of the Fürst der Welt stands on the west facade of Strasbourg cathedral. While previous scholarship has noted the similar iconographies of the two allegories, this dissertation will aim to contextualize the figures beyond iconography by posing larger, overarching questions: Why do these figures appear mainly nestled on cathedral facades along the Rhineland? And why is their popularity confined to the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries? I address these questions of geographic and temporal exclusivity by considering this artistic phenomenon against a changing theological and cultural backdrop. I argue that the appearance of Frau Welt and the Fürst der Welt allegories in visual form is part of a growing interest in medieval society in visuality and moralizing themes. The Frau Welt and Fürst der Welt sculptures take these interests further through their “foolproof” iconography, which calls attention to their divided and deceptive nature. In short, the moral transparency of the sculptural representations of the Frau Welt and Fürst der Welt allegories takes the emerging interest in visuality to the extreme and makes it possible for the viewer to grasp the basic moral message or meaning without any prior conditioning to the allegories or their stories.