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Grottoes, Shells, and Contemplative Experience in Early Modern Germany

Thu, March 22, 11:00am to 12:30pm, The Chicory, Orleans Room


In 1677 Magdalena Sibylla von Hesse-Darmstadt, duchess of Württemberg, constructed a mourning grotto for her late husband. This was a space in which Magdalena contemplated death and prepared herself for the afterlife. The edifice inverted traditional meanings of Renaissance grottoes, which celebrated nature and championed man’s control of it, and instead used the natural world to create a memento mori. As was traditional, the grotto walls were encrusted with a variety of shells. This paper explores the ways in which shells aided the devotional experience of the duchess. Contemplation became an important component of Lutheran devotional practices in seventeenth-century Germany and Magdalena’s grotto provides a unique opportunity to explore how the material environment supported this practice. This paper will draw upon evidence from contemporary accounts of the grotto, architectural tracts, and the role of shells at the Württemberg court to draw out the significance of shells within this space.


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