Fig. 1: Francesco Terzio, Portrait of Abbess Magdalena of Austria, c. 1567, oil on canvas, 202,5 × 104,7 × 2,5 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna © Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband
Born in Innsbruck, Archduchess Magdalena of Austria (1532–1590) was the fourth daughter of fifteen children of Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564), and his wife Anna Jagiello (1503-1547), daughter of King Wladislaw II of Bohemia and Hungary and his French wife Anne de Foix-Candale.
From a young age Archduchess Magdalena together with her younger sister Margarethe expressed a strong desire to remain unmarried and to establish a community of pious women. Magdalena was praised by her contemporaries for her singular piety, as well as her intelligence, often acting on behalf of her sisters in legal and formal matters. She was also the author of numerous letters to leading courtiers and rulers. In particular, she kept in close touch with the female elite of Europe with whom she corresponded on a wide range of topics, including issues regarding religious strife, financial management, medicine, and the acquisition of luxury goods.
When Magdalena reached a marriageable age, Emperor Ferdinand I found it difficult to accept Magdalena’s religious vocation. Her father believed that she was particularly well disposed to act as a royal consort and he intended to broker an advantageous marriage for her. This was not the case for Magdalena’s younger sister Helena, who due to her weak constitution was considered unsuitable for marriage by Ferdinand and was instead encouraged to enter a religious institution. It was not until Ferdinand’s death in 1564 that Magdalena, together with her sisters Helena and Margarethe, was granted permission to retire from courtly life and to take a vow of celibacy by their brother, the succeeding Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. Following her father’s death and her pledge of chastity, Magdalena avowed to wear only mourning clothes for the rest of her life and her portraiture reflects this change. Her full-length portrayal painted by the Bergamese painter Francesco Terzio depicts her dressed in black and was completed shortly after Magdalena had taken her celibacy vows (Fig. 1).
In 1567, Magdalena, together with her sisters Margarete and Helena, founded a thriving all-female convent, the Damenstift, in Hall in Tyrol, where she presided over a pious community of aristocratic women as its first abbess until her death in 1590. The female ‘royal convent’ was under the supervision of the Jesuit order, and the renowned Jesuit priest Peter Canisius provided spiritual guidance to its female inhabitants. Magdalena led the female ‘royal convent’ for twenty-two years, bringing great renown to the institution. However, in 1567 she had established her female royal convent in the face of great resistance. The backlash of the local Jesuit community against her all-female convent was swift and severe. The Jesuit brothers of Innsbruck were opposed to supervising women on religious matters and they feared that the Damenstift would lay the foundations for a female branch of the Society of Jesus. With the expressive help of her brothers Archduke Ferdinand II and Emperor Maximilian II, Magdalena eventually overcame the opposition of the order and successfully established the conditions for a striving community of pious women living according to the values expounded by the Society of Jesus.
Fig. 2: View of the main entrance of the Damenstift in Hall
The construction of the Damenstift was predominantly financed by her brother Archduke Ferdinand II, but Magdalena, to ensure the financial viability of her Damenstift and to safeguard a degree of autonomy, raised additional funds by soliciting loans (not always successfully) from a number of European noble families, including the Medici of Florence. As the site for the Damenstift, the former princely castle of Sparberegg in the Tyrolean town of Hall was chosen and the two Habsburg court master-builders Giovanni and Alberto Lucchese were tasked with remodelling the edifice to suit its new purpose (Fig. 3 and 4). Between 1567 and 1569 a large collegiate church was added to the complex designed by Giovanni Lucchese. By the end of 1569 the building project was finished, and Magdalena and her sisters together with forty novices moved into the newly remodelled building .
Fig. 3: View of the collegiate chapel of the Damenstift in Hall
Under the stewardship of Magdalena, the convent accumulated great wealth as well as a prized collection of religious works of art. Throughout the coming years, Abbess Magdalena used her extensive network to source luxury items including gold cloth, tapestries, miraculous paintings and numerous altar furnishings. Unfortunately, the treasures of the Hall cloister were dispersed when Emperor Josef II dissolved the Haller Damenstift in 1783. Emptied of its contents, the convent’s buildings were used as residential buildings and subsequently as the city’s hospital. It was not until 1912 that the Damenstift and its church was restored to its original purpose, when the cloistered nuns of the Belgian Order of the Filles du Sacré Coeur took over the premises and revived the all-female religious community that once prospered at the Damenstift.
In 1590, Magdalena died after a short illness. She had succeeded against great odds to establish her royal convent and had lived a long and prosperous life, reaching the age of 58. Despite being a little-known member of the Habsburg family, Magdalena was considered a trailblazer. She conducted her life on her own terms, not adhering to her father’s expectation of marriage and instead carving out an influential niche for herself. She not only was the spearhead of a religious community of pious women, but also a successful counter-reformer in her ancestral home of Tyrol. Her Damenstift was a beacon of the successful Recatholicisation of the Tyrol, which like many parts of Austria, had been swept by the Protestant Reformation. Her exceptional efforts were honoured by the Society of Jesus, who initiated the process of beatification in Rome shortly after her death.
This contribution was written by Dr. Adriana Concin
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