Sabina von Steinbach was, according to legend, a female stonemason living in Alsace (in what is now eastern France) during the 13th century. She is said to have been the daughter of Erwin von Steinbach, architect and master builder at Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, the cathedral in Strasbourg. When after her father’s death her brother Johann continued to build the cathedral tower from 1318 to 1339, Sabina is thought to have been employed as a skilful mason and sculptor in its completion.
Sabina is traditionally believed responsible for the statues personifying the Church and the Synagogue (both 13th century), which are situated near the south portals of the cathedral.
The tradition of Sabina as a mason in Strasbourg, constantly cited, appears to have been first published in 1617 by Schadeus in his description of Strasbourg Cathedral. This understanding may have derived from the interpretation of a now misplaced Latin inscription on a scroll held by the figure of St. John. It translated: “Thanks to the piety of this woman, Sabina, who has given me form from this hard stone.”
Women were allowed in to membership in the majority of the medieval craft guilds, but membership in a guild did not convey with it the right of being apprenticed, although it implied that a female member might share in all its benefits, pious and pecuniary, and in the event of her husband’s death (he being a master) might continue his trade. This was easily done with the help of a managing journeyman and it is well known that provision was made for the journeyman’s promptly acquiring the master’s rights by marrying such a widow. Stonemasons often journeyed to distant sites for work that might be decades in construction and would of course have taken their wives and children with them.
Von Steinbach’s employment of his daughter Sabina among the Strasbourg stonemasons was not merely an abnormality committed by a provincial lodge, lax in the proper guild observances. Until the capture of the city by France in 1681, the headquarters of the German stonemasons was in Strasbourg (even as late as 1760 the Strasbourg lodge still claimed tribute from the lodges of Germany). Indeed, American historian Albert Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, cites the theory “which places the organization of the Order of Freemasonry at the building of the Cathedral of Strasbourg, in the year 1275.”
Some argue that Sabina took over the contract on her father’s job at Strasbourg after the master builder died and brought it to completion. Others maintain that she merely assisted her father. Still others maintain that Sabina completed the cathedral by herself, aided by “magic,” when other stonemasons declined to work with her.