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Female Artists During the Medieval Ages

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Female Artists during the Medieval Ages
Humanities I
Spring 2009
In the extremely hierarchical medieval society the social classes differed greatly from each other in their legal rights, economic circumstances and modes of living. Feudal society consisted of three classes, the Worshipers, Warriors, and the Workers. With few exceptions, women were ranked according to their husband’s or father’s status. They rarely achieved any status outside of their relationship with men as wives, mothers, and daughters. For this reason, it is interesting to explore how and why certain women were able to live separately from men in convents and create works of artistic value that survive today.
During the Pre-Romanesque (500-1000 AD) and Romanesque (1000-1200) period of the middle ages, most of the art was created in monasteries for religious purposes. This art was primarily in the form of illuminated or illustrated manuscripts. Illuminated manuscripts were hand-written books of religious texts, like a bible, or works by saints or religious leaders. Some illustrated manuscripts were also copies of Roman or Greek works of philosophy. These manuscripts were ornate and beautiful volumes that were expensive and time consuming to produce. It could take months or years to produce an illuminated manuscript. The manuscript included ornamental borders, capital letters and illustrations some in gold and silver leaf. The illustrations themselves used a very rich and vivid palette of colors like rich blues and deep reds. At a minimum, an illuminated manuscript only had ornamental capital letters, but many included heavily decorated borders along with miniature paintings which depict scenes from the book; some members of the nobility even had their portraits inserted into such miniatures. The bindings of the books were sometimes inlaid with jewels (Chadwick 52). Initially, illustrated manuscripts were produced in monasteries and then in the later middle ages in professional scriptoria. While the majority of the illustrated manuscripts were made my men, there were some women who led non-traditional medieval lives and were able to spend years creating art.
The development of the convent system during the early Middle Ages (500-1000 AD) allowed women to retain some independence from men and initiated a tradition of learned women as nuns. Women in Frankish society were more independent of their fathers and brothers, more capable of making decisions about their lives, and allowed to hold landed property and to play a role in political life than in Roman times. This more liberated woman conflicted with Roman family, legal, and political practice, and some Catholic bishops thought it conflicted with St. Paul’s view of women. St. Paul wanted women to keep quiet and take a back seat in the churches and be chaste and perfectly celibate (Cantor 119). As the Frankish nobility became more Romanized and Christianized, the traditions of the Roman law became more prominent and the status of women declined more and more. However, in more remote places like England or northern Germany, there was still some remaining sense of independence of the wealthy women of the nobility as there had been in Frankish society before 700. While this kind of woman eventually disappeared by the late middle ages, the women of the early middle ages left a kind of legacy behind. The sisters, widows, and daughters of Frankish kings, dukes, and counts chose not to marry or remarry and were encouraged by priests to ‘take the veil’. These wealthy women brought with them their dowries, usually in the form of land. Often, the wealthy older women who entered the convent became the abbess (Cantor 120). The women of this early medieval Frankish nobility played a very important role in starting the tradition of the convent life. It was a form of independence and maybe even a little bit of feminism that was acceptable since it came in the form of spiritual devotion.
Women during the middle ages would chose to enter convent life for a variety of reasons. Of course, spiritual reasons for entering a convent were present but some women would also take the veil because the convent allowed them relative freedom from male domination, a better schooling than they could get in the outside world, and if they became an abbess, they would have authority (Shahar 8). There were even some instances where women would enter a convent because they were unhappy in their marriage. In theory, any woman could decide to enter a convent. In reality, it was mostly women of the nobility or the wealthy bourgeoisie that became nuns. The main reason for this was that unmarried women who entered convent brought their dowries with them. And this was the main source of income for the convents. Women from the lower classes were sometimes also accepted but they came in as lay sisters or maid servants. This lower class of servants allowed nuns from the richer convents to dedicate their time to embroidery, illuminations of books and reading (Shahar 44). Education was necessary since one of the tasks of these privileged nuns would have been copying the text of manuscripts, prayers and the bible. Nuns with talent for art were allowed to work as an illuminator. Most nuns who came from noble families already had some kind of education which was further continued in the nunnery. Education in the middle ages for men began in the monasteries by monks and then later was switched to Dominican universities and colleges. The universities and colleges did not allow women so the only place a woman could continue to receive education was in the convents. Usually the abbess taught the nuns, however, some convents had monks come in to teach them (Shahar 50). This continued education allowed the sisters to copy and illuminate books. The Cistercian nunneries near Lierre, for example, were important centers of illumination and calligraphy during the thirteenth century. Even those authors of the middle ages who were hostile to women and opposed to their education felt that it was acceptable for a nun to be educated (Shahar 51). Some of these educated nuns, like Hildegard of Bingen and Herrad of Landsbert, became mystics and saints and their writings have survived to modern times.
Unfortunately, the names of most female artists have been lost over time for several reasons. The lives of nuns were dedicated to their faith and this included a renunciation of worldly esteem. Nuns adopted a different name when they entered a convent and their previous life and name no longer existed. So the work of nuns often tended to be anonymous. It would have been against their religious vows to claim ownership of illuminations they had painted. The exception to this would have been the leader of the convent or nunnery, the abbess. However, the names and works of art that survive show us that there was a group of literate, well trained, scholarly and artistic group of women living during the middle ages.
The first documented example of an extended work on miniatures was the work by Ende. Ende was a female manuscript illuminator who worked on a 10th century group of manuscripts, of which there are 24 known copies with illustrations. These manuscripts are the Commentary on the Apocalypse compiled by the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana in 786. The manuscripts were done in a style developed in Spain that uses elements of Islamic art. They used geometric designs, rich colors, ornamented grounds, and stylized figures. She signed the work as DEPINTRIX (paintress) and DIE AIUTRIX (helper of god). Her involvement proves that monks were not the only ones who worked in the scriptoria (Chadwick 53). Image: Ende, The Battle Dragon with Child of the Woman-Beatns, Apocalypse of Gerona-975.
Claricia was a 13th century illuminator. She included a self-portrait in a South German psalter of c. 1200. In the self-portrait, she depicts herself as swinging from the tail of a letter Q and above her head, she inscribed her name. As was normal for manuscript illustration, Claricia was just one of several artists that worked on this manuscript. Because of her dress and appearance, it seems that Claricia was a lay student at the convent. (Chadwick 53). Image: Claricia, Self-Portrait-Ger.,Plaster, C.1200
Guda was a 12th century nun and illuminator. She created a self-portrait in an initial letter in a manuscript. Along with her self-portrait, she wrote an inscription, "Guda, a sinner, wrote and painted this book" (Chadwick 53). Image: Guda, Self-Portrait,(Homeliary) 12th Century, Frankfurt-Bibliothck.
Diemoth of the Cloister of Wessbrun in Bavaria was a pious recluse born about 1060 of a noble Bavarian. At an early age she entered the Benedictine nunnery where she spent most of her life in prayer and in transcribing valuable books. On account of her exceptionally beautiful handwriting she was styled the beautiful scribe. She copied about 45 volumes the titles of which are given by Becker in his Catalogi bibliothecarum antiqui (Bonn 1885), 155-136. The most important are: the Bible, the Moralia and other works of St. Gregory the Great, seven works of St. Augustine, four of St. Jerome, two of Origen, and about 15 liturgical works. (Ott)
These next two women were the most well known of their time. Primarily because they were both heads of convents and because their work went beyond simply illuminating someone else’s work, but rather they wrote their own religious texts and influenced events around them.
Herrad of Landsberg was a 12th century Alsatian nun and abbess of Hohenburg Abbey in the Vosges mountains. She is the author of the illustrated encyclopedia Hortus deliciarum (The Garden of Delights). The work is adorned with symbols throughout. Some of the symbols are historical, some are scenes from Herrad’s life and there are even some portraits of the sisters in her convent. Her work is much admired for her artistic imagination (Chadwick, p. 55). Image left: Harrade von Landsburg, "Horticus Deiciarum", 12th Century, line drawing. Image right: Harrade von Landsberg, The Nuns Hohenburg, line drawing, Hortus Deliciarum.
Hildegard of Bingen was one of the better known religious women of the middle ages. She even had her own biographer after her death because of her involvement with religious and political figures of her time and her religious writings. Hildegard’s first and greatest work is The Scivias. She worked on The Scivias for 10 years and in it, she describes her religious experiences. The images of her visions are why she is important to art historians. The Scivias consists of 35 visions relating and illustrating the history of salvation. It seems to be the first medieval manuscript in which line and color are used to reveal the images of a “supernatural contemplation”. The paintings are characterized by a “highly individualized sensibility” (Chadwick, 53). Image left: Hildegarde von Bingen, "Cosmos", from Seivins Book. Image right: Hildegard von Bingen, The Chained Beast, Seivias Book, 1165.
While today we may see the life of a nun in a convent as a restrictive one, in truth, some women of the middle ages chose life as a nun in order to gain some measure of independence from the childbearing and wifely duties of a medieval woman. Even the development of the convents themselves seems like a stance against loss of authority by the early Frankish nobility women. Some noble women were even able to cultivate their talents in art and writing and devote themselves to this scholarly work.

Works Cited

Cantor, Norman F. “The Civilization of the Middle Ages.” New York: Harper Perennial, 1994
Chadwick, Whitney. “Women, Art, and Society.” Thames and Hudson, London, 1990
Ott, Michael. "Diemoth." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 21 Apr. 2009 <>.
Shahar, Shulamith. “The Fourth Estate : A History of Women in the Middle Ages.” New York Taylor & Francis, 2003.

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