Medieval Women: Subjects and Makers of Art

A bust-length reliquary of a lady in fashionable dress

Dr Jana Gajdošová introduces us to this ground-breaking exhibition she has curated at Sam Fogg. Join us for a live walk-through of the gallery displays with Jana at 5 pm on Tuesday 23 March, when she will be joined by Dr Alexandra Gajewski FSA to focus on several highlight works and contextualise them please register here). And you can watch a pre-recorded panel discussion on the subject here.

Although medieval art is dominated by a lack of female voices, a story of exceptions has emerged in 20th-century scholarship, which looked at the Middle Ages through a feminist lens. While this perspective acknowledged the underprivileged status of women in medieval society, it demonstrated that women were not absent from the world of art. More recent literature took this one step further, by urging us not to marginalise women in medieval art as exceptions while asking: 'how many so-called exceptions must there be before we decide that a new rule is in order?'

This exhibition explores women as subjects and women as makers of medieval art. As subjects, we find women taking centre stage as venerated mothers, powerful heroines and resolute saints. And so, in this part of the exhibition, we give a platform to the stories of the women that were commonly depicted in medieval art, such as Mary Magdalene and Saint Clare. Still, while our contemporary outlook may view these images of medieval women as powerful and commanding, it may also be misleading because many of these images were created by men and for men, adding a further layer of complexity to every story told.

A Ceremonial and Tonary manuscript

As makers, we look to redefining the way we credit women for creating artworks. This new definition calls us to be more inclusive with the term 'maker of art,' which embraces artists, patrons and recipients as having equally active roles in the conception of art in the Middle Ages. The artworks exhibited in this section, such as the Foljambe Hours or the Eichstätt Tapestry, allow us to discuss the women who worked closely with artists, the women who were powerful patrons and the women who were artists in their own right.

With this exhibition, we want to tell a story that will take medieval women out of the 'subplot' and bring them centre stage, thus acknowledging that medieval women were fully integrated into the story of art, whether or not they are 'written in' by art historians today.

Find the online exhibition at www.samfogg.com

While clearly intended to function in a liturgical context, the sculptor of this skilfully carved figure seeks to represent a contemporary woman as opposed to a biblical female topos. The figure is not clothed in a classicising or archaic costume but instead presented in contemporary dress, in line with a style familiar to Swabian portraiture around 1500 and visible in painted portraits from this region. The choice of costume here may be linked to the development of portraiture but it also reflects a trend, which saw biblical scenes take place in the setting of a contemporary household and saints represented as Renaissance beauties. In this way, sculptures or paintings infused with such contemporary realism were able to transcend time and more directly influence the society.

The armorial window of Hans Strüb of Unterwalden depicting a wild man and a wild woman

Religious communities of women held an important role in the social history of Siena because remarkable percentages of the female population lived in convents (10 - 12%). This was the case in particular with women from the nobility, who were often educated and allied with the city's most powerful families. This manuscript, created by the nuns of St. Mary Magdalene of the Hermits of St. Augustine, includes not only the chant and liturgy but also chapters which outline the rules that governed the daily life in one of the most illustrious convents in Renaissance Siena. It is an important direct source of information about prayer, confession, dress, bedding, silence in the cells, profession, and sins of various degrees. Given the importance of religious women for the history of music in Italy, this manuscript and its prodigious content on liturgical chant, is also a unique and important survival, especially as many of the most skilled female musicians lived in convents at this time.

Wild women and wild men saturated the imagery of late-medieval secular art, especially in the German-speaking world. Most early sources agree that these creatures were repulsive and frightening - covered by hair, giant in stature and deviant in character. Towards the later Middle Ages, however, the depictions of wild women transform to sensually enticing and nurturing. This panel, dated to 1556 and made for Hans Strüb of Unterwalden (a judge), represents this later iconography, illustrating the wild woman holding the strap of the shield herself almost as an embodiment of ideal femininity and sensuality rather than that of a monster.