Art History, Artists, medieval art

Women Artists in the Middle Ages

There were brilliant women artists during the Middle Ages, that unfortunately are completely unknown nowadays, such as Claricia, Diemudus, Ende, Guda, Herrade of Landsberg or Hildegard of Bingen (there is an old post about this last one, click here to read it).

During the Early Medieval period, women often worked alongside men. They worked especially in manuscript illuminations, embroideries, and carved capitals, but some documents demonstrate that women were also brewers, butchers, wool merchants, and iron mongers.

“Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water”, 1165 from Liber divinorum operum by Hildegard of Bingen

In general, the artists of this period were from a small subset of society whose status allowed them freedom from the more strenuous types of work. In the case of women, they were from two literate classes: wealthy aristocracy, who often created embroideries and textiles; or they were nuns who often produced illuminations.

The artists of Middle Ages

Manuscript illumination of High Middle Ages gives us the names of many medieval female artists such as Ende, a 10th century Spanish nun; Guda, a 12th century German nun; and Claricia, a 12th century laywoman in a Bavarian scriptorium. These women, and many more unnamed illuminators, benefited from the nature of convents as major places of learning for women in the time and the most tenable option for intellectuals among them.

Self-portrait from Hortus delicarum, c1180 by Herrad von Landsberg

With the social changes due to the Gregorian Reforms of the 11th century and the rise of feudalism, women had to face several restrictions that they did not face in the Early Medieval period. These changes affected too the status of the convents, starting a gradual decline of them as places of learning and where women could gain power as before. However, in Germany, under the Ottonian Dynasty, the convents retained their position as institutions of learning, this could be because the convents were often headed and populated by unmarried women form royal and aristocratic families. Two great names of this period from Germany are Herrade of Landsberg and Hildegard of Bingen, this last one was a fine artist and intellectual.

The 12th century saw the rise of the city, trade, travel, and universities. All these changes in society engendered other changes in the life of women. They were allowed to head their husband’s businesses if they were widowed. During this time, they were also allowed to be part of some artisan guilds. Some guild records show that in Flanders and Northern France, women were particularly active in the textile industries. While in England, women were responsible for creating rich embroideries for ecclesiastical or secular use on clothes and various types of hangings. At the same time, women became more active in illumination. Several women worked alongside their fathers or husbands, for instance the daughter of Maître Honoré or Jean le Noir.

By the 13th century, illuminated manuscripts were mostly produced by commercial workshops, and by the end of Middle Ages, the production of manuscripts became an important industry in some centres, and it seems that women have represented the majority of the artists and scribes employed, especially in Paris. However, in printmaking techniques of woodcut and engraving, women seem to have been little involved.

Universal man illumination from Liber Divinorum Operum, 1165 by Hildegard von Bingen

In the 15th century, in Italy, Marieta Barovier, the daughter of the artist Angelo Barovier, was known to have been the artist behind a particular glass design from Venetian Murano. Until today she is remembered as a glass artist.

Unfortunately, there is still very little information about the women artists of medieval period.

Curiosities:

  • In England there were a number of embroidery workshops, particularly at Canterbury and Winchester. English embroidery was famous across Europe at the time, and it is presumed that women were almost entirely responsible for its production.
  • In the pagan Scandinavia, more exactly in Sweden, the only confirmed female runemaster was Gunnborga, who worked in the 11th century.

References:

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