By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Recent excavations in Germany have uncovered a small medieval monastery complex whose cemetery housed the remains of a middle-aged woman with lapis lazuli pigment in her mouth. Scholars have determined that this woman must have died between 997 and 1162, and the most plausible explanation for the pigment’s presence is that it was caused by the periodic licking of her brush to create a finer point.
Talented Female Artists
The implications of this find are far-reaching. Clearly, the involvement of medieval women in the copying and decorating of deluxe medieval manuscripts has been grossly underestimated. How many other unknown female painters could there have been? And are some of their creations, even now, among the thousands of books, mostly made by anonymous artists, in the great libraries of the world?
For example, what became of the codex commissioned by a certain Sindold, librarian of Reinhardsbrunn, a men’s monastery, from “Sister N” at the women’s monastery of Lippoldsburg—at about the same time when the unknown female artist at Dalhiem was working just 70 kilometers away? As extant contemporary letters witness, Sindold had sent enough parchment for a book of 384 pages, as well as pigments, leather, and silk for its making. Apparently, he preferred the talents of the region’s female artists to those of his own male counterparts.
German Manuscript Illuminators
Now that we have evidence that at least one skilled female manuscript illuminator was at work in northern Europe, and for decades, what are the chances that some of the books cherished in German libraries might have been created by her, or women trained like her? What if we had the sort of boasting self-assessment for “Sister N” as we do from her male contemporary, Eadwine of Sussex, who included his own portrait in the Psalter that bears still his name, and who also boasted in its margins of his superior scribal skills.
Luckily, we do have access to multiple works by one such female artist, and a very close contemporary of those unnamed German nuns, Hildegard of Bingen.
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Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard was born to a family of lesser nobility and sent as an oblate (a gift) to the recently founded Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Hildegard would become known for her mystical visions.
For Hildegard, the overpowering desire to share her divinely inspired revelations spurred her to develop an extraordinary repertoire of representational and explanatory gifts that could communicate their intensity to every sensory faculty: visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, gustatory.
Of these, Hildegard recalls the first experience, one of her oldest memories, as ocular: A vision of her soul as a reflection or extension of God’s living light, rising up into the vaulted and colorful dome of the heavens and shedding its radiance over distant peoples and places.
This and other vivid seeings eventually found their way into a series of extraordinary paintings that accompany her written works.
It seems there was no shortage of female artists in the region with ready access to the precious metals and gemstones that were needed to create the images Hildegard saw with her mind’s eye.
This makes it even more ironic that we no longer have access to the most complete compendium of Hildegard’s artistry, the Liber Scivias or “Book of Knowing the Ways”, which we know to have been completed at her direction before her death in 1179.
It eventually came to be housed in the state library at Wiesbaden, but was moved for safekeeping during World War II, in advance of Allied Forces’ push eastward in 1944—only to be taken to Dresden, where it was destroyed in February 1945. We only know what the lavish images looked like because a facsimile edition was created in the 1920s and ’30s by female artists at the abbey of Ebingen, founded by Hildegard herself in 1165.
As Good as Da Vinci?
There is another manuscript of Hildegard, called Liber Divinorum operum (“Book of Divine Works”), which was copied in the early 13th century. It is now in the library at Lucca, west of Florence, where it was acquired by a congregation of clerics in the late 16th century.
Although its pathway there is uncertain, it is tempting to compare Hildegard’s vision of man as the microcosm of God’s creation with that the very different vision of Leonardo da Vinci—the Vitruvian Man, “Man as the measure of all things”.
Christine de Pisan
Hildegard’s polymathic artistry finds its later medieval counterpart in Christine de Pisan. The more we know about Christine, who was active for decades before her death in 1430, the more we realize that she, too, was as much a visual artist as a literary one, presiding over her own workshop and controlling the ambitious pictorial programs that accompany the many books she produced for royal and noble patrons.
Ultimately, these supported her own project of elevating women’s intellects, work, and virtues from the misogynistic depths into which they had been drowned by her male counterparts.
Women: Builders of Civilization
Christine’s world is, to take one of her titles, a “City of women” (une cité des dames), and she depicts women as the allegorical and literal builders of civilization: masons, philosophers, political scientists, astronomers, military commanders.
It was very much under her influence that previous accounts of the lives of famous women were reimagined in much more positive ways. For example, a book made for the Burgundian duke, Philip the Bold, around 1403—at the height of Christine’s own productivity—features a portrait of the Greek painter Thamar of Athens, shown her in the act of adding ultramarine blue to the robe of the Blessed Virgin, while her male assistant grinds lapis lazuli in her workshop.
Common questions about Medieval Female Artists
Living in a monastery, Hildegard had an overpowering desire to share her divinely inspired revelations. Thus she created extraordinary paintings to accompany her written works.
It was special because of the luminous hues created by the oil paints made of lapis lazuli and other precious pigments, and the abundant gold leaf that created the glowing background.
It showed women as the allegorical and literal builders of civilization: masons, philosophers, political scientists, astronomers, military commanders.