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Women In Art History

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The Medieval World

circles - an illumination designed by Hildegard von Bingen

Nuns as Artists

It was during th Medieval period that the nunneries and convents flourished as a refuge for women who for one reason or another had chosen not to marry. In these havens women could pursue not only an austire life but they also found solace in creating works of art. The majority of the work done in convents are illuminations, or miniature paintings that provide illustrations for scholarly and religious manuscripts. 
Perhaps the most famous of the medieval nuns was a woman known as Hildegarde von Bingen. Although not techinically a visual artist herself, she is included in this text because of her contribution as a mystic, writer, musician and creator of art in general. The illumination to the left is an example of the work of one of Hildegarde's visions.
The Poor Clares
The convents that were established by the group called the poor Clares were responsible for instructing the majority of the women painters of the time. Special attention should be paid to the work of Catherine Vigri, who is now considered in Catholicism to be the patron saint of artists.
Secular Women Artists
It is not exclusive in the Middle Ages to find women painters in convents. Several women of upper class status became illustrators of secular manuscripts, as well as doing free standing paintings and tapestries. One of women noted for doing self-portraits was identified as Marcia, In the book translated to mean, "Famous Women", Giovanni Boccaccio talked about the women who were actively painting outside the nunneries. 

Madonna and Child with Apple
Catherine Vigri of Bologna

Assignment #2 chapter 7 - pages 57-75
Points to consider for the threaded discussion in Unit #2
  • Why did women in nunneries and religious orders mark the beginning of known female artists? What was the political situation at the time that allowed women to make artistic contributions in the religious sector?
  • How do you feel society in the Middle Ages regarded the women that lived in convents and were considered to be 'mystics'?
  • What is the visual culture of the "Poor Clares", and how did they infulence the involvement of women as painters?
  • What was the purpose of teaching embroidery in the medieval convent schools? Do you think work (such as the Bayeux Tapestry) should be considered art? Or is is merely decorative work?
  • Discuss how women became involved in the guilds and what influence the guild system had on creating working women artists?

Recommended reading
  • Hildegard of Bingen, a Visionary Life, by Sabina Flanagan. (Routledge, London, 1989).
  • Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, text by Hildegard of Bingen with commentary by Matthew Fox. (Santa Fe, N.M. : Bear & Co., 1985).
  • Hildegard of Bingen : the Book of the rewards of life (Liber vitae meritorum), translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. (New York : Garland Pub., 1994).
  • The letters of Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Joseph L. Baird, Radd K. Ehrman. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Lerner,Gerda The Creation of Feminine Consciousness From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy(New York: Oxford University Press,1993)  
    Hamburger, Jeffrey F. Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent  (Berkeley: University of California Press,1997)
    Miner, Dorothy, Anastaise and Her Sisters (Baltimore, MD: Walters Art Gallery, 1974)