“We don’t have a lot of records of women’s voices in the Middle Ages,” Christine Sciacca, former assistant curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum and now associate curator of European art at the Walters Art Museum, told Hyperallergic. “A lot of the records that come down to us were written by men and they’re about men’s deeds.”
Sciacca is the curator of Illuminating Women in the Medieval World, now at the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Getty Center in Los Angeles, where she delved into its collection of illuminated manuscripts to find these lost voices of medieval women. She also authored an accompanying publication that includes manuscripts beyond the around 23 selected objects from the Getty, such as those by late medieval author Christine de Pizan. In images of saints, queens, the Virgin Mary, female martyrs, and aristocratic women who commissioned manuscripts, are traces of their overlooked lives. A portrait of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read — a scene which likely never happened — may have reflected a mother’s interest in literacy for her daughters, while images of peasant women spinning wool offer visual insight into their work in the textile industry.
“At the same time, we learn a lot about the perceptions of medieval women by medieval society,” Sciacca said. Obedience and motherhood are repeating themes, which were reinforced in the pocket-sized books of hours used by medieval women for religious contemplation. Yet the saints and biblical figures on their pages weren’t represented in their ancient eras; instead, they were illustrated in medieval settings, dressed like their intended readers.
“These things made it much more appealing and understandable to a reader at that time, who could picture themselves in the role of Mary,” Sciacca explained. And sometimes, an image of the reader would be illustrated right in the book. One 16th-century example in Illuminating Women shows Denise Poncher being approached by a skeleton, three corpses in its wake. “She’s kneeling there, in a beautiful gown that gives you a sense of her wealth, her prayer book open, and she’s being loomed over by this horrible specter of death, a skeleton whose flesh is rotten,” Sciacca said. “It’s a reminder that even though you’re young and beautiful now, you, too, will die. This book fits in the palm of your hand, it’s quite small, and this was her personal prayer book. When she’s praying with this book, she can really meditate on this image of death.”
Other artwork in Poncher’s book further pointed her to the path expected of a medieval woman, including childbearing through images of Mary — guidance that was, of course, being conveyed by men. Depictions of Eve and Bathsheba as temptresses similarly warned women on “bad” behavior. There were women artists and patrons who influenced the subjects, a few of whom are named in Illuminating Women. Margaret of York commissioned eight books, one of which is at the Getty and follows a knight who passes out at a dinner party and takes a dream journey through heaven, hell, and purgatory. Jeanne de Montbaston was an illuminator who ran a Paris bookshop with her husband, creating manuscripts in a collaborative process, and got official permission to continue independently after his death.
Sciacca pointed out that, while women have much greater independence now, many of these expectations of piousness and gender roles remain. “We tend to think in the past they were really misogynistic, but some of these things are still very true today,” she said. And although the perspectives of women rarely made it into the texts of the Middle Ages, “there are their aspirations and desires that you find in the manuscripts if you pay attention to them.”
Illuminating Women in the Medieval World continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles) through September 17.