By Lila Yawn-Bonghi
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol. 12 (1991)
Introduction: Women have a lot in common with art. In the history of art, women have often been portrayed as pretty pictures that excite men to brilliance or as statues whose motionless grace arouses the male genius and compels it to create. Elizabeth Ellet asserts in her Women Artists (1859) that “woman is the type of the ornamental part of our life, and lends to existence the charm which inspires the artist.” Women, we infer, are archetypes, rather than makers, of art. In the history of women, moreover, women’s status has frequently been treated as a fine gauge of cultural sophistication, a role commonly assigned to painting and sculpture. As Eileen Power once observed, “the position of women has been called the test point by which the civilization of a country or of an age may be judged.” In much historical thought, women and art do indeed have a lot in common: both are static sources of inspiration; both are luxuries cultivated by the truly civilized.
How have medievalists responded, then, to women who produced art, to allegedly passive, beautiful, nonessential objects that fashioned others and thus created the stuff of civilization? In what ways, for example, have historians tried to determine the extent to which medieval European women participated in artistic production? How have they conceptualized the effects of gender on what (and how) female artists painted, sculpted, or embroidered? How, furthermore, have they interpreted the relationships of women’s artistic activities to medieval economics, religion, politics, and other domains of power? This essay considers these issues in relation to art produced by women in Western Europe between the fifth and fifteenth centuries after Christ.