Women as Artists in the Middle Ages

Women as Artists in the Middle Ages

By Annemarie Carr

Dictionary of Women Artists, ed. Delia Gaze (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997)

Guda’s self-portrait in the 12th century

Introduction: This essay surveys the evidence of women as artists in the Western and Byzantine Middle Ages in the centuries between about 600 and 1400. Dorothy Miner’s Anastaise and Her Sisters (1974) laid the foundation for the current inquiry into medieval women’s art. Much of the data that she – and indeed that we today – rely upon was noted in 19th- and early 20th-century sources. Our task has been its assembly and, more importantly, its interpretations. Composing a fabric within which to understand the widely scattered women whom we discover challenges many of our preconceptions about the production, the consumption and indeed the very definition of art in the Middle Ages.

The job of interpreting women as artists has been enriched by recent insights into women’s prominent role as cultural patrons in the Middle Ages. The work of women as creators of rich and significant artefacts takes its place within the broader rediscovery of women as arbiters of medieval culture.

Inevitably the search for medieval women artists depends to a fair extent upon the search for signed works. But signatures are notoriously slippery in medieval art. Although medieval works are more often signed than we generally imagine, names do not necessarily appear in the same context or carry the same messages as they do in more modern arts, and they lead less often to the agnostic heroes or self-expression whom groups in search of a history hunger to own.

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