Lucas Huygensz van Leyden, "Jael killing Sisera," 1516-19; Woodcut; Gift of Herschel V. Jones, 1926
Saturday, November 11, 2006Sunday, April 29, 2007
Women in the Bible and in legends about saints were depicted frequently in Renaissance art to portray contemporary ideas about the ideal woman, almost invariably by male artists. In this exhibition, 22 prints are examined from a feminist perspective, pointing out the woman's subservient role in 15th- and 16th-century Europe, and also the perception of the woman as immoral temptress. In some examples, the overt moralistic message is tempered with erotic overtones.
Exhibition EssaySaints and Sinners: Women in Renaissance Prints
By Ryszarda Murphy
The social, sexual, and presumed demonic power of women was a pervasive theme in Renaissance prints. The "Power of Women, or Weibermacht, as the theme was known in Germany, was a negative concept that emerged out of the complex religious and social turmoil that was largely provoked by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
This theme was particularly expressed through the print, a medium that rose in status to rival painting during the Renaissance. To meet the growing demand for images that disseminated the ideas of the Reformation, entrepreneurial publishers developed the print production process into a commercial enterprise, particularly in Northern Europe.
A selection of twenty-two prints from the MIA's permanent collection, currently on view in the Winton Jones Print and Drawing Gallery (344), illustrates the ways European artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century depicted female religious figures. These prints are examined here from a contemporary feminist perspective.
Since the 1970s, the feminist art movement has re-examined the works of female artists who were denied critical acclaim during their lifetimes. It has also analyzed the female stereotypes male artists have often employed. These stereotypes conformed to the social expectations of women then prevalent in Western society. Only one among the multitude of theoretical approaches used by art historians, the feminist perspective scrutinizes how these stereotypical renderings emphasize women's implicit physical and intellectual inferiority to men, and how artistic representation itself produces social definitions of women.
In the sixteenth century, the ideal woman was the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, who embodied both purity and virtuous motherhood, having uniquely transcended the perceived typical characteristics of women, such as vanity, frivolity and lust, supposedly passed down through the generations from Eve.
An eleventh-century abbot, St. Bernard of Clairveaux, preached and wrote about the widely-held belief of female inferiority and went as far as to label all women as "organs of the devil." He regarded the Virgin Mary as the sole exception, and can be seen kneeling and praying to her in Dirck Vellert's engraving, The Vision of St. Bernard.
While many women lived exemplary lives, their courageous deeds are often downplayed in such prints, while their seductive beauty or sexual transgressions are emphasized. For example, the Master M Z's engraving, Beheading of St. Catherine, does not refer to her heroic struggle against a Roman emperor and the fifty orators whose claims against Christianity she rebuked, but shows her as a lovely woman helplessly and obediently awaiting her execution. The biblical character Bathsheba is portrayed as a voluptuous nude, implying she was the temptress, whereas in fact, it was King David who approached her for an adulterous liaison.
Women were also depicted as examples of penance and redemption after a sinful life. Israhel van Meckenem represent two such redeemed sinners, St. Mary of Egypt and St. Mary Magdalene, together in a single engraving. According to their legends, both engaged in prostitution (a belief now under dispute) before they converted to Christianity, and became hermits to atone for their sins. These saints warn women about the dangers of sin, but also remind those who have transgressed that redemption is still possible, although it may require rejecting society and physical comforts. Mary Magdalene became one of the most popular Christian saints because many people could relate to her on a personal level.
Thus, in a time when women were barred from becoming professional artists, the "Power of Woman," as envisioned by male artists, was in fact a visual way of limiting and confining women to their traditional roles. By adhering to the unattainable standards of female perfection that permeated many aspects of European society, the male artist perpetuated the idea all women are sinful in nature, save a few exceptional chaste and obedient women. Today this idea is largely untenable in Western society, but women's inferiority to men remains an unquestioned fact of life in many parts of the modern world-which is why this exhibition is topical and its message still relevant in the twenty-first century.
Ryszarda Murphy is a senior at Connecticut College majoring in art history. She prepared the exibition "Saints and Sinners: Women in Renaissance Art" while working as an intern at the MIA under Jane Satkowski, Curatorial Research Associate during the summer of 2006.