Lessons in Subversion in Medieval and Renaissance Art

In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls, a group of mostly anonymous women art-world professionals and artists, did a head count at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They wanted to know how many women artists were represented in the modern galleries versus how many artworks in those same galleries depicted female nudes. The results were dismal: 5% to 85%. 

Subsequently, the Guerilla Girls produced their now-iconic poster titled, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? (1989). The poster was originally destined for billboards but the Public Art Fund of New York City flatly rejected it as too controversial. It featured the freakishly attenuated body of Neoclassical French painter J.A.D. Ingres’ famous La Grande Odalisque , a canonical work hailed for its elegance. On the poster, however, the odalisque’s head had been swapped for that of a gorilla, a play on the radical art collective’s name. Not to be deterred, the Guerilla Girls paid for ad space on public buses in the city and a lot of people saw the Guerrilla Girls’ challenge to the art establishment.

The Guerrilla Girls weren’t the first voices in the feminist wilderness decrying rampant sexism in the artworld. Art historian Linda Nochlin had published her famous book, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in 1979, identifying numerous factors in the exclusion of women in the fine arts. 

One major factor that shouldn’t surprise us now is that girls and women simply were not permitted to enter the formerly all-male domain of the fine arts, including the visual arts. Nochlin quipped in her book, “What if Picasso had been born a girl? Would Senor Ruiz have paid as much attention or stimulated as much ambition for achievement in a little Pablita?”

So, for the most part, women were either models or, at best, relegated to less noble media and genres, the penultimate of the visual arts being painting and sculpture. History paintings were the most highly regarded by Western art academies. Incursions by women artists were rare. Even a court painter like the French portraitist Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun , who painted several portraits of Marie-Antoinette, would not have dreamed of producing an epic tableaux like Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784) or some equally grandiose theme evoking the classical past.

The fact of the matter was and remained until the latter part of the 20th century (which is astonishing!), that women were in art rather than making it to any measurable extent.

The fact of the matter was and remained until the latter part of the 20th century (which is astonishing!), that women were in art rather than making it to any measurable extent. It is with this in mind, women as perennial subject matter, that the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) in Tours, France, recently produced an exhibition examining images of women in French medieval and renaissance art. Le Scepter et la Quenouille (The Scepter and the Distaff), which runs until June 17, looks at the diverse and often contradictory ways in which women have been depicted in art in France and Northern Europe in the middle ages through the Renaissance.

Whether queens, legendary warrior women, maidens, or housewives, the women we’ve seen most often in art even before the middle ages are there not only for men to look at (as has been discussed extensively by scholars who’ve taught us about the gaze), but for us to look at, learn from, reject and revile, or emulate. 

In its exploration of the different ways in which women have been represented in art starting in the Middle Ages (but certainly since at least the classical period, that cradle of Western art), the Museum of Fine Arts, Tours brought together over 100 major artworks: everyday objects, paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and manuscripts “from the largest museums.” The goal was, explains the exhibition webpage, “to highlight the place, role and image of women in 15th- and 16th-century society.”

Under the direction of Elsa Gomez, heritage curator in charge of the Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance collections, Museum of Fine Arts of Tours and Aubrée David-Chapy, associate professor and doctor in modern history, Sorbonne University and a diverse team of curators and scholars from around France, the exhibition accomplishes far more than the stated goal of “challeng[ing] clichés and preconceived ideas.” 

Rather, we become painfully aware as we peruse the works of the powerful didactic capacity of art both in doing the work of the patriarchy and in showing us the way out of the labyrinth of centuries of patriarchal oppression. Indeed, many of the works in The Scepter and the Distaff in sum, coalesce like a de facto handbook (pictures speaking a thousand words, after all) for correct womanhood, whether the woman in question is a princess or a peasant.

Artworks like Lucas de Leyde’s engraving, The Creation of Eve (c. 1529) and painting, The Card Draw (c. 1500), remind us that we are inferior to men and can only realize our highest calling as wives or nuns. Alone, we are easily led astray. Another Netherlandish artist, Pieter Jansz Pourbus’ painting of a proper young mother, Young Woman with Her Son (1564), educates us on how to raise our sons to continue the tradition of benevolent, middle-class patriarchy.

Click image to enlarge.

In a dark turn, an engraving by Mair von Landshut from 1499, The Brothel, depicts women and men in a high-class brothel. The pretty young prostitutes are leading luxurious lives to the detriment of their souls, of course. As instructive as they were titillating, works like these provided male artists with an excuse to produce art with sexual themes while passing them off as morally didactic. 

A wood relief sculpture, probably originally a decoration for a cleric’s seat in a church, depicts a scene of marital infidelity. A common stereotype in art, the female adulterer is typically represented as sexually insatiable. In this work by an anonymous French sculptor, “a cuckolded husband,” reads the exhibition label, “hunts his wife’s love hidden in an oven.” Metaphors abound as do stereotypes. There are few equivalencies–images featuring men’s infidelity–which was tantamount to tacit approval.

In other sections of the exhibition, paintings, prints, delicate prayer books, and superbly decorated manuscripts expound in endless detail how to cook, pray, dress, stand, sit, mother, please one’s partner, and so forth. Without a doubt, male artists derived immense pleasure from producing artworks that could be at once instructive for girls and women and satisfying and/or stimulating for men. Aside from the pleasure derived from unrestrained looking, men could also revel in the sense of control such images and their incipient impact afforded them.

But what about the women who were looking at the images and reading (if they could read) the texts? The fact is, we’ve been looking at one another with admiration, dismay, envy, disgust, and much more, and telling one another how to behave at least since patriarchal societies have enlisted us to do some of their work for them. As Paolo Freire put it in his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: ““The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” 

The Scepter and the Distaff proceeds from obedience to awareness to dissatisfaction to rebellion to empowerment.

At the least, we must strive together, right? And that is how The Scepter and the Distaff proceeds – from obedience to awareness to dissatisfaction to rebellion to empowerment. It’s exciting to reach even just a page from an early 15th century illuminated version of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (first published in 1405). In her book, which was a refutation of the wildly popular poem on courtly love, Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), first written by Guillaume de Lorris in 1230 and augmented by Jean de Meun in 1275. 

Responding to the misogyny of the epic poem and, more so, of the era, Christine de Pizan wrote her book, which tells of a utopian city in which women are revered not merely for their beauty or Christian purity and piety, for instance, but for their intelligence and accomplishments. The author populates her book with historical women and the list reads like a proto-Dinner Party à la Judy Chicago (1975-79), one of the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s great treasures. Among the 36 distinguished residents (real and mythical) of De Pizan’s city are Mary Magdalene, Zenobia, Sappho, Blanche of France, Ceres, and Dido.

The real fun begins in the latter sections of the exhibition, when the women have finally had enough. Following a group of works focusing on images of devotion to God, husband, and children (in that order), the women become increasingly unruly–or at least the men of their respective eras would’ve thought so. For instance, in a c. 1560 French engraving by an anonymous artist, an aristocratic woman smokes a pipe, a pleasure that, ironically, might well have been more freely assumed by women of lower station. 

The fact is, male artists and their viewers enjoyed art and literature in which women are doing forbidden things, including thinking for themselves, and are being punished for it. For example, aa (1510) wood block print by Hans Baldung Grien, Witches Sabbath, depicts women–witches–with elegant, voluptuous bodies but the faces of hags partying sans-inhibitions (one flies around on a goat). If you party with the Devil, you’re destined for a bitter crone’s plight (largely, being manless).

In an absurd (but undoubtedly not deliberately so) representation of Cleopatra by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, The Death of Cleopatra (1504), there’s something for everyone. In the picture, a creamy-skinned, sensuous, and fully nude Cleopatra, who dared to be a powerful woman ruler, gets her comeuppance: she’s bitten on the left nipple by the asp. There’s much that’s delectable in such an image for a male viewer. 

Portraits of saints, queens, aristocrats, and goddesses demonstrate that women can be powerful…

Marching on, portraits of saints, queens, aristocrats, and goddesses demonstrate that women can be powerful, although most of these women have been chosen by God/the gods. Not surprisingly, the counterpoint to the esteemed lineup of heroines in these anti-rogues-galleries, is Jeanne d’Arc who, one might argue, chose God, not the other way around. Representations of Jeanne confer a level of masculinity on her, presenting her as a sort of honorary man as a way, it seems, of transforming her into an icon worthy of the admiration of women and men. There is an enormous sword on display in a rectangular vitrine fictitiously attributed to Jeanne and my only thought was, “She could never have lifted that thing.” Still, she bested men and that got her killed.

The icing on the cake of this thoroughly enjoyable exhibition is a painting by Flemish artist Ambrosius Benson, Judith Brandishing the Head of Holofernes (1530-33). Judith’s come-hither look is neither an invitation into her bed nor bloodlust. Rather, it is the discreet half-smile of the formerly oppressed now triumphant. At the culmination of the exhibition, the Biblical heroine has exacted the ultimate revenge for all of the obedient, subservient, self-sacrificing, and existentially exhausted women who ever fantasized about ending their suffering with efficient, brutal finality. 

It’s all tongue in cheek, of course.

Indeed, the real strength of the The Scepter and the Distaff was its capacity to infuse the discourse on womanhood in the Middle Ages and Renaissance in France and Northern Europe with intelligence and humor and, with characteristic French graceful discretion, to implicate structures, archetypes, belief systems, and so forth that have their origins in that period (or before) and persist to present day, including (or especially, given the context) in art.

© Debra Thimmesch (5/22/24) — Special for FF2 Media


Learn more about The Scepter and the Distaff on display at the Musée des Beaux Arts.

Read about the Guerilla Girls movement Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? 

Check out J.A.D. Ingres’ famous La Grande Odalisque.

Read Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Learn more about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party from the Brooklyn Museum.

Read the poem Guillaume de Lorris, Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose),  as augmented by Jean de Meun.

Check out Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies.

For more on Judy Chicago, read our coverage of her NYC exhibit “Herstory” by FF2 Media’s Allison Green.


Featured photo: The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan on display in The Scepter and the Distaff exhibit at Musée des Beaux-Arts in France.

Middle photo: Young Mother with Her Son by Pieter Jansz Pourbus on display in The Scepter and the Distaff exhibit at Musée des Beaux-Arts in France.

Bottom photo: Witches Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien on display in The Scepter and the Distaff exhibit at Musée des Beaux-Arts in France.

All photos taken by Debra Thimmesch, on 5/5/24 for FF2 Media. Authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Ambrosius Benson, Christine de Pizan, Debra Thimmesch, France, Guerilla Girls, Hans Baldung Grien, J.A.D. Ingres, Judy Chicago, La Grande Odalisque, Linda Nochlin, Marie Antoinette, Middle Ages, Musée des Beaux Arts, Paolo Freire, Renaissance, The Scepter and the Distaff

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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