Gender and Art in the Middle Ages
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0096
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0096
The analysis of medieval art through the lens of gender could be said to have had its genesis with the overall move in art historical discourse away from questions of stylistic analysis, and toward broader investigations of the social and historical contexts for art making and meaning. In particular, feminist scholars of medieval art history, inspired by work done by modernists, as well as by theorists in other fields such as film, began to ask new and different questions about medieval art, particularly about the roles women might have played in its production and reception. Some of the earliest scholarship attempted to recover female artists; although the lack of information about artists in general from the medieval period complicated this endeavor, art historians managed to identify names of some specific female artists, and more generally demonstrate that women were involved in the production of art on a much wider scale than had previously been accepted. The next trend in feminist scholarship was a consideration of the different ways women were represented in medieval art, and how these images often reflected ideological and socially constructed views of women. Representations of women could also function as visual exemplars for actual women, although this was often fraught: the juxtaposition of the Virgin Mary and Eve, for example, created a good/evil binary impossible to either emulate or overcome. The overwhelming negativity of many images of women has perhaps led to a shift in direction and to more recent work that searches for instances of female agency through women’s patronage, ownership, use, and reception of visual culture. And while feminist theory is at the core of much of this work, scholars have expanded their modes of inquiry to consider gender in much broader terms. There has been a move away from understanding women (and gender) as fixed categories, and therefore theories of masculinity, of gender fluidity, of queerness, of the performative and constructed aspects of gender—as well as considerations of race, class, and other cultural markers—have moved alongside of, if not replaced, the previous scholarly focus on women alone.
While feminist art history in general has had a number of state-of-the-field books and articles, beginning in the early 1980s, it took longer for scholars of medieval art using feminism and gender studies to produce histories of their discipline. Dressler 2007 and Easton 2012 are primarily focused on the intersection between feminist theory and medieval art history, although both discuss the way that feminism as a methodology and a terminology has given way before gender studies. Kurmann-Schwartz 2006, Dressler 2012, and Lindquist 2012 provide overviews of gender studies and medieval art; French 2013 focuses on gender and material culture. Caviness 2010 considers the impact of feminism and gender studies on medieval studies more broadly, not just on art history. All sources include useful footnotes and bibliographies, which are treasure troves of other sources, ranging widely in date, that in themselves provide an overview of the changing nature of the field.
Caviness, Madeline. “Feminism, Gender Studies, and Medieval Studies.” Diogenes 57.1 (2010): 30–45.
A comprehensive examination of the evolution of theories of sex and gender over the previous fifteen years, and a look to the future of gender and medieval studies. Includes an extremely useful compilation of essential sources.
Dressler, Rachel. “Continuing the Discourse: Feminist Scholarship and the Study of Medieval Visual Culture.” Medieval Feminist Forum 43.1 (2007): 15–34.
A broad-ranging review of the changing concerns of medieval feminist art history, with a summary of some of the feminist scholarship that has appeared in art history journals.
Dressler, Rachel. “Gender Studies in Medieval Art.” In The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture. Vol. 2. Edited by Colum Hourihane, 646–649. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
An excellent, accessible overview and analysis of how the study of gender has been applied to medieval art history, with accompanying bibliography.
Easton, Martha. “Feminism.” Studies in Iconography 33 (2012): 99–112.
Provides an overview of the intersection between feminist theory and medieval art history, with a case study focused on the eroticized images of Saint Catherine in the Belles Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry. The footnotes list a number of key publications on the topic.
French, Katherine. “Genders and Material Culture.” In The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Edited by Judith M. Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras, 197–212. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
An overview of the way consumer culture of the later Middle Ages helped establish identity for both men and women. Focuses particularly on clothing and household furnishings.
Kurmann-Schwartz, Brigitte. “Gender and Medieval Art.” In A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe. Edited by Conrad Rudolph, 128–158. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.
A state-of-the-field essay with the following sections (the topics somewhat belying the title’s use of the term “Gender”): “Women Artists,” “Hildegard of Bingen and Herrad of Hohenbourg,” “Women Patrons,” “The Role of Women in the Use of Devotional Images,” “Monastic Architecture for Women,” and “The Female Image in Romanesque and Gothic Art.”
Lindquist, Sherry. “Gender.” Studies in Iconography 33 (2012): 113–130.
A fundamental analysis of the impact of gender studies on the field of medieval art history, with a case study focused on the Rothschild Canticles. The footnotes list many key publications.
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