Because women were clearly prevalent in the practice of medicine before the advent of the god-man, it is perhaps most surprising that such women existed after the ascension of the male monotheism, as opposed to what they achieved. What is probably most significant about the medical school at Salerno, other than being recognized as an institution representing a high, formal standard of medical training, is that it set the stage for medical licensing.
“It is easy to understand that the attraction which Salerno possessed for patients soon also brought to the neighborhood a number of irregular physicians, travelling quacks, and charlatans. Wealthy patients were coming from all over the world to be treated at Salerno. Many of them doubtless were sufferers from incurable diseases and nothing could be done for them. Often they would be quite unable to return to their homes and would be surely unwilling to give up all hope if anybody promised them anything of relief. There was a rich field for the irregular, and of course, as always, he came. Salerno had already shown what a good standard of medical education should be, and it is not surprising, then, that the legal authorities in this part of the country proceeded to the enforcement of legal regulations demanding the attainment of this standard, in order that unfit and unworthy physicians might not practise medicine to their own benefit but to the detriment of the patients.
“Accordingly, as early as the year 1140, King Ruggiero (Roger) of the Two Sicilies promulgated the law: ‘Whoever from this time forth desires to practise medicine must present himself before our officials and judges, and be subject to their decision. Anyone audacious enough to neglect this shall be punished by imprisonment and confiscation of goods. This decree has for its object the protection of the subjects of our kingdom from the dangers arising from the ignorance of practitioners.'” (Anonymous, 1911)
A century later, in 1240, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II extended and formalized this into law for the entire Holy Roman Empire. Because many countries were still in strife over secular rulers, resulting in the civil authorities being weak, the legal ordering of the practice of medicine was effectively taken up by the Church, and the authority for the issuance of licenses to practice was in the hands of the bishops of the neighborhood. (Anonymous, 1911) Because the Church and temporal rulers were male dominated, this law set the stage for the eventual elimination of women as rivals in the field of medicine. This was bloodily carried out over several centuries. As the “witch trials” of women who practiced medicine (as well as men who practiced chiropractic medicine) is well documented, we will now turn our attention away from the sciences and back to the question of women practicing in the visual arts.
Ironically, the very qualities that were desired in a medieval period woman were those that the male artists and their patrons used to degrade female artists. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375, right), a famous Italian painter and writer, stated that the ideal woman “must be gentle, modest, honest, dignified, elegant in speech, pious, generous in soul, chaste and skilled in household management.” All areas related to “femininity” were denigrated as not being “high art”.
This view is demonstrated by Adrianna Mena: “Up until the nineteenth century, when women were mentioned in art historical texts, it was a matter of exception. For example, in Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Prominent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Sofonisba Anguissola is mentioned. However, Anguissola was the daughter of an Italian noble, and sometimes painted self-portraits showing her seated at a musical instrument accompanied by a chaperone, which removed the focus from her artistic ability to her social status and membership to the cultured elite. Her class position rendered her activity as an artist both possible and worthy of notice and comment, not her talent. In an earlier text by Boccacio, several women are mentioned, but he writes: ‘I thought these achievements worthy of some praise, for art is much alien to the mind of women, and these things cannot be accomplished without a great deal of talent which in women is usually very scarce.’ Clearly he holds no regard for these women’s talent, but only mentions them to emphasize their difference from the supposed average woman.” (Mena, 2005)
It seems that, as long as the artwork did not challenge the confines of what men determined as feminine or proper, then it was sanctioned. As far as the male artists and critics were concerned, if a woman could excel in larger works of art, then the men would have to work harder to prove that they were better or more gifted and more intelligent than women. Being an artistic genius was solely reserved as a male prerogative (Chadwick, 2007). Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574, right) was an Italian painter, writer, historian, and architect, who is famous today for his biographies of Italian artists. He proved Chadwick’s assertion by stating: “should women apply themselves too diligently, they risk appearing to ‘wrest from us the palm of supremacy’.” In essence, the prevailing belief was that females should remain “pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen.”
During this era, most of the women who were allowed to perform art, on very limited subjects, were nuns. “Early Middle Ages art was initially restricted to the production of Pietistic painting (religious art) in the form of illuminated manuscripts, mosaics and fresco paintings in churches. Both monks and nuns were the main artists during the Middle Ages. The women who became nuns were responsible for many illuminated manuscripts.” (The Middle Ages Website, 2011)
Ende of Spain (left) was one of the 10th -11th Century illuminators of Beatus Apocalypse of Gerona. Guda, Claricia, Diemud, and Harrade von Landsberg were 12th Century nuns and manuscript illuminators in Germany. (Many nuns were either anonymous or known only by their first names because nuns renounced all earthly values and possessions, even their born names.) Caterina dei Vigri (1413-1463) was skilled not only in painting, but in music and illumination. She became Abess of the Convent of the Poor Clares and was canonized; she is regarded as the patron saint of painters. Bourgot, while not a nun, was a 14th Century professional French illuminator, and she also produced some of the best miniatures of the period. Maria Ormani, a 15th Century Florentine nun of the Augustinian order, was quite prolific. There are many more women mentioned in connection with religious art during this period, but almost all were nuns.
Then it seemed society loosened up a little, but only for very small, limited productions. Properzia de’ Rossi (left) was born c.1490 in Bologna, Italy. She studied drawing under Marcantonio Raimondi. De’ Rossi was at first known for her complex miniature sculptures using an unorthodox medium of apricot, peach or cherry stones. In her thirties, she began to produce normal-sized sculptures like portrait busts, and these helped establish her reputation as a serious artist. She was also commissioned to decorate the altar of Santa Maria del Baraccano in Bologna, and she won a competition to produce marble sculpture for the church of San Pedro in Bologna. Suzanne de Court (c. 1600) was a French enameller; the daughter of Jean de Court, she learned the art of enameling from her father.
Toward the end of the Medieval Period, as both Martin Luther and then Henry VIII were challenging the power of the Catholic Church, a few women artists were allowed to study, primarily thanks to indulgent fathers who did not want their daughters to waste their talent. However, these non-clergy female artists were still very limited in many ways, even as their male counterparts soared to new heights of challenge and creativity.
During the Renaissance period, a period of great cultural change that spanned the period from the end of the 13th Century to about 1600 AD, the new linear perspective form of art developed. Because this new type of art required advanced mathematical skills, it was denied to women. At this time, although it would mean becoming more isolated, should a woman wish to continue her education and still paint, the convent remained one of her two options. It should be noted that many such options were not only denied to women, but restricted in the sense of being the domain of white, upper-class males. “Male privilege and male lines of property and succession were strongly valued.” (Chadwick, 2007)
There was a strong focus on men being able to paint the nude figure, a very difficult task to master as it required knowledge of anatomy and physiology. However, women were barred from studying the nude body. The repeating theme seems to be to “veil their eyes, act with modesty; to know everything is not in accord with chastity.” This attitude is magnified in the ultimate patriarchal religion, Islam. In accord with this attitude, women were only allowed to be educated to become “better wives and mothers, and more virtuous exemplars of the Christian ideals of chastity.” (Chadwick, 2007).
It was then that Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 – 1625) entered onto the scene. She evidently chose to remain unmarried for a number of years, as it was impossible to reconcile an artistic career with the domestic life: a husband, children, and running a household. Thankfully, her father, Amilcare Anguissola, a minor noble and wealthy land owner, wanted both of his daughters to express their talents, and sought the support of professional tutors. Training for male painters meant at least four years in an artist’s workshop; Sofonisba was trained, with her sister Elena, by Bernardino Campi and Bernardino Gatti for at least three years, and perhaps more with Michelangelo. Still, she did not receive any training with nudes of any kind and was not able to do large-scale works of art. Again within the constraints of her era, she did many images of women.
Her artwork seems direct, her hands and facial expressions are precise and very lovely. Her painting “Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola” is wonderful, partly in that she restrains
herself and acknowledges “the role of a woman as an object of representation.” We see how she places her instructor looking directly at the viewer, while she, being painted, does not quite have eye contact with the viewer. Since she is an unmarried woman, she needs to maintain her modesty. In her paintings, there is always the qualities so valued in this society, and reflects the “Renaissance ideal of the artist as gentleman/woman rather than the artisan” (Chadwick, 2007).
Sofonisba Anguissola’s “Self-Portrait” shows a prim, proper woman playing the spinet, supervised by her chaperone. As an artist in a man’s domain, she brought forth the inner beauty of her subjects. She was a guest at the Spanish court for years. It is hard to imagine her remaining an insider to the royal family and having access to painting the female members with such a special relationship should she have been married, and expected to assume the responsibilities that marriage implies. Also, along with marriage, she would have lost a certain innocence. Being a wife, homemaker and mother is a full-time occupation; Anguissola would not have had the time to be creative, as opposed to a man who would not have to split his time and energy.
For a combination of reasons, one of the stronger woman artists of this era was Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1652/1653). Partly it is because the Catholic Church was losing some of its power, but it was undoubtedly also partly due to the support of her father, Orazio, who seemed to me more interested in her expertise as an artist than his own. He worked in the Caravaggesque style, and passed this on to his daughter. She was expertly taught. Her theme was strong, heroic, sensuous women who triumphed via their virtue. Her first known painting, “Susanna and the Elders” (right), is controversial for several reasons. Some theories state that this was a father-daughter combination. The painting has Susanna in the nude, which women just did not do. Also, Susanna is not in a very graceful position, and is placed in the center of the viewer’s eye; all of this is new and “too masculine” for a woman to paint.
Then came the pivotal event in the life of Artemisia Gentileschi. While her father was encouraging her artistic education, he hired a private tutor for her by the name of Agostino Tassi. Tassi either seduced or raped her, and then went back on his word to marry her. At the heart of the matter was not the rape, but the violation of her father’s “property”, as women in the household were considered the chattel of the man at that time. To add insult to injury, she was forced to undergo a pelvic examination and was tortured by using thumbscrews during the trial to give “true” testimony. Certainly, after her very public trial, she had pretty much been exposed to the general public and did not have much if anything to hide or repress. Having no “modesty” left to lose, her paintings took on more of a vengeful nature. Rumors have it that she used the exposure of her rape to advance her career by painting such work as “Judith Decapitating Holofernes”, where Holofernes strongly resembled Tassi.
Artemisia Gentileschi decided that she would depict nudes at a time that women were not allowed to study nude figures, and Joachim van Sandart may have asserted that she covertly painted from live nude models (Bissell, 1999). Although she was only allowed to paint women from the Bible, she selected scenes that showed women who sought vengeance against men for vile acts. Her colors are extremely rich, and her characters are quite powerful. Her painting of “Judith Decapitating Holofernes (right)” shows a determined, strong, capable woman, along with her co-conspirator maidservant, both set with purposeful, direct action. This is a painting by a woman who had broken down all of her societal barriers, and she was now free to paint without restriction. The firm hold of Judith on her sword, the spray of the blood that shows the carotid was severed, implies that Gentileschi was resisting the conventions of being unable to study nudes or corpses. Furthermore, just the hint of red in Judith’s dress sleeve and also the one on her maidservant indicated that they were not afraid to have blood on their hands to do what they felt was right. It may be reading too much into the symbolism of this painting, but the fact that the sword is in the middle of the painting cutting off his head could also represent cutting off his penis, and therefore Gentileschi/Judith was emasculating the man who raped her, and perhaps those who would deny her anatomical studies.
Viewing her “Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting” (left), it is almost as if Gentileschi were thumbing her nose at the male artists and critics to say: “Deny me the males-only club of learning from nudes; I will still show you a true artist in action”. She seems to be completely absorbed in work, the light is on her skin, illuminating her, her hair is disheveled, and yet she is feminine with her gold chain around her neck and her graceful dress swirling about her. She might well have said: “I grant I am a woman, but withal a woman well reputed, Orazio’s daughter”, to paraphrase Portia in “Julius Caesar”. Gentileschi is completely fearless, and frank in her actions.
Gentileschi broke the bounds of the last hurdle that women had to get over by being the first Italian woman able to paint general historical scenes, perhaps because those required many human figures in the work, and nudes in particular. Following her example, Angelica Kauffmann (1741 – 1807), although very shy, challenged the Royal Academicians for their monopoly over historical paintings. Her work, “Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Picture of Helen of Troy” (below), reflects a subdued and graceful art. She was a very hard worker, and she was famous and beloved by the people. She was extremely well-known for her designs in china service, engravings, wall paintings, and portraits. But her love was for historical paintings.
While Kauffmann was attempting to pierce the world of male historical painters, she was accused of being unable to have full-bodied work, due to her inability to paint nudes. Of course, this training was denied to her. Consequently, she strove to capture moral content and noble movements in her historical scenes. When viewing “The Beautiful Rhodope in Love with Aesop”, it certainly appears that Kauffmann’s male figures are more effeminate, rather than strongly masculine. But her colors are extremely rich, and the hands and feet are accurate. Her work displays a tenderness and relaxed mood to it. During this era, it seemed as if the critics were looking for more severe, action packed, forceful arenas of history. Not being privy to the same privileges as men, she just had a different style of painting history.
“The Family of the Earl of Gower” is representative of Kauffmann’s neoclassical style. This picture is again very subdued, a calm moment in a family, which is quite restrained. While she may have found it very hard to overcome the restrictions of her sex in regards to painting historical scenes, Kaufmann led the way for female artists after herself. “In 1769, Angelica Kauffman (right) and Mary Moser helped found the British Royal Academy. After Kauffman and Moser, no woman was allowed membership in the British Royal Academy itself until Annie Louise Swynnerton became an Associate Member in 1922 and Laura Knight was elected to full membership in 1936.” (Mena, 2005) In spite of the leadership and determination shown by Kauffman and Moser, it seems the men were still determined to be sexist in regard to talent. “So long as a woman remains from unsexing herself, let her dabble in anything. The woman of genius does not exist. When she does, she is a man.” (Anonymous, 19th Century art commentator)
While all artists had to traverse obstacles placed in their way by the Church, females had to overcome the male-centric artistic society, and society as a whole. The restrictions placed on women by a limited education was bad enough, but they were still not overtly able to see anything that might further encourage their minds either technically or creatively. Even if a woman was lucky enough to be born of nobility or to a family with money, she could still be excluded from studying and practicing serious art. Other than a few indulgent fathers, the men acted like they were protecting the females in their lives, while actually asserting their dominance.
Where women were concerned, the Middle Ages were truly the “dark ages”. Fortunately, today the patriarchal Christian Church has lost most of its power, and women have regained much of their independence-at least, in the non-Islamic world. They can study any subject they wish. They can enjoy both a family and a profession. They can be both strong and successful and still maintain their femininity. And, if they have the talent, they can also be great artists or scientists.
I would like to give credit to my sister, Ursula Funk, who helped with the research and writing.