Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gender, Sex and Power

Our knowledge about the roles of women in Europe in the middle ages includes one of the facts that the lives of most middle age women were organized around work.  Women were expected to take care of the home, the family and have no say in even issues of their own lives. The Father was head of the family. His wife and children respected him and obeyed him and all women’s property, even the money women earned belonged to their husband. Guerilla Girls notes that; women “could not receive commissions or legally own an atelier” (29). Women were relegated to unskilled activities in the guilds at an historical moment when the demand was growing for “designers” who could plan patterns.

 Although, women’s social roles remained strictly monitored under ecclesiastic control, their lives were shaped by economic and social forces outside such control. In this regard, Chadwick observes that, “women’s social roles remained circumscribed by a Christian ethic that stressed obedience and chastity” however the “physical rigors of medieval life encouraged women to take significant in the management of family property and in general economic life”. Thus in spite of the social barriers that existed to control the affairs of women, women still participated in all forms of works; from “masonry and building to manuscript illuminating and embroidery” (44). Here, Chadwick notes “the most remarkable visionary manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries depict the Apocalyptic vision of St. John the Divine in the Book of Revelation” (46).Nevertheless, “noble birth” was also a determinant in women’s artistic and social life. Thus belonging to a wealthy family, to be working or to be single or luck was a strong factor in helping women played these roles responsibly.
As time went by, a tradition of educated and skilled women in religious orders persisted in fourteenth and fifteenth century and the roles of women changed, Chadwick states that Nuns “actively commissioned works for foundations, such as for example, the splendid polyptych ordered by the Benedictine nuns of San Pier Maggiore in Florence for their high altar” (67). By the 15th century in Bruges, Guerilla Girls notes for example, that 25 percent of the members of the illuminator’s guild were female”(19). There were many other women sculptors and artists too, and notably among them is the work found below; Sanccia Guidisvalvi, Spanish Processional Cross, 12 century Spanish Cross.

These roles influenced the lives of women artists and the subject of their work on many occasions. For example, among these outstanding women was Christine de Pizan who is noted as the first woman known to have made living as a writer in the middle ages.  At the time and setting of this, it was extremely difficult for anyone to have made it under the circumstances but Pizan rose against all odds and as Guerilla Girls explains, Christine de Pizan, in addition to the challenges of the day, was “widowed at twenty five with several children to support, a disapproving mother and no inheritance” as women were not allowed to. But she was not perturbed and went ahead through the challenges; the end results? Christine became “famous and influential during her life time and for centuries after” (23). Indeed it takes a brave and determined person to be able to achieve that status in history and so it went on to reflect in her works and she still wanted to prove the capabilities of fellow women. She contested men on several platforms and in one of her works, ”The City of Ladies (1405)” in Guerilla Girls, she crafted her arguments against the sexist scholars of her day, describing an “entire city populated by the bravest, strongest, most virtuous women from history” (26). Below is her work.

In it, three beautiful women personifying Reason, Rectitude and Justice describe how the city of ladies is to be built and which heroines from the Bible, would live there” (26). Indeed Pizan is an example to the artists of all generations. Thus, “The bricklayers” from The City of Ladies.
There were other women who rose to test the challenges of the day and proved beyond all doubt that they were women of purpose.  The city of bologna stood out from the rest of Europe in its attitude toward women. Women were admitted to its university beginning as early as the 13th century and were even permitted to lecture there. There was even a school for women artists founded by the painter Elisabetta Sirani. Elisabetta Sirani, another Bolognese artist, also rose against the tough times. She was so accomplished a painter that she was accused of signing work her father had done. To prove this the wags wrong, she began painting in public and eventually opened a school for women artists. Among the problems of discrimination, relegation and disrespect, there was jealousy, envy and hatred against successful women at the time. Society did not accord them as same as they did to men, so these women had to fight the norms of the day and earned their status.

Works Cited:
Women, Art, And Society. New York:Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2007. Print

The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.

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