Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 2003
Annette Dixon Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons in Renaissance and Baroque Art New York: Merrell Publishers, 2002. 192 pp.; 110 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (1858941660)
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, February 17–May 5, 2002; Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, September 19–December 8, 2002

Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons in Renaissance and Baroque Art contributes to the growing body of interdisciplinary research on women’s power in early modern Europe (or gender and power, more broadly), in practice and in imagery. Written to accompany an exhibition organized by the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the book features an introduction and four topical essays by a cadre of scholars who represent different disciplinary approaches. Groups of images, accompanied by captions and brief comments, follow each essay. Appropriately acknowledging the gender ideologies affecting women and their representation in various cultural forms during this period, Women Who Ruled, like Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2001), the catalogue accompanying the National Gallery of Art exhibition of 2001–2, contains essays by a historian and a literary scholar in addition to contributions by art historians.

Exhibition organizer Annette Dixon’s introduction elucidates the book’s premise (whence its title and subtitle). She argues that the pervasiveness of women rulers, that is, queens, in the period 1500–1650 (and images of Elizabeth I, the most famous early modern female sovereign, follow) promoted the depiction of powerful women in general, that is, goddesses and amazons. It is certainly true that “woman” was a question at this time; her nature and role, including the proper extent of what might be considered her “power,” were debated throughout Europe. Social historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks’s essay, “Women’s Authority in the State and Household,” leads off. She provides an excellent synthesis of scriptural, classical, and contemporary texts, including some by women writers, that underpin practices whereby women—both high and low—could exert authority. Notwithstanding the male’s position as head of family (and thus appropriately as head of state, a patriarchal model invoked in contemporary statecraft), the female had explicitly sanctioned household and child-rearing duties that could similarly be mustered in support of a larger role. Wiesner-Hanks also introduces what may be the most important theme, one that recurs in later essays. Women rulers and those who would portray them faced a dilemma of rhetoric: both needed to reconcile the problematic female body natural with what the culture regarded as the normal male body politic.

Literary theoretician Mieke Bal’s essay, “Women as the Topic,” follows. How often does an editor allow a catalogue essay to challenge the very presupposition of an exhibition? In a way, this is what Bal does. Acknowledging that her observations stem from an examination of objects chosen for inclusion in the show, she proceeds to analyze the works as a group. Informed by her earlier work on Old Testament heroines, Bal offers, not unexpectedly, a provocative conclusion based in part on gaze theory: that in the early modern period, as today:

the pin-up quality of “images of women” flaunts a paradox. Exuberant imagery of women suggests not that they are invisible, but that they are over-visible…[but] this hypervisibility continues to go hand in hand with invisibility; if you are trained to see women all around you—real ones, but more importantly, women on display…[this] makes them invisible, because they are everywhere. The hypervisibility of women in power is only another way of killing them. (76)

Thus, the way to deal with the troublesome female body natural is (and was) to overrepresent it to death.

Exploring the specifics of female regency in her essay “Is the King Genderless? The Staging of the Female Regent as Minerva Pacifera,” Bettina Baumgärtel returns to women rulers proper. While Elizabeth I ruled in her own right, more women governed temporarily as regents, especially in those countries that prohibited women from succeeding to the throne. Baumgärtel raises a number of issues regarding imagery that responded to this situation. With examples from seventeenth-century French visual culture, she examines the coincidence of women and personification, and the oscillation between female agency and allegory. Baumgärtel chronicles, for example, Anne of Austria’s adoption of the image of Minerva making peace as well as her interest in the representation of a prototype, the earlier regent Blanche of Castille. The author also discusses various strategies that queens and their artists employed to bridge the differently gendered bodies natural and politic.

Dixon’s essay, “Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons, 1500–1650, A Thematic Overview,” surveys some frequently represented women’s roles: 1) wives and mothers; 2) the virgin; 3) seductresses and other dangerous women; 4) the heroine; 5) the warrior woman; and 6) the goddess. In this, she reprises Sarah B. Pomeroy, who argued in Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975) that ancient Greek myth slotted women into narrowly restricted goddess roles—when compared with those of their more well-rounded male counterparts—as a means of limiting their power. Additionally, Dixon’s essay recalls H. Diane Russell, whose National Gallery of Art exhibition of 1990 (Eva/Ave: Woman in Renaissance and Baroque Prints) first showed the persistence of such a system of mutually exclusive categories in visual culture and its force in perpetuating stereotypes. Image makers looked to fit a person to a type, thus in Dixon’s analysis—which much more effectively integrates the objects on display than do the other essays—we see examples of how mother iconography worked for various female regents, since regency based its authority on the relationship to a male relative, while virgin imagery served Elizabeth I. But since regencies were temporary and Elizabeth was a true queen with a long reign, she resisted being fit into a single category. Her imagery, consequently, shifted in response to changing situations.

While the object selection at times seems arbitrary, this, no doubt, may have resulted from the unpredictability in securing loans, especially of fragile works from the period considered in the show. A real achievement here is the presentation of relevant materials in a variety of medium and scale, which represents the past better than the usual art-museum exhibition that privileges painting. Included are not just large-scale paintings and sculptures, but also enamels, cameos, medals, illustrated books, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, woodcuts, engravings (both reproductive and original), engravings with etching, saltcellars, and even silver tankards. This variety demonstrates both the courtly taste, for which much ruler imagery is made, as well as the different forms of image production and dissemination of the time, making it apparent how insidious was the delivery of some of these exemplary gender-norming messages. Unfortunately missing are tapestries, an important vehicle for royal propaganda, but drawings for them are included.

One might question the premise that combines images of women rulers with examples from the entire repertoire of images of “women in power” (i.e., “Chicks Rule”) to create a context for understanding the problems facing women trying to govern in a patriarchal and misogynist culture. Absent, then, is the “power behind-the-throne” that might complicate and expand the picture somewhat. Although royal mistresses were never officially women who ruled—and they were not empowered during regencies for minor sons or in the courts of queens regnant—diplomatic correspondence indicates how influential they could be in affairs of state. The most powerful of them—for example, Diane de Poitiers in France—seem to have been able to slip the bounds of the category to which tradition assigned her (i.e., seductress) to compete with the Queen Consort and other royal women for status.

The book is strong on England, France, and Medicean Florence; less so on Spain, the Netherlands, and the Habsburg empire, which produced an extraordinary number of women regents. A persistent problem that scholars face when studying the iconography of female rule throughout time and space is the huge amount of material (in different archives and languages, since many were born in one country and became queen of another) that no single person can grasp. Rather than gripe about specific omissions (like the rather brief bibliography), let me just conclude with Bal. In her essay, she voices her excitement at the “sheer bringing together of all this material” (64), and this, in fact, is the book’s most important contribution. It will certainly inspire more research, for included here are striking but unfamiliar paintings, primarily from American collections, and some never-before-published works, including a small portrait of Elizabeth I from a private collection. In addition, the materials are beautifully presented with high-quality illustrations in color. Some of the works and explanatory materials are available on a website,, which received the 2002 Award for Projects in Media from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women.

Sheila ffolliott
George Mason Univeristy

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