Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 9, 2005
Jane L. Carroll and Alison G. Stewart, eds. Saints, Sinners, and Sisters: Gender and Northern Art in Medieval and Early Modern Europe Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. 298 pp.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (0754605892)

The title of this stimulating collection of essays points to one of its important contributions. The very structure of Saints, Sinners, and Sisters rejects the bipolar evaluation of women that has been so pervasive in Western culture. While two sections of the book are devoted to consideration of women as either “Saints” or “Sinners,” the third section is concerned with “Sisters, Wives, Poets.” The whole collection reminds us of the multiplicity of roles that women played in medieval and early modern Europe, even as they do today. The editors, Jane Carroll and Alison Stewart, have selected essays that demonstrate how considering those roles can enrich the study of the art of these periods.

An outgrowth of a conference organized by the Historians of Netherlandish Art in 1993, the collection focuses on Northern European art. Indeed, it fills a gap in the literature of feminist art history, which in relation to the early modern period has been overshadowed by numerous studies of Italian Renaissance art. The chronological span of this collection is wide, ranging from the Middle Ages (a Carolingian queen is the subject of the earliest chronological essay) to seventeenth-century art. The collection is organized thematically according to the categories in the book’s title, but the editors provide a chronological breakdown of the essays for the convenience of instructors who might wish to assign the essays in their classes. This volume also provides students with excellent models of expository prose.

The level of scholarship, too, is uniformly high. Each essay is well researched, intriguingly argued, and convincing. The methods range from documentary to theoretical. Some essays offer strong visual analyses to argue their theses, while others look to contemporary literary or historical contexts, or to documentary evidence. As all the essays focus on women and gender roles, some methodological issues link them, such as the power of the gaze and the role of the audience. The focus is on women, so the expanded field of gender studies that includes masculinity or queer theory is largely absent.

But there’s nothing wrong with that, because there is still much to learn about women in history, as these essays convincingly demonstrate. Topics that one might expect to have been exhausted are treated here in essays that inform, inspire, and persuade. For example, Linda Hults tackles Albrecht Dürer’s Four Witches engraving in an interpretation that is firmly grounded in the intellectual and social context of the period. Hults argues that Dürer’s principal audience for this image was comprised of educated men who nonetheless believed that good social order required controlling women’s sexuality. She offers a nuanced and informative reading of a key image for the Northern Renaissance that highlights the voyeurism implied by the pictorial structure.

Dürer’s witches appear in the section assigned to sinners. Located with them under this rubric are depictions of other women that reflect concerns about women’s sexuality. Susan L. Smith considers images on the backs or valves of fourteenth-century ivory mirror cases, objects that are of necessity about the gaze. She links these images of courtly couples to chivalric romances and courtesy literature that instructed women how to respond to the gaze of men. If the objects that Smith discusses were made for the elite, Alison Stewart’s essay about a woodcut by Sebald Beham explores a more bourgeois strata of society. This fascinating image depicts the raucous activity of a spinning bee. She examines the contrast between conventional notions of women’s spinning as virtuous and legislation instituted by the Nuremberg city council against women gathering together to spin. Details of the image are set against a backdrop of this legislation and other texts from Reformation Nuremberg.

One might expect a section called “Saints” to discuss religious figures, but that is not the case here. Instead, these essays deal with secular figures. The theme of the Roman matron Lucretia is discussed twice, once by Carol Schuler and again by Pia Cuneo. Schuler looks to late medieval devotional imagery as the background for the sensuous half-length images of Lucretia in which she performs her suicide for the viewer. Cuneo looks at a specific painting by Jörg Breu the Elder, which emphasizes the narrative of Lucretia’s tragedy and uses it as a political allegory. She argues that the patron, William of Bavaria, intended the story to refer to his own political situation as rebelling against the encroachment of imperial power. The juxtaposition of these two essays reveals how multivalent the figure of Lucretia could be. The final essay in this section does not discuss a particular female character, but rather the genre of domestic images, in which anonymous women are depicted performing various tasks in the home. Martha Moffitt Peacock analyzes a group of prints by a woman artist named Geertruydt Roghman. Where often such images are interpreted as didactic instruments intended to teach women proper behavior, Peacock sees them as statements of the importance of female work to the orderliness of Dutch society.

The final grouping of papers explores the great variety of roles that women played—queen, nun, wife, literary figure—and the need for nuance in the reading of images of women of the past. Genevra Kornbluth focuses on the Carolingian queen, Richildis, the wife of Charles the Bald, who was probably the user of a seal recorded in an eighteenth-century engraving. Utilizing historical and visual sources, she interprets the image of a woman in this seal as the figure of Omphale, the mythic queen who controlled the powerful Hercules. She suggests that the image may represent Richildis’s own power. Jane Carroll looks at self-images of another sort of woman, the nuns of reformed Dominican convents in Germany. Examining several marginal images of nuns working at looms that have been woven into fifteenth-century tapestries, she considers both what the images in the tapestries conveyed to the nuns who wove them and why they might have placed their own images in a tapestry. Using close visual analysis and the context of the Dominican reform, she sees these images as particularly meaningful for the nuns who made and viewed them.

Corine Schleif discusses the wives of Renaissance artists. She has looked for women in the documents surrounding famous German artists, in particular Adam Kraft and Dürer. Such material allows her to highlight the important role that women played in the success of their husbands’ enterprises: they did grunt work, they oversaw the accounts, and often were responsible for selling the product at fairs and markets. The essay also considers why these women’s contributions have been overlooked.

Two further papers on seventeenth-century topics offer more evidence for the vitality of gender as a tool of analysis. Linda Stone-Ferrier provides two readings of a painting by Gabriel Metsu entitled Weeping Woman in the Blacksmith’s Shop. Attempting to reconstruct the reception of the painting, Stone-Ferrier first reviews the scholarship on the painting, which links it to contemporary literature satirizing women as greedy or weak. Then she proposes a completely different, historically based interpretation of the painting. She argues that it may refer to an event in the life of Maria Tesselschade Visscher, a poet and humanist of Amsterdam, a possibility that turns the painting into a positive image of a remarkable woman. Laurinda Dixon’s essay on medical themes in two paintings associated with Jan Steen closes the volume. Examining a painting in Philadelphia of a female sickroom, she identifies the malady being represented as female melancholy, caused by a wandering womb. Dixon’s deep knowledge of seventeenth-century science provides persuasive evidence for her interpretation of the painting as enforcing conventional gender roles for women. Dixon contrasts this image of female melancholy with a painting depicting the masculine form of melancholy. She then argues that for men the same illness has a more positive value.

Introductory essays accompany each section of the volume. These highlight the methodologies used in the essays and explain the organization. This collection of essays succeeds in enlarging our understanding of the way women were represented in Northern Europe, and opens the door to further studies along these lines.

Ann Roberts
Professor, Art Department, Lake Forest College