L’Amour Courtois: Courtly Love – Women in Medieval Art

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Courtly love or l’amour courtois as the french called this poetic movement appears in Western European literary and artistic traditions between the 12th and 15th centuries. Beginning with the troubadour poetry of Aquitaine and Provence, a chivalric code of conduct was prescribed, between ladies and the men who vowed to serve them in a romanticised idyll.

Stefan Lochner, ‘Madonna of the Rose Bower’, c. 1440 – 42; panel painting. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.

In art, this serves to idealise women in the same manner as the Virgin Mary and her treatment; woman is seen as pure and above reproach – as a treasure to be pursued. The genre provides an alternative to the labelling of women as either ‘virgin’ or ‘whore’ by distancing them as being somewhere between the attainable and unattainable in the game of love.

‘Virgin and Child with saints and donor family’, Cologne, c.1430.

Such art comes to the forefront in those illustrations surrounding The International Gothic Style, which, play on poetic themes to create decorative scenes. Seeded by court patronage and marriage ties across the aristocracy, the mode has also been termed the beautiful or soft style, which can be particularly noted in how women are perceived.

‘Hortus conclusus’ depicted by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins in ‘Little Garden of Paradise’. c. 1410-1420; tempera on wood. 26.3 x 33.4 cm. Historisches Museum, Frankfurt.

The symbolic significance of the ‘Hortus Conclusus’ (as depicted by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins, relates closely to women: Lochner’s Madonna of the Rose Bower shows on panel the “humble Madonna” (Madonna dell’ Umiltá) intimately in the company of adoring angels and the Christ Child; she sits in a “hortus conclusus” (enclosed garden) carpeted by flowers, flamed by a bower of roses.

‘The Lady and the Unicorn’. Flanders, c.1500; series of six tapestries woven in Flanders from wool and silk. Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris.

In this way, Mary is separated in a type of maidenly confinement and is shown to be pure and innocent through this conception. This eden-esque imagery is continued in ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ through the millefleurs technique where here a unicorn stands in as the secular motif for virginity and purity. The lady of the painting shares the same elongated figure and flowing line of Lochner’s ‘Madonna’, attributing a certain grace and elegance to women.


Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan presenting her manuscript to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414.

Whilst illustrations involving women encompass themes of chastity, love, honour and pursuit contemporary to the times in which these works were executed, modern argument and criticism has postulated how, conversely, these women are shown walled in; subjected to male domination and as the focus of the male gaze.


‘Romance of the Rose’. c.1485; Flemish illustration.

Taking an illustration which exists to feed into the medieval romance of Le Roman de la Rose the duality of women being protected and perhaps even exalted, whilst at the same time being confined in idealised spaces becomes apparent. The presentation of women in these allegorical realms physically and socially confines them in the medieval mindset: the women are boxed into their setting, shown prettily dressed, often passive and demure. Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan presenting her manuscript to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414 for example, shows a collective of court women decoratively adorning the queen’s private rooms.

Robert Campin, ‘The Mérode Altarpiece’, c. 1427-32; oil on oak, South Netherlands. The Cloisters Collection.

‘The Romance of the Rose’ illustration clearly defines these boundaries further, the idyll created around the space inhabited by women and the men in proximity, distancing these women through a poetic form of idealisation. Grössinger maintains this division of the ‘good woman’ as being within her domestic setting and Salih confirms that the ‘deep-rooted division between the good woman in her household and the bad woman wandering the world’ as being ‘reductive’ . Woman’s association with the Virgin Mary implicates her position in art: The Mérode Altarpiece, a triptych by the Early Netherlandish painter Robert Campin, c. 1425-28, brings the Annunciation of Mary down to domesticity, as the ‘good woman’ her environment emphasises her chastity and humility, which, women are expected to imitate. In this aspect, women in medieval art exist to please men, where they can be seen as secure in the sphere which women were expected to inhabit; at a safe distance from being led astray.

Sources used:

Cruz, Anne, J, ‘The Walled-In Woman in Medieval and Early Modern Spain’, academia.edu [n.d.], https://www.academia.edu/6601571/The_Walled-In_Woman_in_Medieval_and_Early_Modern_Spain

Encyclopaedia Brittanica Online, ‘Courtly Love’, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/140814/courtly-love

Heckel, N. M. ‘Sex, Society and Medieval Women’, University of Rochester: River Campus Libraries [n.d], http://www.library.rochester.edu/robbins/sex-society

Kraus, Henry, ’Eve and Mary – Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman’, in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed by N. Broude and M. D. Garrard (Westview Press; First Edition, Second Impression edition, 1982).

Krén, Emil and Marx, Daniel, ‘Madonna of the Rose Garden’, Web Gallery of Art [n.d], http://www.wga.hu/html_m/l/lochner/madonna.html


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