‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Women in Medieval Art

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Reinforcing the lockdown on women’s sexuality and the expectations surrounding her position is made explicit in their representation in late-medieval art through the frequent juxtaposition of those seen to be as vessels of virtue or vice. Popular divisions were made between good and evil, of life and death and between body and soul: where women are concerned, these distinctions become attached to polar opposites of femininity. As discussed, Eve and the Virgin Mary provided biblical models for this discourse; each coming from the Old and New Testaments, the former becomes associated with the Synagogue and the latter with the Ecclesia. Moving on from this, the two are paired in art as a reminder of woman’s involvement with good and evil; installing St Jerome’s teaching of ‘death through Eve, life through Mary’.


‘Tree of Life and Death Flanked by Eve and Mary-Ecclesia’. Furtmeyr, Berthold, c. 1481 – 9; gold leaf on vellum. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliotek. 

For example, the title-page of the Feast of Corpus Christi from the Missal of the Archbishop of Salzburg c.1481 shows the Virgin and Eve together, two-sides of the same tree; the Virgin crowned and clothed, Eve base and naked. The Virgin offers fruit blessed by Christ and the Cross symbolising a promise of redemption and life whilst the fruit which Eve gives is bound by the skull and death. To show women in this way through art highlights the perception that a woman’s nature was fixed, being branded as either one extreme or the other and to negotiate these constituted her identity and reputation.


‘The Wise Woman’. Anton Woensam, c.1525; woodcut.

The moral character of ordinary women becomes measured by identifiable types in art. Grössinger writes how ‘both literature and art are more likely to be scathing about her character’ and that in particular ‘it is the married woman, the housewife, who is being scrutinised’ showing ‘man examining a woman’s characteristics’ and passing judgement . A good woman belongs in the home, where her duties are well-defined and evidenced in medieval imagery, perhaps most explicitly in those pictorially instructive works belonging to the realm of German artist Anton Woensam’s ‘The Wise Woman’, a schematic woodcut of c.1525. Here, a housewife is labeled and attached to her are symbolic attributes dictating her virtues: For example the lock in her mouth holds her tongue from impertinent speech, the hooves render her steadfast and the serpent around her waist binds her to her husband. In this image perceptions show that the good woman is property of her husband, under whom she must demonstrate obedience and humility. It appears that these attributes are tying her as tightly as a chastity belt; that she is adorned with a heavy mantel of expectations and responsibilities


‘Lady combing her hair’, p.43 “Der Ritter vom Turn” by Geoffroy de la Tour Landry. Illustrated by Albrecht Durer, 1493-95.

To stray from the home and domesticity is to enter into a derogatory sphere in art, where bad women become traitors to their sex through wanton behaviour, as made manifest in prostitution. Whilst the woodcut ‘A Young Woman Combing her Hair’ from the 1493 edition of The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry warns the dangers of a woman’s vanity in calling up the devil, ‘A Whore Venerated by a Fool’ by Hans Brosamer, c.1530, exacerbates this to the conclusion of selling the body. The erotic theme of this print is shown in the nude figure of a whore; by making a prostitute of herself, the temptation of her flesh and role as instigator marks her as ridiculous and corrupt.


‘A Whore Venerated by a Fool’. Hans Brosamer, c.1530; woodcut.

The discourse in the late middle-ages justifies its definition of women through types derived from biblical sources and the innate fears relating to her ‘other’ nature. Her appearance in late-medieval art presents archetypes and her place is secondary to her medieval counterpart, blamed, in a misogynistic context for her duality, potential promiscuity and derivation from original sin. Woman’s governance depended on redeeming virtues found in unattainable ideals, rendering perception dictated to by a framework established beyond her control. I would argue that what we learn about medieval perceptions of women from their representation in late-medieval art is conditioned by contemporary feeling of the male patriarchy regarding her sexuality, to the extent that she is silenced and almost inconceivable as an individual; demonstrating a feminist obstacle to recovering women’s history.

Continue exploring women in medieval art here…
Find out about how an 18th century diletante decorated his estate here…
Take a shopping trip in 18th century Paris here…

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Sources Used: 

Grössinger, Christa, Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art (Manchester Medieval Studies, 1997).

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