18.05.23, Sciacca, Illuminating Women

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Alexa Sand

The Medieval Review 18.05.23

Sciacca, Christine. Illuminating Women in the Medieval World. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2017. pp. 120. ISBN: 978-1-60606-526-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Alexa Sand

Gorgeously illustrated with more than a hundred color images from the Getty's Ludwig manuscripts and a few other collections, this introduction to the diversity of medieval female roles and representations accompanied an exhibition of the same title at the Getty in the summer of 2017. As the foreword by Timothy Potts, the Getty's director, notes, it had been over two decades since the last exhibition of manuscript art dedicated to the exploration of women's experience in the Middle Ages was mounted in the galleries. Given the enormous growth, diversification, and critical deepening of scholarly feminism and gender studies in relation to medieval art history since 1997, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that revisitation of the topic was well overdue, as Potts acknowledges.

The book, like the exhibition, is organized around four themes: ideals of womanhood, morality, daily life, and women's role as patrons and practitioners of the arts. Manuscript material ranging from twelfth-century southern Italy to early-sixteenth-century Cologne illustrates the text's presentation of fundamental concepts for understanding the construction of femininity and gendered experience in the Middle Ages. Since this is not a scholarly investigation of a particular place, time, or circumscribed ambit of production and use of books, these concepts must remain very general: the exemplary role of biblical and hagiographic women, the female personification of virtue and vice, the centrality of female chastity to constructions of morality, the association of women with sensuality and romance, women as economic players in the domestic and public sphere, marriage, motherhood, artistic patronage, and creative agency. As a survey of women's roles and the social meanings of femininity, the book provides a lively overview, its generality balanced by the specificity of the selected images and the succinct and informative captions. In short, it reflects a well curated exhibition, its written component at once brisk enough to move viewers through the galleries and deep enough to allow them to see the works presented with an informed eye.

In keeping with the nature of the Getty's collection, and the bulk of surviving manuscript evidence, as well as with the disciplinary character of medieval studies more generally, the focus of Sciacca's book is on Christian Europe. This is somewhat mitigated by the inclusion of a number of examples drawn from such Hebrew manuscripts as a middle-Rhenish Haggadah of the early fifteenth century (Darmstadt, Universit├Ąts- und Landesbibliothek, Cod. Or. 8), and the north-Italian prayer book of Joel ben Simeon Feibush, dated 1469 (London, British Library, Add. MS. 26957); notably, all the Jewish manuscripts represented come from collections other than the Getty, as does the sole Islamic example, a sixteenth-century Shirazi leaf from the Khamsa of Nizami (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Richard Ettinghausen, 1975.192.15). The willingness to go beyond the riches of the Getty's collection to gesture toward a wider world of medieval religious traditions is one small way in which the 2017 exhibition responded to the increasing urgency within medieval studies to disrupt the easy acceptance of Christianity as a normative condition or framework. To some degree, this is reflected in the stated goal of the project to counter commonly-held stereotypes about medieval women ("damsels in distress" or "mystics in convents").

Without misrepresenting the relative scarcity of Jewish and Islamic examples from Europe, however, Sciacca could have gone further along this line of inquiry. For example, in the chapter devoted to medieval women in the arts, a single example is drawn from vernacular literature, the fourteenth-century Parisian lay illuminator Jeanne de Montbaston's illustration from The Romance of the Good Knight Tristan (Getty, Ms. Ludwig XV 5 [83.MR.175]). This brings to mind the only surviving illuminated romance from medieval Islamic Europe, the Hadith Bayad wa Riyad (Vatican Library, Cod. Vat. Arab. 368), likely produced in Almohad Andalusia in the early thirteenth century. With its abundant depictions of women, this manuscript might be one of the best visual sources for imagining the world of medieval European Islam from a female perspective, and its inclusion in the book would have complemented either the chapter on ideals of womanhood (its heroine an archetype of the beloved in the multilingual courtly romance tradition to which the text belongs), or that on daily life. Indeed, greater attention to the romance tradition and its illumination might have been desirable to counterbalance the predominantly religious focus of the book and exhibition.

The nature of this publication--to reproduce in book form the content and organization of an exhibition--means that it primarily serves as an introduction to the subject, medieval women. In turn, the breadth of the subject determines a certain level of generality. The quality of the interpretive writing and the pictorial illustration cannot be faulted: Illuminating Women fulfils its stated goal to "illuminate the vibrant and complex medieval portrayal of the women, real and imaginary, who fill the texts and images of medieval manuscripts" (10). Indeed, it gestures forward to a larger question: would it be possible, in a curatorial context, to reframe the whole notion of "medieval women" in more cross-cultural and multivalent terms, and thereby open radically new, rather than revisionist perspectives on the rich visual material that had its first airing at the Getty twenty years ago? Transgendered, aged, hybrid, and disabled bodies, ambiguous sexualities, and non-binary discourses of gender have all received a great deal of scholarly investigation in the last decade of medieval studies; perhaps attending to what is strange and disruptive rather than illustrative and normative in these illuminations would help break up stereotypes of medieval women more effectively than a demonstration of the variability the representation of "women" as a stable category of persons defined primarily by their biological sex.

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