Friday, May 8, 2015

In the Company of Green Women (II): Medieval Masons & Sculptors

Detail of an allegorical miniature of Christine de Pizan before the personifications of Rectitude, Reason, and Justice in her study; then helping another lady to build the 'Cité des dames', from The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cité des Dames), Christine de Pizan, Fifteenth Century.
(Click on post images for larger size.) 

"Regarding how women were perceived who engaged in this type of work, the voices of many historical authors make it clear that women should be discouraged from working outside the home, and especially should not engage in manual labor. Women who could not adhere to this prescription were considered to be of the lowest class in society, just one step above the class of prostitutes. Their poverty was seen as a punishment for sin. These attitudes led to the vague recordings of women‘s activities in historic documents and to women‘s historic invisibility on the construction site.  However, there were certain crafts related to building design that were deemed acceptable employment for women, such as sculpting, painting and the weaving of tapestries, which were believed to uplift the mind and maintain the virtue of chastity.

In addition to written documentation, there is graphic evidence in European illustrated manuscripts and books that demonstrate women as both laborers, craftswomen and as patrons of building construction.  Some of the imagery appears to be literal documentation of work, however the majority of the known examples use the idea of a woman as patron or as laborer in a symbolic context.  One well-known example is a miniature in Christine de Pisan‘s, The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cité des Dames)."
- From Women in Construction: An Early Historical Perspective, Yilmaz Hatipkarasulu, PhD and Shelley E. Roff, PhD,  2011 (.pdf) (emphasis, mine)

"Baron catalogues the painters, illuminators, and sculptors listed in Parisian tax records of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Although her work does not focus primarily on women, Baron does discover at least twelve female painters, illuminators, and "ymagieres" (a term of uncertain meaning), as well as three other women involved in the stone-working industry...

Medieval women and medieval art have shared an unfortunate fate. Both have been deprived by historians of the very real power that they may have exerted over human thoughts and actions in their own era. As a field of inquiry, the history of medieval women artists and their art invites us to redefine these proverbial objects as dynamic forces in the medieval past."
- From Medieval Women Artists and Modern Historians, Lila Yawn-Bonghi (.pdf)

Medieval Mason and Carpenter Guild emblem 

"Every clause in the 1389 Certificate of the Guild of Masons at Lincoln referred to both brothers and sisters. Carpenters admitted women, and stonemasons often combined with them the other artisans. The 'Old Charges' referred to 'brothers and sisters', 'Masters and Dames' and to "...he or she that is to bee made a mason..."

"There have been suggestions that there may have been an error whereby ‘he or shee’ should have read ‘he or they.’ Of this possibility, Rev. Cryer says: 'Now I have to tell you, that my predecessors in Masonic Research in England from Hughen and Vibert and from all the rest onward, have tried to pretend that the ‘shee’ is merely a misprint for ‘they.’ I now am the Chairman of the Heritage Committee of York. I know these documents; I’ve examined them, and I’m telling you, they say ‘she,’ without any question.'"

"Thus, women not only endured the fatigues of labour in the building trades but also, at least in the Würzburg case, vastly outnumbered the men! Indeed, because of the prevalence of women and their acceptance of lower wages and relatively high productivity, the journeymen’s lodges, fearing for their own prospects, agitated for their exclusion, and that of foreigners, from most trades in the late middle ages. Claudia Opitz , described tension over pay rates towards the end of the middle ages, saying: The competition between various interest groups raged all the more fiercely, especially when times were hard. Journeymen played a key role in these battles; since female maids and apprentices earned a third less on average, the men fought successfully to have them excluded from virtually all guilds by the end of the Middle Ages."

"While we may debate details concerning the involvement of women in the medieval building trades, we find they had an enduring presence that was sufficient for their participation to be legitimized in the Old Charges. I conclude therefore, that the Emperor has no clothes!—That no amount of repetition can make a falsehood true!—And that there were women in the building trades and as Stonemasons!"
- Four quotes from Craftswomen in the Old Charges, in Building Trades and as Stonemasons, by Philip Carter; found on The Quarry Masonic Forum here and here.

"There were so many early women Freemasons about whom we now know very little and what is left is rapidly slipping away. With each passing generation, we know even less. It’s too late to recover the names and stories of the very vast majority. The scholarly squandering and impoverishment cannot be undone. While we may grieve at that, we must accept it and strive not to add to it."
- From Haunted Chambers: The Lives of Early Woman Freemasons, by Karen Kidd, Cornerstone Publishers, 2009 (.pdf)


I'll never forget the moment it seriously entered my head that a few of the medieval Green Women (and Three-Hare symbols) may have been carved by women (as I intimated at the end of my previous post in this series). Having learned absolutely nothing about the existence of female artists in the Middle Ages - let alone female sculptors or masons - in art school in the 1970s, and (at the time) dismissing the entire possibly that women might have been involved - the unspoken it-goes-without-saying assumption on the part of my male instructors (i.e., women were and are not capable of creating anything artistically meaningful) - It was with great trepidation that I even dared to google such phrases as: "female medieval artists and sculptors" let alone "female medieval masons". Truthfully, I felt embarrassed to ask... and figured the search engine would just skip over the word "female" altogether. Which it mostly did. I had to crawl through a lot of material which just featured medieval artistic representations of women by male artists, which was hardly my point.

But... surprise, surprise! Every now and then I did hit pay dirt; in fact I managed to amass so much data that pulling it all together has been an almost impossible task. But, the upshot is that, yes, it so happens that women most assuredly were employed as both artists, scribes, and masons during the Middle Ages along with the more accepted feminine skills such as spinning, embroidery, etc.. I did not know this. So, perhaps, following rabbits is not a bad thing after all...

Unknown artists from Boccacio's De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) found here.

But, where to begin? Well, originally the title of this post was "In the Company of Green Women: Medieval Masons, Artists & Mystics" but, in an effort to make this document more concise and coherent, I had to divide and conquer it, dealing with the female medieval makers one category at a time. So, first off, let's tackle the female masons and sculptors, which (for me) stand at the apex of this creative pyramid.

Admittedly, when I came upon the three medieval illuminations above (and below), I was gobsmacked. However, if i had allowed my speculations to be vindicated by this "evidence" alone, I'd be kidding both you and myself, for despite what the images seem to represent, their actual context is another one of the great unknowns, as is much of the scant "evidence" regarding medieval artists of either gender.

Regarding the illustrations, all three originate from varying editions of "De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women)," a famous tome written by the Florentine writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (elsewhere written as Jahan Boccace), and first published in 1374. Boccaccio was also author of the even more famous "The Decameron," a fictionalized account of the Black Plague which had recently ravaged Europe, but, in regards to "Famous Women"  Boccaccio penned a collection of 106 biographies of both mythological and historical women, as well as some of his Renaissance contemporaries, in the dubious effort to provide examples of honorable women (and not-so-honorable women) thereby encouraging virtue and curbing vice (via the Wiki article linked to above). I'm not sure whose vices he intended to cure, but I'm guessing that the not-so-honorable women were probably far more interesting and far more influential than their virtuous counterparts.

Unknown artist from Boccacio's De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women) found here.

In any case, it's next to impossible to learn who the illuminations actually represent, nor how authentically any of the women"artists" are portrayed, but they certainly look impressive! Most especially the illumination above, in which the "unknown" painter just happens to have an arrangement of carving tools, and what appears to be a block of wood lying nearby. I am reminded of some of the wooden bosses that appear in medieval churches and cathedrals, which were not carved-in-place but were rather applied (i.e., literally nailed to the roof) and could easily have been managed by either gender.

Two examples of wooden bosses found on the roof of the Lincoln Cathedral Cloisters. Note the hare symbol (left) is similar to the one associated with Saint Melangell. As for the weird half-nun, half-lamb figure to your right, while it may be a representation of a nun as the "lamb of God," Saint Melangell's hares were also referred to as "lambs".
(See:The Three Hares; the Moon Hare, a Hare-witch, and Saint Melangell)
Photo Credit: Mervyn, 2007

So, once again, hardly proof positive of the female sculptors I was searching for, but encouraging! And, as this blogger writes regarding the Boccaccio illuminations:

"This isn’t to say that there weren’t medieval european women artists–there totally were! It is entirely possible the illuminators of these pieces were drawing on their own experiences with women artists to create these images, or these images were even made by women artists themselves..."

And, yet, what about actual stonework; could medieval women have been involved in that? As we see from the fourth illumination, the "Women Builders" (below), women were not uncommon on construction sites, and this happens to be true - according to Guild and tax records - but then, as is true to this day, women provided the cheapest of labor. Although something tells me that they were unlikely to be decked out in gowns and veils as is depicted.

"Women Builders" (detail). Roman des Girart von Roussillon, Flemish, 1447.
(Found with: Craftswomen in the Old Charges, in Building Trades and as Stonemasons.)

But, no, it doesn't end with menial labor, because - as is presumed by the quotes at the beginning of the post - "Shee" was not only a stonemason, but very likely the medieval equivalent of a rudimentary Freemason as well, keeping in mind that the Freemasonry we know of today wasn't established until the nineteenth century, although the first Grand Lodge of England made an appearance in the 18th century (1717).*

In any case, apparently the Fraternal Order of Freemasons wasn't always an entirely "Fraternal" organization as many modern Freemasons would have you believe. In other words, once upon a time, women - in some respects - were accepted as gender equals far more than they are now.

On a related note: "A Woman Teaching Geometry", a 14th century illustration
attributed to Abelard of Bath, from a copy of Euclid's Elements.

Not that there were whole regiments of female stonemasons in place. In reality, I've only found one actual name on the web: “Gunnilda the Mason of Norwich in the Calendar of Close Rolls for the year 1256". My source was "Haunted Chambers: The Lives of Early Woman Freemasons" by Karen Kidd (linked to at the beginning of this post and throughout).**

There was one more "name' to conjure with and she was rather famous, but, unfortunately, one teensy, weensy problem exists; she is now considered a mere "legend" and it was "proved" she never existed! That story. And so we come to the strange tale of Sabina von Steinbach.

I must confess, my hopes initially rose with Sabina... alas, only to be dashed like the Titanic against the icebergs of cold hard logic... and art historians!


Sabina von Steinbach

Sabina's statue at Strasbourg Cathedral (note the mason's hammer in her right hand.)

"Sabina von Steinbach was – according to legend – a female stonemason living in Alsace (in what is now eastern France) during the 13th century. She is said to have been the daughter of Erwin von Steinbach, architect and master builder at Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, the cathedral in Strasbourg. When after her father's death her brother Johann continued to build the cathedral tower from 1318 to 1339, Sabina is believed to have been employed as a skillful mason and sculptor in its completion. There are, however, strong doubts as to whether she existed at all."
- Via the Wiki entry.

"Indeed, Albert Mackey, in his Encyclopedia cites the theory "which places the organization of the Order of Freemasonry at the building of the Cathedral of Strasbourg, in the year 1275." Thus, as "Master of the Masons" of Strasbourg, Sabina would not just have been the equivalent of a Master Mason of today, but of a Worshipful Grand Master."
- Via Sabina von Steinbach from Legend Of Strasbourg Cathedral.

"... And we must give up Sabina von Steinbach. She never existed. Period.This is the judgment of art historians who have, in the past few decades, re-examined the now lost inscription on that scroll held by the hand of St. John, the sculpture attributed to Sabina. They found it doesn’t say what many thought it did. One of these art historians is Leslie Ross, who points out Sabina’s story likely was created to further romanticize her supposed father’s story. For while he did exist, we know little about him."

And, so much for Sabina one might say. Well, one might... just not this particular one; that is, moi. When all is said and done I find it difficult to swallow that Sabina materialized from thin air. As for the alleged inscription on the scroll of the statue she allegedly carved, well, as it has been "lost" -? - so much for the evidence. In any case, when it existed it (more or less) said: "The grace of God with thee, O, Sabina, whose hands from this hard stone have formed my image." I'm not sure how many ways that can be misinterpreted, but, according to the historians, apparently it was. Then, too, as for the statues she allegedly carved, it was (once again) proven they weren't carved in the period she was said to have existed.

But, I'm not convinced, not so much that a stonemason, the daughter of Erwin Von Steinbach didn't exist, but that a particular female stonemason wasn't involved in the building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg. There are, after all, thousands of carved figures adorning the magnificent walls of that cathedral. I repeat: thousands! (including the Green Woman to your left, sourced here) And if any medieval woman was to go "where no woman has gone before" it'd be a French or German woman. That Sabina's story was "romanticized" is a tribute especially to France, a country which - in contrast to the United States - has always enthusiastically elevated its women as well as its artists of either gender. Jeanne d'Arc, for instance, was born in a region of France bordering Alsace - where the "fictional" Sabina was born more than a hundred years earlier - and her story resonates no less now than it did during her own time. Moreover, France is also regarded as the country which spawned the first female Freemasonry movements, and established the first Co-Freemasonry lodge, which exists to this day - "Le Droit Humain: International" - and proclaims: "If it is true that it is the English who brought masonry to France, then it is the French today who bring it back to England invigorated, completed and strengthened by the admission of a woman into the Lodge at the side of a man." To which I say: Vive La France!

The awesome Astronomical Clock at Strasbourg,
second only to the one found at Prague.

But, as it so happens, one of the first American women to pay tribute to Sabina was Judy Chicago, who included her name on the Heritage Floor of her celebrated "Dinner Party". Another name you will find there is that of Properzia de Rossi, a sculptor born in Italy in 1490. From the Dinner Party de Rossi page is this brief description:

"The sculptor Properzia de' Rossi trained with the master engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. She began her career by carving peach stones with figures of saints (used for jewelry); the astonishing detail of these minute carvings was much praised by Vasari. Better known for her marble busts and sculptural decoration of public buildings, she won important commissions during her career. Despite success, she apparently had a troubled life and died impoverished in a hospice in Bologna."

Emily-Jane Hills Orford adds another dismal note to de Rossi's fate (and that of almost all medieval woman artists) at the end of her de Rossi article: "Sadly, like so many women artists of the Renaissance, we know very little about this woman, and very few of her works are still in circulation and on display. Occasionally a small piece of sculpture attributed to de Rossi will appear at auction, and some of her relief work is at some of the Bologna churches. Unfortunately, there really is no comprehensive list of de Rossi’s sculpture."

To your right (although this, too, is "debated") is one of Properzia's amazing peach-stones, carved with myriads of human figures, made into a gold brooch circa 1510, and found here. Below is one marble relief sculpture (the only "sure" work) attributed to de Rossi on the portal of the Cathedral of Bologna representing the Old Testament story of the Chastity of Joseph (circa 1520), found here.

One other sculptor of note, Luisa Roldán, although born somewhat later than our time-frame (1652), was a Spanish woman who:

"... created wooden sculptures as well as statues for the Cathedral of Cadiz and the town council. In 1688 she moved to Madrid, where she became court sculptor in 1692, serving Charles II and Philip V; she also served the Duke of Infantado and was admitted at the end of her life to the Accademia di San Luca. Nonetheless, she died in poverty in Madrid."

Regarding that "nonetheless" line, you have to wonder where Luisa's seven children were when momma lay dying... (Plan B, anyone?) Below is one of Roldán's works: The Death (or Ecstasy) of St. Mary Magdalene" housed at The Hispanic Society of America, New York, and documented here.

When it comes to medieval women in the arts, specifically the sculptors, this article represents a mere tip of the iceberg, but I'm not sure the remainder of our herstory (belonging to both women and men) - nor evidence of the female masons - will ever be found. Quoting again from Karen Kidd's Haunted Chambers: The Lives of Early Woman Freemasons:

 "In addition to decay and obscurity of the written record, women of the time were especially targeted for obliteration, especially after the Black Death and what would be called “the burning times”. This period, for women in general and skilled, talented women in particular, for all its fire, was very dark indeed. Edith Hoshino Altbach says in her "German Feminism: Readings in Politics and Literature”: 'For understandable reasons, the texts of witch persecution literature do not make plain the fact that there were female poets and thinkers, painters and sculptors whose works also consisted of flammable material, just like the bodies of their creators, and that it was the women’s culture which aroused the persecutor’s envy to such a high degree.'"

Interestingly, and in an attempt to end this post on an optimistic note, I'm going to list some "headlines" which have synchronistically appeared within the past few years on the internet, all of which report the strange emergence of a contemporary group of female masons. Of course, the women are noted as being "the first" but I think the journalists meant to add: "in recorded history".

Three Hares stone carving by modern mason, Carrie Horwood, who, in 1999,
became the first female apprentice stonemason at Gloucester Cathedral.
(Regarding the 3-Hares, was she following a tradition among female masons?)

Note: Sorry it took so long to get this second installment of the Green Women series out into cyberspace... blame it on those bunnies who've dragged (and continue to drag) me all over the internet! And, stay tuned, there's a third post to follow: In the Company of Green Women: The Illumined and the Illuminators. Till next time, then!


* The confusion arises from what the Masons themselves describe as either "speculative" or "operative" Freemasonry and all the other categories in between, such as "clandestine" and "regular". Meanwhile, this just found:

... A plaque honoring Elizabeth Aldworth (nee St. Leger), an Irish Freemason, found on this Irish Masonic History page

** Also recently found: this podcast with Karen Kidd (circa 2009) talking about her book, "Haunted Chambers..." (mentioned several times in this post).

For an interesting discussion of medieval women and art, see Kathryn A. Smith's "Medieval women are ‘good to think’ with" (pdf.).

Also, here's another wonderful Medieval and Early Modern Women (tumblr) page full of a number of notable women from the Middle Ages and many medieval illuminations.

Regarding a link (originally posted here) to a feminist Freemason tract (The Compass and Square, circa 1916); for various reasons I've decided to remove it, but, for those interested, it can still be found as an external link at the end of the Wiki article for Freemasonry and Women. By the way, there are some intriguing names to be found in the Wiki article... for instance, did you know that theosophist, Annie Besant, was a Co-Freemason... or that the Empress Josephine presided over a lodge in Strasbourg? Then, in 1892, there was the American, Salome Anderson - touted as "the first female Freemason in the world" who was actually born (like the mythical Sabina) in Alsace.

"This project is a response to silence and absence. The silence is that of medieval women in the history of art, for despite the advances of recent decades, the field continues to be overwhelmingly a history of men. There is an unspoken underlying assumption that works of art and architecture in the Middle Ages were made by and for men, save for the rare cases where it can be demonstrated otherwise. That is, medieval art is not approached from a position of neutrality but rather presumed to be masculine in origin and intent. Scholars routinely christen anonymous artists with the title “Master of…” followed by some outstanding characteristic by which we recognize “his” work. By contrast, artists and patrons are identified as women only when their names are recorded on a work of art or in documentation. These noteworthy cases have been fruitfully studied, often within a framework of the exception that proves the rule. But how many so-called exceptions must there be before we decide that a new rule is in order? At what point to do these perceived aberrations from the norm become rather a new pattern waiting to be recognized?"
- From Reassessing the Roles of Women as 'Makers" of Medieval Art and Architecture.


  1. Apparently the early middle ages were more enlightened than the later ages.....indeed.........up until nearly the present (which still has a ways to go) in admitting women as at least equal in the arts.

    Wonderful post....very well researched....well presented. Superb!

    1. Thanks so much, BG.
      I don't know that "enlightened" is the case - it wasn't called the Dark Ages for nothing - and I don't know that women were considered equal in all artistic fields at the time either. But, I do know that they had a lot more artistic input - and a great deal more power and influence across the board - than they're generally given credit for!

    2. Addendum and correction!

      Actually, BG, I've just done a fact check, and, in terms of your comment and my reply, we're both confusing the issue.

      The early Middle Ages (or medieval period) actually covers the years from 500 to 1100. These are considered the Dark Ages.

      The late or "high" Middle Ages, covers the period from 1100 to 1453. So, technically, the time-frame in this post is actually the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance period (1300 - 1500)!

      For a non-historian - like myself - all of this is confusing... but, in the last analysis it's my "bad". Sorry for the confusion!

  2. Hi I'm Carrie Horwood, the stonemason who carved the 3 hares, above. I was the first female apprentice stonemason at Gloucester Cathedral back in Sept '99. I didn't want to do this in the name of women's lib or equal rights but just because it's what I wanted. I have just celebrated 10yrs self employed. I'm currently carving a beautiful sculpture memorial to be placed in Highgate Cemetery in London. Visit my website to see what else I've been doing

    1. I'm delighted you stopped by, Carrie, and filled me in about Gloucester! I'll add the information to the caption under your Three-Hare carving.

      No, I don't imagine any woman (or person) would take on such a demanding role as stonemason just to prove a political point. You followed your heart and made a success of it... and more power to you!

      Regarding your 3-Hare symbol, whether or not you were consciously or unconsciously following a tradition among female masons when you carved it is sheer speculation on my part. We're unlikely to ever know very much more about the stonemasons of the past... or the 3-Hare symbol!. On the other hand, the symbol still speaks to us... my goal with the Green Women series was trying to decipher what it meant.

      But, yes, I still feel it's a primarily feminine symbol. Not Feminist. Feminine. And, I mean this in the most positive sense.

      My very best to you!