Tuesday, July 7, 2015

In the Company of Green Women (III): The Illumined and the Illuminators

Zelus Dei - Illumination from Hildegard von Bingen's Scivias - 1151 or 1152 - found here.
(Note: click on images in this post for enlarged views)

"I looked and behold a head of marvellous form ... of the colour of flame and red as fire, and it had a terrible human face gazing northward in great wrath. From the neck downward I could see no further form, for the body was altogether concealed ... but the head itself I saw, like the bare form of a human head. Nor was it hairy like a man, nor indeed after the manner of a woman, but it was more like to a man than a woman, and very awful to look upon.

It had three wings of marvellous length and breadth, white as a dazzling cloud. They were not raised erect but spread apart one from the other and the head rose slightly above them ... and at times they would beat terribly and again would be still. No word uttered the head, but remained altogether still, yet now and again beating with its extended wings."


"From my infancy until now in the seventieth year of my age," she says, "my soul has always beheld this light, and in it my soul soars to the summit of the firmament and into different air... The brightness which I see is not limited by space, and is more brilliant than the radiance around the Sun... I cannot measure its height, length, breadth. Its name, which has been given me, is 'Shade of the Living Light.' ... With that brightness I sometimes see another light for which the name Lux Vivens has been given me. When and how I see this I cannot tell; but sometimes when I see it all sadness and pain is lifted from me, and I seem a simple girl again, and an old woman no more."

- Two quotes from Hildegard von Bingen, via "The Scientific Views and Visions of Saint Hildegard;" from Studies in the History and Method of Science (full text), 1921, edited by Charles Singer

Frontispiece from Scivias depicting Hildegard von Bingen receiving "divine" inspiration.

O virtus Sapientiae

O Wisdom’s energy!
Whirling, you encircle
and everything embrace
in the single way of life.
Three wings you have:
one soars above into the heights,
one from the earth exudes,
and all about now flies the third.
Praise be to you, as is your due, O Wisdom.

Antiphon for Divine Wisdom by Hildegard von Bingen. This was one of her many musical compositions which are still being performed to this day.

"Therefore the whirlwinds tell me lies in many voices, which rise up within me, saying, 'Who are you? and what are you doing? and what are these battles you are fighting? You are indeed unhappy, for you do not know whether your work is good or bad. Where will you go? and who will save you? and what are these errors that are driving you to madness? Are you doing what delights you? Are you escaping what distresses you?... It would be better for you if you did not exist!' 

And after these whirlwinds have risen up thus within me, I begin to tread another path that is hard for my flesh to bear, for I begin to practice righteousness. But then I doubt as to whether or not the Holy Spirit has given this to me, and I say, 'This is useless.' And I wish to fly above the clouds. How? I wish to fly above the faculties and start things I cannot finish. But when I try to do these things, I only stir up great sadness in myself, so that I do no works, either on the heights of sanctity or on the plains of good will; but I bear within me the disquietude of doubt, desperation, sadness, and oppression in all things."

- Hildegard von Bingen from Book 1, Vision 4, Scivias, (1151/1152).

"Claricia was a German illuminator who included a self-portrait in a South German psalter produced circa 1200 CE. In the self-portrait, she depicts herself swinging from the tail of a letter Q with her name inscribed over her head. Her uncovered head, braided hair, and style of dress (close-fitting tunic, long-waisted dress, long flowing sleeves) suggests that she was a lay student at the convent." - via the Wiki article.

"Nuns created artwork that varied in style, function, market, and quality, like all artists everywhere. Some nuns made private devotional drawings, and some crafted products in a variety of media for sale outside the convent. They had opinions about their work, too. In an early sixteenth-century letter to her brother, a nun in Nuremberg asks him if he would show some of her embroidery to his friend Albrecht Dürer, otherwise known as the Elvis of the northern Renaissance. In another letter she says, 'I have no recreation except painting; if I could only have Dürer for a fortnight so that he could instruct [me].'"

- Whitney Burkhalter from “Nuns Can’t Paint”: Sexism, Medieval Art, and Dudes on Mopeds.

Self-portrait -  1493, Albrecht Dürer

(Note: Now, girls - and some boys - wouldn't you, too, wish to have
this man "for a fortnight..." ? I would!)

"To accommodate the demand, book-making, writing, and illustrating expanded out of monasteries and into secular production houses.  These commercial scriptoriums were prevalent in most major cities, but especially Paris, by the 1300s.  Furthermore, a great deal of the actual painting of these manuscripts was done by women.  Yet another female-dominated industry in the middle ages that you might never have guessed."

-  Merry Farmer from: Medieval Monday - Illuminated Manuscripts.

From: La voie de Povreté ou de Richesse (The Way of Poverty or of Wealth) -1400s, France
Previously attributed to "a follower of the Bedford Master", it is now attributed to the "Fastolf Master". 

“I know a woman today, named Anastasia, who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris – where the best in the world are found – who can surpass her, nor who can paint flowers and details as delicately as she does, nor whose work is more highly esteemed, no matter how rich or precious the book is. People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience, for she has executed several things for me, which stand out among the ornamental borders of the great masters.”

- Christine de Pizan, from The Book of The City of Ladies, (1405), via Mary French's article: Lady Truth and the Author: Female Networking in Medieval Manuscripts.


As you may have noticed, I've a new ploy for getting myself to post these days; I put up the images first - which is half the battle anyway - and this forces me to add my "narrative glue" sooner than I would have otherwise. Unfortunately, sometimes even this maneuver back-fires, and I drum up additional information, and more links, and so many bits of disorganized data, that the whole task becomes hopeless.  And, in the case of medieval women, this has been true from the first and second posts in this series - plus the post that started it all - straight through to this one. And why is this? In four words: it's those rabbits again. I can now pronounce, from deepest experience, that whatever else the Sign of the Three Hares may mean, it - without one single doubt or hesitation on my part - is a magical symbol. It is a symbol of increase. Period. And, as Elmer Fudd might've said, when confronted with three Bugs Bunnies (!): Be vewy careful.

And, so, we come to the medieval scribes, mystics, and illuminators - specifically the invisible feminine side of the medieval equation. And, like myself, you were probably under the impression that this was primarily an empty set, containing one or two obscure female anomalies of little import. In which case you - like myself - would be wrong. And, really, if you follow this blog at all, it should come as no surprise... considering that even very contemporary women of artistic achievement have already seemingly fallen through the cracks of History (emphasis on "His")...

Lucy French refers to this phenomenon - although specifically in the context of folk art - as "Cultural Femicide"; a very apt term across the board.

So, did the circumstances of the medieval period really allow women any meaningful degree of artistic expression? Well, yes and no. It certainly helped if one came from a wealthy family, but this stands true throughout all periods in history. It was also useful to have a father, husband or other male family member on board (ditto). In lieu of wealth or male influence, however, the last course available to a creative, thoughtful woman - whose aspirations didn't include dying in childbirth, or being burnt at the stake as a witch - was to join a convent. In those days, convents were primary sources for girls to get an education. And, unlike what you may presume, the religious houses were not merely the strongholds of the pious and the meek. Far from it. For instance, convents were hostels as well... places of respite, and safe havens for women... the elderly, the widowed, the displaced, the travelers... i.e., those of whom had simply no place else to go.

In any case, the highest concentration of educated women at the time were located in convents, and, of those, many of them came from noble families. So, once again, inside or outside of convents, wealth was a significant factor. There were also "double monastery" situations, or "mixed houses", in which monks and nuns cohabited (and which presents another difficulty in identifying the gender of an artist).

Mark of the illuminator Gudda

Of the nuns who were known to have illuminated manuscripts, several names which appeared in a number of sources were: Guda or Guta (12 century),  Ende or En (10/11th century), and Diemoth (or Diemudis), (1057-1130). The information is so scant about these women, however, the most I can say is that they existed. We know that they did and when they did because they left their marks, as in the instance of Guda (above).

That being said, there's a certain stigma - as opposed to status - attached to the German word "Nonnenarbeiten", or Nuns’ Works. It may as well be a derogatory term, and, for the most part, it is: "The naïve style of the image, the doll-like faces of the figures, the flattened forms, and the disparities of scale are typical of devotional artworks made by nuns and have therefore come to be called Nonnenarbeiten..."

Agony in the Garden - 1500, Abbey of St. Walburg, Germany (From J. Hamburger)
(Note the 7-petaled rose)

But, while it's true that much of the Nonnenarbeiten that comes down to us is not in the same league as the "Book of Kells" the facts remain that convents did house scriptoriums, there were a number of nuns and female lay-students who were scribes and illuminators, and, although the only comprehensive list I could come up with was one listing the copyists, not all the work was "naive". The delightful illumination (shown in the post introduction above) by "Claricia", for instance, is a wonderfully humanizing blast from the medieval past which brings to mind the children's book illustrators of the last century (Wanda Gág, perhaps, or Lois Lenski). In fact, unlike much of the artwork from the middle ages, there's something strangely contemporary about some of the work that emerged from the convents, up to and including illuminations like "Zelus Dei" (first image of the post) either executed or designed by one of the most famous nuns of all, the Benedictine, Hildegard von Bingen.

Cultivating the Cosmic Tree - a vision by Hildegarde von Bingen (1098-1179) 

Make no mistake, Saint Hildegard von Bingen was a feminine force to be reckoned with! (A fact not lost on Judy Chicago, who created a place setting for Hildegard at her highly-acclaimed Dinner Party). Apart from having founded and established two "Houses of the Holy", von Bingen was a also a polymath: a poet, a writer, an artist, a philosopher, lecturer, composer, healer, visionary, and mystic. Recently, in 2012 - it merely took a thousand years or so - Pope Benedict XVI promoted Saint Hildegard to a Doctor of the Catholic Church... an esteemed entitlement bestowed upon only an elevated few. (Note: of the thirty-four theological positions granted, only 4 are held by women... which should come as no surprise!).

I'm guessing Von Bingen would have been delighted though... albeit with a delight tinged by a pinch of irony. Which is not to say she wasn't wholly a "good Christian" but one needs to remind themselves that, all things considered - most especially in regards to her many mystical visions - that pandering to the patriarchy, (specifically the Christian hierarchy), was the rule of thumb for wise women then... as pandering to the patriarchy continues to be, in a very general sense, now. In other words, had she not declared herself a Mother Superior - and behaved accordingly - and had she not anchored her visions to the Christian Patriarchal Mothership , she'd have been toast. Literally. So, while most of her mystical imagery* (those filling the pages of "Scivias", for example; two of which appear below) can be construed to support the official Christian agenda, her actual messages from the "Holy Spirit" might be interpreted in a different light. Feminists do not hold Saint Hildegard in high regard for nothing.

Two illuminations from Scivias.

About those visions... unlike certain members of that species - "Scientificus Officialis" - who attempt to denigrate and dismiss the entire feminine "paranormal" experience with "diagnoses" of psychological dysfunction, sexual hysteria or "disease" - such as migraine auras - I'm of the opinion that Hidegard's mysticism was genuine, and her visions were gleaned from true experiences.** Certainly her dilemma as a visionary (see quote in post  introduction above) is something that might resonate with a number of creative people, specifically those whose source of inspiration lies in uncharted realms. The quote might as well be a modern visionary's journal entry.

On the other hand, if her visions were merely political maneuvers tailored for power and self-promotion, well, hot damn, the lady was a marketing genius!

Sophia and Ecclesia from Hildegard Von Bingen's Scivias

Concerning her actual theological stance, however, we might take a closer look at the lyrics "O! Virtus Sapientiae" (see post introduction) or the image above: "Sophia (Wisdom) and Ecclesia (the church)".*** At first I assumed the little gathering of humans - for some reason blurry and indistinct - within the folds of Wisdom's wings, depicted a church hierarchy of bishops, cardinals and priests (also known as "Religio Officialis"). But when I blew it up, sharpened the image, and looked closely, I saw it was, instead, a gathering of nuns! That being said, it was not uncommon for von Bingen, (and her female peers noted below) to regard Christ as "The Mother".  Especially keep in mind the Gnostic implications of the goddess Sophia, when you read this quote (from Scivias, found here):

"She is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightening, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans . . .  But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy."

A Lingua Ignota (Latin for "unknown language") was described by the 12th century abbess of Rupertsberg, Hildegard of Bingen, who apparently used it for mystical purposes. To write it, she used an alphabet of 23 letters, the litterae ignotae." - via the Wiki article for Lingua Ignota.

But, Saint Hildegard wasn't the only woman supplying visions to the medieval world. There were a number of medieval psuedo-Christian sibyls: in England,  Margery Kempe**** and Julian of Norwich (re: Norwich's 1395 work, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman), and two contemporaries (and neighbors) of von Bingen: Elisabeth of Schönau, and Herrad of Landsberg (from the Alsace region of France), to name a few. Via Harrad we have the illumination (below) in her own hand from her book "Hortus deliciarum" (Garden of Delights) - a depiction of Hell that rivals the visions of Dante (found here).

From Hortus deliciarum - Herrad of Landsberg 

During the course of my research on the mystics, however, I discovered another, more enigmatic collection of women: the Beguines, 13th century semi-monastic communities of female mystics and holy women not formally sanctioned by the Church, and eventually accused of heresy (emphasis on "Her"). The Beguines hailed primarily from Belgium and the Netherlands. And, as one might guess, unlike the Christian mystics that pandered to the patriarchy, at least one of them, Marguerite Porete, French mystic and author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, literally became toast. She was burnt at the stake in 1310 for the "heresy" she committed by writing her book in Old French, as opposed to Latin (!). Worse still, she was accused of being a "free spirit". As ironically perfect a metaphor as that might seem in regards to Religio Officialis, there actually was a "Heresy of The Free Spirit"; the tenets of which include denial of the necessity of the church and "anticlerical sentiment". (Oh my! All of this, incidentally, underscoring the importance of a fortified division between church and state!) See also: The Sister Catherine Treatise.

Fragment of a manuscript by Hadewijch of Antwerp

I know of no artists among the Beguine mystics... but that doesn't mean there weren't any. There was one notable poet, however: Hadewijch of Antwerp (or Barbant), and I've posted an excerpt of her Prose poem The Twelve Hours below:

The nature from which true love springs has twelve hours which drive love out of herself and bring her back in herself. And when love comes back in herself she brings with her all that makes the unspeakable hours drive her out of herself: a mind that seeks to know, a heart full of desire, and a soul full of love. And when love brings these back she throws them into the abyss of the mighty nature in which she was born and nurtured. Then the unspeakable hours enter nature unknown. Then love has come to herself and rejoices in her nature, below, above, and around. And all those who stay below this knowledge shudder at those who have fallen into the abyss and work there and live and die. For such is love’s command and her nature."

As it was, mysticism wasn't yet maligned in medieval times as it came to be later on in History. The female mediums and spiritualists of the early 20th century, for example, suffered a less illustrious fate despite their occasionally successful forays into the Scientificus Officialis realm (See: this article on Eileen Garrett, and this one). In the latter half of the 20th century - the New Age - arose several female "channelers"... women like Jane Roberts, who, despite having fairly monumental revelations to convey, and having influenced physicists like Michael Talbot, fell off the radar in the 21 century. Is there a peculiarly paranormal feminine pattern here? If so, it's not one that can't be erased with a few choice epitaphs (from Scientificus Officialis) such as "hormonal irregularity."

Annunciation from les "Vies des Saints" -  Jeanne de Montbaston,1350

But, lest we confuse all contributions by medieval women to the arts as "Nonnenarbeiten", it's time to move on... specifically to France, were we find the humble wife (and, eventually, widow) of the printer Richard de Montbaston. Not so oddly enough, scholars in the succeeding years assumed all the illuminations and scripts generated by the couple were the work of Richard; that is, until old Rick kicked the bucket and the work mysteriously continued to be produced. At which point, the historians conceded - or almost conceded (!) - that it was his wife, Jeanne de Montbaston, that deserved their scant praise. I'm not sure what role they previously reserved for her... secretary, book-keeper? In any case, Jeanne took the other existing medieval route to female artistic expression. She married him. Little else is known about her or her husband, but judging by her, um, whimsical marginalia - the images of the nuns and the "Penis trees" having become more renown than her name - she was probably great company at the local watering-hole (i.e., the bar or tavern; a place of entertainment and refuge shortly to become extinct in America, if it hasn't already).

2 illuminations from Le Roman de la Rose (full manuscript) - Jeanne de Montbaston
(See Lucy Allen's article: Jeanne de Montbaston – Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?)

During the latter years of the middle ages and the early Renaissance (14th-17th centuries), a period within which a renown Queen synchronistically sat on the British throne - more feminine names emerged in the arts and letters. Of special note was Christine de Pizan, whose dad was personal physician and court astrologer to King Charles V of France, and whose book, The Book of the City of Ladies, published in 1405, was possibly one of the first proto-feminist tracts. We know next to nothing now about some of the woman she championed; the trail and exploits of the illuminator "Anastasia", for instance, seem to begin and end within the pages of Pizan's book. And, as for the female illuminators who came before her, apparently their "jobs" expired with the invention of the printing press.

Things brighten up a bit, however - considerably later in the game (and in celebration of the printing press) - when we come upon German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 - 1717), a woman that not even Scientificus Officialis could dismiss. She was one of the first - and possibly the most celebrated - of the bona fide female scientific illustrators, publishing her first book of natural illustrations, titled Neues Blumenbuch, in 1675, at age 28, and eventually traveling across the globe to document the life and metamorphosis of a number of exotic butterflies. One of her gorgeous illustrations is posted below.

Engraving - Maria Sibylla Merian

The sad fact of the matter is, though, that it's probably impossible to discover much more about the identities of the medieval illuminators - both male and female - than what little is already on record. Artists rarely signed their work and often the names attributed to the work were either the names of patrons or those of the guild masters (as in the manuscript page below), and this seems to be true across the board. Moreover, all too often one gets the impression that anonymous work is attributed to a male artist by default, as if merely the male members of the human species were, indeed the "creator gods". So, in many ways, although some discoveries were interesting, on my part, I found much of the journey discouraging.

Book of Hours - 1400s, France
(Quote from the page: "This miniature was painted by a follower of the Egerton Master, an illuminator active in Paris ca. 1405-1420. This master is one of four, possibly five, artists who worked on this manuscript. In the later Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts were most often produced in workshops that employed several artists. These commercial workshops developed in response to the growing demand in lay society for beautifully illuminated manuscripts."

Alas, that being said, it's not quite over! Thanks to the hares, my cup runneth over... with links, images, trivia and more names, more possibilities. Although not intending to address the medieval women painters and textile artists - areas in which the Three Hare symbol does not appear - I find that this series would not be complete without them. So, there will be one more medieval post... sigh... but, I'll make it short! ;-)


* Note: many of the illuminations which appear in von Bingen's  collections have an uncanny resemblance to those found in (reluctant mystic) Carl Jung's "Red Book"  published hundreds of years later. Carl Jung, a "mystic"? Maybe that's why Scientificus Officialis has such a problem with him!

** Links of interest on the subject of nuns, neurology and mysticism:
This quote from Neurologist Andrew B. Newberg is via the last link:

"Again, if it is true that all of the proposed criteria by which reality is judged to be real can 
be reduced, in the last analysis, to the vivid sense of reality, then we have no choice but to 
conclude that in some sense, these states, and especially absolute unitary states or pure 
consciousness, are, in fact, more real than the baseline reality of our everyday lives. And the 
word “real” here is not used in a poetic or metaphorical sense. It is used in the same sense as in the utterance “this rock or this table is real.” Suffice it to say that, when one approaches 
questions of reality from a neuroscientific perspective, “reality” becomes a very slippery 
concept, often manifesting itself in profoundly counterintuitive ways to the scientist, philosopher, or mystic."

*** My original information came from a Wiki file, but I have since found evidence that the image did not (necessarily) represent "Wisdom," but, instead, the body or heart of the Church. Personally. I prefer the Sophia connection.

**** A recent news article regarding Margery Kempe.

Further reading regarding Hildegarde von Bingen: The Hildegard of Bingen Trail in Germany


On a final (more upbeat) note, however, I'd like to mention the hares included here before signing out. The one above, blowing his (own) horn - an apt symbol for all of those women who can't and/or don't - was found in a fun couple of posts by Marjolein de Vos about The Adventures of Medieval Killer Bunny, found here and here

And, regarding the two illuminations below, while it's probably not possible to identify the actual artists, I think I've shown enough evidence that there's a possibility one or both of the artists may have been women, and that women may have been responsible for other medieval representations of the sign. This was actually my main motivation to dig up all these medieval makers in the past few posts, as I've been convinced from the very beginning that the Sign of the Three Hares had strikingly feminine implications, supported by the many women artists who gravitate towards it to this day. I've mentioned some of them in the past posts of this series: notably Eleanor Ludgate and Jackie Morris... but, in reality, there's many more.

Illuminations found at Trois Lievres, here and here.

A Last Note on the Three Hares: I had (yet) another post planned for this series - specifically regarding the Three-Hare symbols found in the locality of Devon. And, although it's been said that it's unlikely the symbol was a maker's mark, I beg to differ to a certain degree. Analyzing some photographs of the roof bosses in one particular Devon church, I have the sneaking suspicion that the symbol may, in fact, have represented a small group of somewhat subversive artists, members of which included, at least, one or more women. In the end, however, I was moved to scrap the post for what might seem like a strange reason. That is, I had the strong feeling that, ultimately, their secret should be kept... as if the future might somehow influence the past, and endanger the livelihoods - or even the lives - of the (three) mysterious medieval artists.
(And, that's all she wrote...)


  1. Hildegard von Bingen was a most brilliant and accomplished person -- first heard of her 10 or so years ao when Mary bought a CD set of her musical works (the inner booklet had some of her artwork as well).

    Superb post and I see the three hares show up YET again.

    1. Funny, but, there was a long period of time when I had a real aversion to the medieval world... everything about it gave me the creeps; most especially regarding its religious aspects (and consequently, its barbaric aspects) (not to mention its misogynist aspects!). So, this post was really, really difficult to write.

      Thanks, though, BG. As for the 3 Hares, I think my work is done... well, that is, apart from my own artwork! ;-)

    2. PS Von Bingen's musical compositions are beautiful though!

  2. Well, certainly the medieval world was not what so many make it out to be -- it was a matter of daily survival and hardship....with an iron rule of religion. Not exactly my cup of tea either.

    1. Yeah, well, it goes without saying that someone like myself would've been toast before the age of 20!