“Nuns Can’t Paint”: Sexism, Medieval Art, and Dudes on Mopeds -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

mcai420291While I was studying for my master’s degree in art history, a nearby library exhibited their collection of illuminated manuscripts. They invited a prominent scholar of medieval books to write the catalogue, and in this catalogue, he attributes two of the manuscripts to women, specifically nuns. He praises the first manuscript, a fifteenth-century Rule, or monastic handbook, from the convent of St. Catherine in Nuremberg. He waxes poetic on the convent’s renowned scriptorium and describes the Rule’s paintings as “splendid and spirited.” The other manuscript is a fifteenth-century breviary, or daily devotion, commissioned by a nun at the convent of St. Mary Magdalene in Hildesheim. For that manuscript, he writes:

“It would be grossly unfair to say that if a manuscript is crudely illuminated it must have been made by women, but it is true that late medieval books made or owned by nuns are often extraordinarily naïve and rough in style.”

When I read that sentence, I did a Scooby Doo-style double take in the middle of the library. Then I went to the front desk and submitted a manuscript requisition. A semester later, I presented a rather dry if tongue-in-cheek paper about scholarship on paintings made by medieval nuns. I got an A, but even reading between the lines of my eye-rolling civility, I never answered my question, the one that got under my skin that day in the library and never left.

How did a scholar look at one manuscript and say, “This is great because it was made by women” and then look at another manuscript and say, “This is terrible because it was made by women”?

url-2Let’s begin by acknowledging that there’s a long history of art historians saying an artwork is either great or it isn’t because its creator might have been female. In fact, the article I was introduced to in my undergraduate critical theory seminar as The Treatise on Feminist Thought vis-à-vis art history was Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In my case, my professor included this piece during the feminism week of our syllabus so he could troll us, as usual. The sum total of our discussion was him clearing his throat, reading out the title, and then saying, “There have been. Next!” I love that professor, and mostly I agree with him, but as with most things, it’s more complicated than that.

I’m not here to throw down with Linda Nochlin. That article’s over forty years old, and her main argument is a good one: that the conditions that lead to the creation of Art-with-a-capital-A are almost always the product of privilege. Her recognition of privilege does not seem to extend to art created outside Western Europe or earlier than that region’s Renaissance. Furthermore, she does not seem to find anything contradictory in claiming that women have been systematically precluded from art historical recognition while simultaneously naming off a string of highly-regarded female artists. Her stance seems to be that none of those women count because they’re not Michelangelo, and that anyone who studies them is doing “nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.”

I disagree, but that’s okay. I find myself more sympathetic of her foibles in 1971* when I remember that as late as 1985, Margaret Miles declared that no images of women from the Middle Ages were designed or created by women.

Well, that’s not true, and I’m afraid I’m going to explain why at the risk of reinforcing negative implications. Yes, most of the “great” artists of the medieval period in Western Europe were men—or at least, we assume they were men. In the nitty-gritty of manuscript and ephemera studies, we often don’t know the name of the painter, or the scribe, or even whether they were the same person or not. Sometimes they’re only identified by their style; so, you can have cases of “This manuscript by the Master of That Other Manuscript.” From my perspective, finding a manuscript that’s definitely illuminated or transcribed by a woman isn’t so much a case of saying, Oh, wow, a woman made this, as it is saying, Someone signed this! They have a name! In truth, I don’t much care about the gender of a manuscript illuminator or scribe. I care about other people caring and why.

So let’s break down what the author of this exhibition catalogue is really saying. I think we can all agree that it was “grossly unfair” for the scholar to follow that first clause with anything other than a full stop, much less that stomach-dropping “but.” Allow me to reassure you that he doesn’t actually mean that women can’t paint; it’s just nuns. The fact that nuns are women is a coincidence.

url-1Sarcasm aside, the scholar is referring to a type of medieval artwork called Nonnenarbeiten, or Nuns’ Works (so called by a German name because the Germans, my people, invented art history. Just roll with it.) There is a large body of frankly weird artwork made by medieval nuns, almost all personal devotional drawings or paintings of broken and bloody Jesus, flaming hearts, and the like. To modern eyes, they do look childlike. They’re often disturbing. Something you might have going for you that medieval scholars don’t is that right now you’re probably thinking, Doesn’t all medieval art look childlike and disturbing? Entire websites (and entire scholarly careers) are devoted to bizarre details from medieval manuscripts. It’s called marginalia, which basically means doodles, and it ranges from the bizarre (rocket cats?) to the offensive (for example, nuns picking penises off a penis tree.)

A chief trend in traditional art history is a compulsion to force medieval art to make sense (to us.) The theory is that medieval artists had a higher, loftier (read: religious) purpose behind the weird stuff they depicted, and they often did. Opinions are divided between people who like and don’t like medieval art. As someone who does like it, I honestly believe medieval artists didn’t depict humans the same size as castles or with eyes like giant squids because they didn’t know any better. I don’t think they didn’t care or that quality didn’t matter to them. I think—and several scholars more decorated than myself agree with me—that for medieval artists, their style, their preferences, and their objectives in creating art were simply different from ours. The trick of the art historian is to work backwards from final form and function to original intention in order to figure out what the artists’ objectives might have been.

This is where the rhetoric behind Nonnenarbeiten comes into play. While we don’t really know why some nuns made art like Nonnenarbeiten, there are a lot of theories, and theories are often a better glimpse of the art historian than the art itself. Jeffrey Hamburger is a professor at Harvard who writes beautifully about the conditions medieval nuns lived in, which is called enclosure, and how enclosure may have influenced their artwork. Theories on why Nonnenarbeiten look so strange, even against the background of generally strange medieval art, usually revolve around issues of access and agency acting on the nuns externally, such as their lack of formal artistic training or dialogue with the outside world. Not much consideration is given to what the nuns were thinking or how much of their isolation was self-imposed. For example, a convent in Wienhausen painted their own choir rather than allow men to enter their sanctuary. Hamburger argues that the Nonnenarbeiten style indicates a conscious choice on the part of the nuns to express their devotion in an unconventional yet deeply personal artistic vocabulary. Their art isn’t crude, it’s emotional; it’s not naïve, it’s intentional. It’s the solution to a problem: namely, what works for the individual nun-artist to prepare her for her desired cognitive state. The difference between Hamburger’s work and the catalogue author is that Hamburger writes about a specific community of nuns, the sisters of St. Walburg in Eichstätt, and not about nuns in general.

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].” (Me too, girl. Me too.)

mca1740011Bizarrely, the catalogue author sometimes does acknowledge nuns’ capacity for intentional stylistic choice. In his entry for the Nuremberg manuscript, he defines Nonnenarbeiten as a “conscious avoidance of visible skill, a deliberate preference for the humility and modesty of low-grade work and a rejection of sophisticated vanity.” How can the Nuremberg nuns choose to paint badly in the name of virtue if the Hildesheim nuns can’t? Either way, the catalogue author commits a logical fallacy by generalizing the work of all nuns as Nonnenarbeiten (the name, Nuns’ Works, is misleading in this way.) He defines the art by the vocation of the artist without regard for stylistic variation. This is both a misreading of Nonnenarbeiten and a misreading of nuns. Unfortunately for the catalogue author, his argument is about to take another blow. In my examination of the two manuscripts, their provenance, and their signatures, or colophons, I found no evidence that the second, “crudely illuminated” Hildesheim manuscript was made by nuns at all.

It was commissioned and owned by a nun, but it’s a middle-class breviary, adorned with standard decoration, punched gold leaf, and sophisticated rendering of perspective and the human form. It appears to be the product of a commercial workshop—not because its quality is too high for nuns to have made it, but rather because its style is comparable to contemporaneous, commercial breviaries made in that region. The fifteenth-century wasn’t the same world as the strictly monastic book-making period that produced the Book of Kells. With the greater availability of paper, the adoption of movable type, and the rapid upward mobility of the emergent middle class after a few massive plagues and wars, the book business was booming in Europe. Commercial scriptoria were often run by families, so it is possible that a secular woman could have worked on the Hildesheim manuscript.

The Nuremberg manuscript, on the other hand, was definitely made by nuns, and the differences between it and the Hildesheim manuscript are like night and day. Whereas the Hildesheim manuscript’s pages are all vellum and the same size, neatly bound and trimmed, the Nuremberg manuscript’s pages are a mix of vellum and paper the consistency of heavy-duty paper towels. The pages are ragged and different sizes; some vellum sheets were saved for full-size paintings, but other paintings are on paper. Strikethroughs and insertions abound in the Rule, but the breviary was carefully planned, painstakingly copied out, as if its scribe were a professional. The case for the Hildesheim manuscript being a commercial product is bolstered by the fact that when the manuscript was made, the convent to which the catalogue author attributes may not have had a scriptorium on site. In short, the two manuscripts’ illustrations, handwriting, materials, and content all have absolutely nothing stylistically in common.

Okay, you may be thinking, so one of the manuscripts wasn’t made by nuns after all, but it was actually pretty well-made, while the one definitely made by nuns did have a marked difference in quality. Why? A Rule is a guidebook to all the duties expected of each member of the monastic community. In other words, it was a public document, a company handbook meant to be used and shared by many people every day, whereas the Hildesheim breviary is a distinctly personal devotional object. If either of the manuscripts were an example of Nonnenarbeiten, it would be the breviary, but it displays none of the stylistic hallmarks of the genre. On the other hand, the Nuremberg Rule was illustrated by nuns in a kooky style, but they weren’t using that style for a private devotional purpose, unlike the nuns of St. Walburg in Eichstätt. The illustrations are of the nuns gardening, attending Mass, going about their daily chores. They illustrated themselves working. One could argue that neither manuscript fits the definition of Nonnenarbeiten. The only conclusion is that the nuns used their unique style for some other reason—perhaps because they liked it.

But despite all this evidence, the catalogue author seems to have left himself a loophole in the most grating part of that rotten sentence: “…that manuscripts made or owned by nuns are often extraordinarily naïve and rough in style.” Made or owned? It’s one thing to argue that nuns make bad art because they’re not trained artists; because they’re hyper-emotional; because they’re women. It’s another to imply that at the moment they take their vows, the moment these women simultaneously renounced and calcified their femininity, medieval nuns lost all aesthetic taste. Maybe he meant that, since nuns were supposed to be poor and humble, they sought out poor and humble artworks—not true, by the way, as evidenced by sweeping monastic reforms during this period. Nuns (and monks) were sanctioned throughout the fifteenth century for bending their vows of poverty by holding personal property, earning income, and holding wealth. It makes sense; nuns were far more likely to be literate and educated than the average medieval woman. And which fifteenth-century German convent held the largest library and the wealthiest, most educated, most artistically productive nuns? The Convent of St. Catherine in Nuremberg, the creators of the Dominican Rule.

This project’s question and its potential answers have haunted me for three years, but I didn’t really get upset until about a week before my paper was due. That’s when I discovered that the Hildesheim manuscript was not, by any accepted standard of evidence, made by a woman. The catalogue author attributed it to a female scribe or painter because of its colophon, or signature: “Laus tibi sit xpiste / quem labor explicit iste / Qui perfecit eum / possit adire deum,” which he translated as: “Praise be to you, Christ: may she who completed the work which ends here be able to come to God.” Feel free to discuss this in the comments, but my classicist Scooby Gang decided a better translation might be: “Praise be to you, Christ, upon whom this work has expounded. May he who finished it be able to go up to God,” considering the masculine connotation of both “eum” and “iste” in this context. This is the catalogue author’s one and only piece of presented evidenced which he claims indicates a female scribe and possible female illuminator.

So where does that leave us? The truth is that I have no idea how to answer my question—or rather, I’m afraid of the answer. The evidence I’ve gathered leaves me with only one conclusion. A well-regarded scholar saw a manuscript that for some reason he did not like, and, devoid of any historical evidence, he equated not liking that piece to its being made by a woman.

After I gave my presentation, one person in the audience came up to talk to me. He was an older man, a non-degree-seeking student from my medieval books class, and one of my few male classmates. He told me he enjoyed my paper, but that I had mixed up two religious orders.

“When you explained what a Rule was,” he told me, “you said, ‘monastic orders, such as Franciscans.’ But the Rule you talked about were Dominicans. You can tell by the color of their robes.”

I know that, I thought. I just told you. In my presentation.

Out loud, I said, “Yes, I know. When I said Franciscans, it was just an example of a monastic order.”

He smiled and said, “Yeah, but they weren’t Franciscans. You were wrong.”

Then he turned and, whistling, left the library, climbed onto his moped with the pro-life sticker, and puttered away.

*Linda Nochlin wrote a follow-up piece in 2001, “‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After” in Women Artists at the Millennium, which will lead you down a rabbit hole of amazing late-twentieth-century artists, so I recommend it. I also recommend the original “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” for mindful contemplation. It is widely available for free all over the internet.

Further Reading:

Jeffrey Hamburger. Nuns as Artists: the visual culture of a medieval convent. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Jeffrey Hamburger. The Visual and the Visionary: art and female spirituality in late medieval Germany. New York: Zone Books, 1998.

Carol M. Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher, Women Artists at the Millenium. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.

Cynthia J. Cyrus. The Scribes for Women’s Convents in Late Medieval Germany. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Michael Camille. Image on the Edge: the margins of medieval art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Lesley Smith and Jane Taylor. Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Whitney holds a master's degree in Northern Renaissance art history, but she will respond sincerely to any topic of conversation with, "I'm very interested in that."

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again