Divine Icons and Mortal Beings:
Portrayals of Women in the Middle Ages

This collection brings together three late medieval portrayals of women. An examination of the materiality and iconography of these depictions shows how they communicate deeper ideas about female gender roles during this age. Two of the pieces are religious images - the Painted Enamel Plaque with Virgin and Child, and a Parrot and the Miniature Altar of St. Catherine - while the third - the Plaque with the Personification of Touch - shows a secular figure with religious connotations. These three pieces show how the ideal woman was docile, pious, and pure, while warning against the dangers of temptation and sin. 

The Plaque with the Personification of Touch and the Painted Enamel Plaque with Virgin and Child, and a Parrot, were both created using the painted enameling technique in Limoges, France – a very popular technique across medieval Europe in the fifteenth century, founded and perfected in the workshops of Limoges. This practice involved applying groundcolored glass to a surface of metal and then fusing the glass with the underlying metal through intense heat. Once cooled, the glass resolidified into a smooth, jewel-like surface. Enamelwork produced areas of intense color separated by dark borders, resulting in a compartmentalized finished product. This technique’s textural and visual contrast emphasized the differences between worldly matter and the divine spirit, thus directing the viewer’s thoughts towards the heavens.

The Miniature Altar of St. Catherine is constructed from boxwood, an extremely fine-grained wood. Native to Europe, boxwood was popular for carving because of its small grain, which made it possible to create very detailed pieces, along with its resistance to splitting. Due to the size of the tree, boxwood pieces are often small but detailed, and they showcase the versatility of the maker. Boxwood has a light color and almost resembles ivory when first carved, though it turns darker as it weathers, as seen in the Miniature Altar.

Fleming Landau, Class of 2022, Brandon Schuster, Class of 2023, and Gavin Shilling, Class of 2021