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Art History Medieval Renaissance

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    Renaissance was marked by “a turn from medieval life and values dominated by the Church toward the philosophical principles of humanism (SparkNotes, 2006).” The philosophy of humanism emphasized the potential for individual achievement. During this period in the mid-fourteenth century, the cultural shift moved the middle class to take interest in achievement and life in this world (contrary to the religious advocacy of preparation for the next life). Humanism stirred among the people a passion to excel in the arts, literature, politics, and personal life as they showcased their talents to the world.

    Notably, Renaissance is considered to be the “first period in medieval history in which a number of secular female artists gained international reputations. The rise in women artists during this period may be attributed to the move toward humanism, one which helped raise the status of women (Wikipedia, 2007).” Women artists fortunate enough to receive a well-rounded education depicted themselves in self-portraits and were not merely famed as painters but also as musicians and scholars.

    The life and work of two successful women artists during the Renaissance era, Caterina van Hemessen and Sofonisba Anguissola, illustrates the few women able to distinguish themselves at par with men of their time.

    Caterina van Hemessen (1528-1587)

    Caterina van Hemessen was a Flemish painter from Antwerp, Flanders. Known for her portraits and religious paintings, Caterina’s famous works included Portrait of a Lady (1551) and Young Woman Playing the Virginals (1548). The painting ability of Caterina is likely to have been influenced by her father, Jan van Sanders Hermessen, who was a famous Mannerist painter. She was taught by her father and they were said to have works together. Caterina’s portraits were usually of affluent people of her time, and these paintings were usually set against a dark or neutral background (Wikipedia, 2007).

                One of Caterina’s important patrons was Queen Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Low Countries. They were very closely acquainted that Caterina, with her husband, went to Spain to live with her until the queen’s death. A sizeable fund was given to Caterina to show Queen Mary’s appreciation for the painter (Bois, 1998).

                Caterina’s works, depicted by realism, now hang at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery in London and Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel.

    Sofonisba Anguissola (1531-1626)

    Sofonisba Anguissola was born to an affluent family and as many highborn women were, she was trained in letters, music and the arts. She was the eldest of seven children, all of whom were encouraged by their father, Amilcare Anguissola, to pursue education in a time when women were denied these rights. Fortunately, their aristocratic family had influences and Sofonisba was able to learn painting from Bernardino Campi, making her one of the successful women who gained from humanist education.

    Sofonisba “had exceptional artistic talent praised even by Michelangelo, and with her father’s encouragement, she produced a large number of portraits. She painted many of herself and her five sisters, three of whom also became painters (Zwanger).” The works of Sofonisba are fine examples of Renaissance humanism. Her portraits exude the individuality of the subjects, a defining trait characterized by this era.

    Both Caterina and Sofonisba were women who went on to become recognized as successful artists of the Renaissance period. While artists like these two gained fame at this time, their profession as an artist was still rarely encouraged, allowing little capacity for female artists to flourish. Budding painters were still restrained by the requirements of artistic training ­such as drawing nude artworks ­and there was still the social unacceptability of such a career for women. This was because in generally women of the Renaissance, just like those of the Middle Ages, lived a life under subjugation. She was controlled by her parents throughout childhood, and then would marry a husband she had most likely not chosen herself. After which, she was then expected to fulfill the duties of housewife, bear and raise the children. Women who did not marry were not permitted to live independently. Instead, she had to live in the home of a male relative or in a convent to become a nun (SparkNotes, 2006).

    Unlike Caterina and Sofonisba who were encouraged by their families to participate in the arts and sciences, ordinary peasant women ran the home and worked in the field alongside their husbands. Wives of middle class shop owners and merchants helped run their husbands’ businesses. Even women of the highest class, though attended by servants, still engaged in the tasks of household like sewing, cooking and entertaining. In short, custom relegated women to domestic tasks and kept them at home. Women who chose not to marry and did not join a convent had to find work.

    Women in the lower classes had less freedom of movement and were always handicapped by the physical strains and dangers of constant childbearing, not to mention endless hard labor to provide for family. Only women of the highest class were given the chance to distinguish themselves, and this was something uncommon, seldom even. Notably, the few documented Renaissance artists were either nuns or children of noblemen, who were expected to have fairly accomplished literary, musical, and artistic skills. Many of these artists were also children of painters who were able to gain training in their fathers’ workshops.

    Both Caterina and Sofonisba attained educational levels quite unheard of for women during that time. One Paolo da Certaldo even said that “if the child be a girl she should be put to sew and not to read, for it is not good that a woman should know how to read, unless you wish her to become a nun.”

    In spite of a number of women who were able to overcome the barriers of power and influence during the Renaissance, most critiques would even point out that “successful women were still controlled and regulated, whether by social pressure, lack of independence or manipulation of image or meaning (Zwanger).” An interesting example would be many of Caterina’s portraits which depicted women in domestic settings. Also, based on the scant records of her work after her marriage to a musician, it seems that Caterina ended her career as an artist. It still goes back to the theme of women’s roles relegated to domestic and family obligations, even across social classes. But just the same, there is an indication in the comparison discussed in this essay that women with a higher social status gained an advantage over their counterparts who belonged to the lower classes.


    Bois, D. (1998). Distinguished women of past and present. Retrieved 28 May 2007, from

    Zwanger, M. Women and art in the renaissance. Retrieved 28 May 2007 from

    “Catarina van Hemessen.” (2007). Retrieved 27 May 2007 from Wikipedia

    “Italy in the mid-fourteenth century: The rise of humanism.” (2006). Retrieved 27 May 2007 from SparkNotes

    “Sofonisba Anguissola.” (2007). Retrieved 27 May 2007 from Wikipedia

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