|I nipped into the Ashmolean museum at lunchtime. It’s only 250 metres away from where I work. After saying ‘hi’ to the only van Gogh in Oxford, ‘Restaurant de la Sirene’, (it’s so nice of the Ashmolean to look after it for me) I went to see the Pilgrimages exhibition and the Tom Phillips show. I glanced at them but then got wildly distracted.|
|I thought that today, on International Women’s Day, I should look at some paintings of women. I was in the Renaissance gallery which is full of pictures of christians in various states of bleeding and torture, grief and tempest, death and war, being weird and wacky.
Here’s a really great crucifixion by Barna di Siena – get a load of that gushing blood and Jesus’ ginger locks! Fab stuff.
I knew I’d see Mary, the mother and virgin combination impossible for ordinary women to copy, but as I wandered around I hoped I might spot a shepherdess, a prostitute or a cook, but alas, a rounded cross-section of 14th and 15th century womankind was not on display.
|And yes, there were lots of pics of the Madonna and baby Jesus, of course. But I also noticed Biagio di Antonia Tucci’s ‘Flight of the Vestal Virgins’ (c1470) depicting the Gauls sacking Rome with a whole bunch of virgins escaping to safety. Here they are looking young, sweet and helpless in their pastel-coloured flowing robes, bare feet and lacy bonnets.|
I looked harder and found a couple of ordinary women too. They were carrying children and rode mules…
… but the men ride prancing white stallions.
|Venetian Vittorio Crivelli painted this picture in 1491 of Saint Catherine, an enormously popular fourth century ‘Bride of Christ’ who refused to give up her faith, was tortured on a wheel and beheaded. Nasty! No wonder she looks so miserable. Great painting though – it actually appears to shimmer.|
Here’s the weirdest one:
It’s Bicca di Lorenzo’s 1433 panel for an altarpiece showing St Nicholas of Bari calming a storm, thereby saving some sailors from certain shipwreck. But look in the bottom left hand corner – a naked golden-haired woman lying in the water. What on earth is she doing there!? Having a swim? Washing her hair? Or have the sailors just thrown her overboard? Any ideas, anyone?
So from my brief, unscientific analysis, I conclude that in the 15th century women were depicted as virgins, saints, mothers or just plain naked. Six hundred years later I’m left wondering what has changed.