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Virgins and nuns

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.

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