Christine Sciacca presents on the role of medieval women

How Illuminated Manuscripts can illuminate the importance of female arts patronage

Rachel Milio, Contributing Writer

Associate Curator at the Walters Art Museum, Christine Sciacca, spoke on the role of women in medieval societies during her Sept. 18 lecture entitled “Illuminating Women in the Middle Ages.” Sciacca, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University, discussed female patronage and medieval manuscripts in the Gallery Theatre of the Elaine Langone Center. She focused on the aspects of her work which connect to the current Samek Art Museum exhibit “Printed Pages: Illuminated Manuscripts from the 13th-18th Centuries,” which will be at Samek Art Museum until Sept. 30.

Sciacca has served as curator for illuminated manuscripts at both the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Her research has focused on the details of medieval manuscripts, from the use of needlework and embroidery in manuscript repairs to the role of women in the medieval art world. Emily Izer, the Samek Museum Public Programs and Outreach Manager, introduced Sciacca’s intent to “expand our worlds and show us how women have representation in medieval society.”

Sciacca believes that through studying manuscripts, we can gain “insights into the thoughts and desires of medieval women.”  

“In the modern era, we focus on artists, but patrons were prioritized in the Middle Ages,” Sciacca said, referencing the practice in medieval Europe in which wealthy members of society would commission art such as illuminated manuscripts for their own use.

Sciacca presented several of these manuscripts to the crowd of students, professors, and community members. She noted the meanings derived from the details of the works. “Manuscripts commissioned by women were often focused on their own salvation,” she said, explaining the occasional morbidity of the artwork presented in the manuscripts.

Of a piece entitled “Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death,” a particularly vivid work that shows a woman praying before a skeletal figure holding a multitude of scythes and surrounded by corpses, she said, “You can observe the preoccupation of women with redeeming their own souls.”

Through the study of manuscripts, Sciacca also presents more conclusions towards the lives of medieval women. “Manuscripts show that women were reading,” she states, elaborating, “It was often the mother who taught children to read.” She explains that through manuscripts, we know that wealthy medieval women were literate, “if only in the vernacular,” or language spoken by ordinary people at the time, while their husbands were more likely to read and commission works in Latin.

The history of women in the Middle Ages is often obscured. “I never really thought of women as patrons,” Molly Horning ’19 said after the lecture.

“You have to look at who is studying history traditionally,” Izer said in explanation to the erasure of women in history. “Usually white upper-class men shape the narrative.”

Sciacca concurs with this statement, telling her audience that, “we have to assume there are more women artists than we are aware of.”

“We need to look at manuscripts more often,” Sciacca said, passionately advocating for audience members and participants in the University community to visit the Walters Art Museum, home of the second largest medieval collection in the country.

“The medieval person is not that far removed from us now,” Izer said when asked about the relevance of medieval manuscripts to 21st century students. “Look at how we choose to depict ourselves on social media like Instagram, compared to how they would commission portraits and images of themselves in the manuscripts.”

“It’s a window into history,” Tara Malloy ’19 said. “It shows how we used to engage with religion and status in society.”

While Sciacca’s lecture is over, University students can still check out the Illuminated Manuscripts exhibit in the Samek Art Museum until Sept. 30.

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