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date: 02 July 2020

Women in Religious Art

Summary and Keywords

Like religion, art has been a fundamental component of human experience since the beginning of time. Often working in partnership, occasionally at odds, art and religion form a combination that has been a source of inspiration, pedagogy, contemplation, and celebration of the relationship between the human and the divine. However, each individual religion and its culture have encountered the arts differently; these encounters are reflected in distinctive attitudes toward the human, sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class, as well as configuration of the holy.

The human figure has been a common denominator in the arts envisioning transformations in cultural and societal attitudes, economic and political perceptions, and religious doctrines. Traditional wisdom suggests that the majority of world cultures and religions are established upon a patriarchal structure so that representations of the male body project attitudes of power while the female body projects negative attributes. More recent scholarship by feminist art historians, critics, cultural historians, and religious historians provides new ways of looking at the female figure and the role of women in religious art including the history of women artists, patrons, collectors, and, most recently, as critics and curators.

Further surveying the iconography of specific women, whether deities, historical personages, or legendary beings, in the history of a religion affords the opportunity not simply to analyze variations in artistic styles but also to witness how religion shapes and informs cultural, societal, and even legal definitions of women. While the majority of scholarly investigations have focused on Western religions, the possibilities of both comparative analyses and innovative studies of non-Western iconographies of women in religious art can both inform and expand global recognition of the categories of gender, race, and ethnicity as well as research methodologies. The Western model of iconography may be found wanting and open to enrichment through engagement with new categories and models of analysis.

Keywords: patriarchy, socialization process, iconography, iconology, gender, culture, maternity, art, popular culture, feminism


From painting and sculpture, to dance and performance, to film and television, the arts are critical vehicles in the formation of identity and bring to light societal attitudes toward gender, power, and religion. Through the internalization of sensory analogy, images, especially religious images, induce authority and reality that affect both the individual and the communal sense of self, particularly in terms of religious values and the distinctions between male and female. The socialization process through which one becomes a member of a religion, a society, and a culture includes the construction of a male or female identity. The arts participate significantly in the socialization process even as the interrelationship among art, religion, and gender has become exceedingly complex in the contemporary world of globalization, technology, and religious pluralism.

Despite the fact that all world religions have either a positive or negative attitude toward images, it is the misogyny and patriarchy of many religious traditions that has resulted in either the suppression or destruction of images of women in religious art. Combined with the accidents of history such as political conflicts and military invasions, there have been both unintentional acts obliterating religious art such as natural disasters ranging from earthquakes to fires and intentional acts annihilating religious art including iconoclasm and religious wars. All these have led to the irretrievable deficit in both the awareness and the images of women in religious art. The attenuation of the religious iconography of women resulting from patriarchal biases has been especially prevalent within motifs of power and authority, as for example in the removal or damage to depictions of the first female pharaoh, Hatshepsut (1508–1458 bce). Additionally, the imaging of the “desert mothers” in Byzantine iconography and of identifiable female saints and heroes in the works of medieval and Renaissance Christian artists highlight the transformation of the female body into either an androgynous or male body as necessary for salvation, especially in Last Judgment scenes.

Art and Gender

The distinction between the categories of sex and gender highlights the meaning of both the human body and its role in religious art. Sex is clearly understood as related to the physicality of the human body that delineates a woman from a man based on biology. Gender, however, relates to those modes of behavior, cultural attitudes, manners, and performance and display into which one is socialized as male or female in specific historical times and cultures. So styles of dress, physical mannerisms including postures and gestures, and hairstyles are among the elements that differing cultural periods and different cultures can employ to identify individuals as being masculine or feminine without consideration of sexual preference or biology.

The visual journey of the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy and compassion as he travels from India to China into Japan effects his transition from a man into a woman. Originally a masculine figure, the elegant embodiment of Padmapani begins slowly to slip toward an s-shaped curved posture that 21st-century eyes could identify as feminine or effeminate. Traversing the Indian subcontinent into China, the incarnation of mercy and compassion became identified as Avalokiteshvara. In his Chinese Buddhist transformation, this bodhisattva was fashioned with an obviously androgynous body, garbed in a long flowing garment and posed in seated meditation. It is during his Chinese sojourn, however, that the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion becomes embodied as the female Kuan-yin (Guanyin). As the ideal of feminine beauty, she has morphed into a genteel young woman dressed in a long flowing garment and settled in a meditative stance. As Buddhism enters Japan, Kuan-yin (Guanyin) is translated into Kannon (Kwannon), the protectress of women and children. Now fully female in character, body, and postures, Kannon is a beautiful young woman whose graceful kimono flows with the wind.

Viewers were able to see those forms of female behavior and costume deemed culturally appropriate or inappropriate by means of the visible and tangible evidence in the iconography of women in religious art. Given the linguistic transformation of the word gender from a societal or cultural characterization of manners, postures, gestures, deportment, and costume to the more recent biological distinction between men and women, our categories of analysis have shifted so that we now describe the image as being “gendered” or “engendered” in terms of sexual identity and sexual preference. This recognition that gendering through images is formative as well as reflective not only of cultural and religious attitudes but also of sexuality makes it impossible to regard images as either neutral objects or benign expressions.

Traditionally, analysis and implementation of what the art historian David Freedberg has identified as “the power of images” has been justified in a predominately male-oriented perspective in analysis, creation, and reception.1 Similarly, those limited critical studies of female iconography in religious traditions predating the 1970s were typically resonant with description but deficient in critical scrutiny of the hypotheses fundamental to women’s roles and iconography in distinctive world cultures and religions. Late 20th-century and early 21st-century feminist scholars began to examine female iconography in religious art predominately from a Western perspective to gain an understanding of women’s positions within both the frames of a religious tradition and the wider culture.

Cross-Cultural and Comparative Studies

Traditionally, the religious arts are identified by the performance of certain functions: pedagogical, that is, teaching the faith; devotional, that is, encouraging spirituality and contemplation; and aesthetic, that is, beautifying the spiritual environment and heightening the sensory nature of a ritual, a ceremony, or an act of devotion. The art of various religious traditions can be classed as iconic, or representational in the depiction of sacred persons and ideas; aniconic, or symbolic, in representing sacred persons or ideas in nonrepresentational forms; and iconoclastic, that is, either in the total denial or destruction of images.

Any visual survey of the presentations of sacred female figures in the Eastern and Western religious arts displays the well-defined divergences between Eastern and Western attitudes and perceptions of the feminine and the female. Consider merely the visual dissimilarities between the typically asexual female saints and desert mothers of Christian art in relation to the sensuous goddesses and female figures in Hindu art. The vivid contrast in these embodiments of the almost absolute denial of the sensuality and sexuality of the female form and the fullness of its display highlights distinctions in culture attitudes, nutrition, and religious sensibilities between Western and Eastern presentations of women in religious art.

Throughout the history of world religions and of religious art, however, there are descriptions and representations of the divine in female form as often as those in male form. Within the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which have often been characterized as male-dominated religions, there are significant examples of female imagery that exist either by analogy such as the dove of the Holy Spirit or as the embodiments of holiness in presentations of the female saints despite women’s subordinate positions in the religious hierarchy and society.

Popular culture, which includes the popular practices of religion (and thereby of the religious arts), opens windows into the religious experiences of the so-called non-elite, or what I used to refer to as “the marginalized,” including educational and economic status, women, ethnicity, race, and sexual preferences. These more populist alternatives more often than not focus on a goddess or female hero whose narratives or actions are central to the daily realm of women’s experiences, from domestic activity to familial duties to health considerations in the transformative stages of life.

So that which might be identified in the 21st century as gendered images express much more than sexual identification or preference in religious art; instead, they are symbolic communications through gestures, postures, attributes, and signs that create a visual vocabulary relating the common experiences of being human, that is, of being male and female, in relation to religious values. In this way a comparative analysis of religious images such as sacred warriors from Isis to Athena to Judith or of holy messengers including Hebe and Iris effectively presents engendered interpretations of being male and female in a given religion and culture as such considerations refine personal, communal, and national perceptions about men and women and the relationship with what they hold or consider to be sacred.

This is particularly significant for the Western-trained scholar who needs to recognize that the traditional categories and frameworks for the study of Western religions and cultural identities are not necessarily universally valid or that conventional perceptions of both the terms and realities of gender and “the power of images” require reformulation. There may be considerable differences in the definitions and interpretations of these categories in both the East and the West, and within the East or the West. The diversity of non-Western religions in the modes and modalities in which women are depicted may signify the energies and the power of the female that have been otherwise “lost” to the patriarchal and monotheistic cultures of the West.

Further, until the more recent scholarship of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a historical survey of the literature presents a consistent concentration not only on Western art and artists but religious motifs and images such as the Christian female figures such as the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. Comparative studies are typically absent except for those considering the Virgin Mary in relation to a major female deity, usually from the Hindu or Buddhist traditions. In many ways, particularly methodologically and subject-wise, the referencing of women in religious art has been a protectorate within the Western and Christian spotlight, and in particular European art and artists, in distinction from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

However, this neither implies nor confirms that in these political or societal structures non-Western cultures are not patriarchal or hierarchical but rather that gender may be experienced, imaged, and known differently. The future explorations of those differences expand the boundaries for the interpretation of gender and power and for revised formulations in the iconology of women in religious art.

Women in Religious Art

Ideally, any examination of the iconography of women within the framework of religious art, whether comparative or cross-cultural, as well as within a single tradition, should expand the boundaries of women’s commensurate positions in the societal and the religious enterprises. When viewed comparatively, religious depictions of women proffer a visual prerogative for the flexibility of the female figure both as an individual and as a motif, and for the multivalent nature of religious art. So a comparison of three female figures, the Pharaonic Egyptian goddess Isis, the Christian Madonna, and the Buddhist Māyā Devi, most popularly depicted in sculptures as mothers happily exhibiting their sons, can illuminate this discussion.

Initially, viewers might see only three distinctive portrayals of maternity as the mother is displayed with her child, while some might picture conservatively the patriarchal tenor of a society in which “a woman’s place is in the home.” However, these three statues of sacred female figures actually cross many borders—time, space, and religion tradition—although they share the common human and universal experience of motherhood. Yet even in the 21st century, if not only in the earlier times in which these works were created, the issue of whether or not maternity—especially as the mother alone is depicted with her child—is always and only a situation of dependence and powerlessness, even for a goddess.

Isis, Māyā Devi, and Mary—each independently and all in union—represent “unnatural” forms of motherhood, from the ithyphallic conception of Horus to the astonishing dream origins and birthing of Siddhartha to the miraculous conception of Jesus. Thus, the normal cooperation of a male partner was extraneous to these conceptions and births. These three mothers proceed to act in extraordinary manners, as the “father figures” are unnecessary even for the nurturing of these three male children. Furthering the astounding activities and natures of these three women is the fact that they stand outside the norms of their times—each gives birth to only one child rather than the more common multiple pregnancies, miscarriages, and births. Thus these ostensibly “powerless” women are in fact images of female empowerment signifying simultaneously the creative energies of fertility, fecundity, and independence. Their individual postures and gestures testify to their singular authority, from the ceremonial regality of Isis to the sensuous physicality of Māyā Devi to the serene strength of Mary.

Along with flowers and other botanicals, animals, colors, and geometric forms, the human body from its postures and gestures to facial expressions has symbolic references. Therefore the bodily relationships between these three mothers and their three sons signify more than familial connections. Horus rests horizontally across Isis’s lap as the goddess offers her milk-filled breast to her son. As the goddess of wisdom as well as war, Isis affords her son more than sustenance similar to the divinity she imparts through her breast milk to any new Pharaoh who she suckles on the eve of his royal coronation. Siddhartha rests across his mother’s sensuous right hip following his astonishing birth, and in advance of her premature death he is seen “diving” into the arms of his surrogate mother, his mother’s elder sister Maha Pajapati. Mary stands elegantly balancing her son vertically on her hip as if to signify his divine and human origins. A careful “reading” of these images of women offers multiple considerations of maternity, of womanhood, and of woman’s societal roles.

Studies in the iconography of women in religious art provide more questions than answers, ranging from the commensurate iconography of men to a significant call for re-evaluation of cultural history and the cultures of world religions. The arts of world religions proffer elegant evidence of the meaning of the relationship between the sacred and the profane while also furthering a profound visual statement for the duality and parity of the sexes. However, the research concentration has been predominantly Western and Christian in focus, so that contemporary and future studies on the search for women in religious art should not only be investigations into the meaning and presentation of more non-Western materials, but, in particular, comparative if not multidisciplinary studies directed toward what has been euphemistically identified as the “the Third World” from Africa to the Americas and the Pacific beyond the traditional confines of Eastern religions. If considered with a lens open to their multiple meanings, then these artworks propose a new definition of society beyond the historical patriarchy that appears to be normative and prevalent throughout history.

Thus, the iconology of women in religious art incorporates a matrix of interrelated and oftentimes amorphous perceptions from the ambiguous relationship between figural images and religious attitudes to images and idols to the historical challenge of defining women in world cultures and religions. Neither benign expressions nor neutral objects, visual images provide optic recognition of religious and societal attitudes toward gender, power, and religion. Therefore, as critical vehicles throughout cultural and religious histories, images, especially figural imagery, prove critical for the socialization process in forming perceptions of and attitudes toward the paradigms of masculine and feminine, of male and female, and of traditional gender categories and newer categories including transgendered.

Further, the assimilation of indigenous religious traditions and figures into the society or religious tradition in which patriarchy is dominant can either diminish or eliminate completely the iconography of women in religious art, especially if these are portrayals of authority or power. Mainstream consideration of the visual and tacit evidence and documentation of the history of women, particularly in religious artwork, is a scholarly phenomenon that began formally with the feminist movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s.2 There is the further consideration of the erasing of both textual and visual narratives of women, either intentionally or unintentionally, but either way a diminishment of the evidence.

Identity—whether individual, communal, or national—is shaped through a socialization process that considers class, race, ethnicity, and gender as well as regional and global politics and economics. Tenets and perceptions are associated with religious art. The depiction and reception of women in religious art can be complicated within the stereotyping of female imagery in the more traditional categories of paintings and sculpture, and especially within that silent patriarchy so identified with the Western monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The figures within works of art communicate their “humanness” by means of the visual vocabulary of gestures, postures, facial expressions, and costumes, as well as the symbolism of attributes and emblems. As popular culture and popular religion illuminate the religiosity of “the marginalized,” including those women whose daily domestic duties as well as their ‘female activities’ of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing were illustrated in both the fine arts and popular arts and crafts.3

While the typical identifiers of theme or motif continue to function, the religious affiliation of artist, patron, and consumer complicates the reception of religious art even as the traditional functions of religious art are maintained from pedagogy and sacred narration to spiritual encouragement, ritual, or ceremonial use, devotional or contemplative meditation, spiritual inspiration, and aesthetic glorification of sacred space remains.

Given the innate distrust of imagery as idolatry and the tradition that figural representation is sensual and sinful, representational art occupies an ambiguous if not dubious place in many world religions and cultures. Nonetheless, in the 21st century, the visual arts continue to contribute and be fundamental to processes of culture and politics, and the progression in the perception of religious imagery from dangerous to trustworthy is exemplified in the popular culture figures found in film, television, and modern advertising. The popular affirmation of the authenticity of the visual is verified by the current use of computer art, digital images, photography, and social media as both forum and engagement of all segments of the population.

For example, the photographed, televised, and digitized images of women promoted on social media throughout the varied geographic locations of the Arab Spring provided forums for universal engagement internationally and for the public acceptance of the authenticity of the visual. While the role of women as both subject and artist in the instigation and perseverance of the Arab Spring is yet to be evaluated by scholars, the stage has been set for a recognition of the women as political and social advocates through cultural expressions.

Women’s Participation in Religious Art

Perhaps the most crucial but regularly overlooked element in the study of the iconography of women in religious art is the active participation or exclusion of women from the creation, patronage, or motifs of that art. Further, there is the recognition that neither the motif, artist, or patron ensures that a work of art is feminist, nor does a work focusing on the iconography of women require that it be feminist. While women’s lives, histories, and experiences have typically been considered suitable topics for works of art, both religious and secular, consideration of more active roles such as artists, patrons, or collectors have been challenged, if not ignored. While occasional scholars, mostly art historians, have recognized the commitment of women artists in almost every media, and especially in the West in terms of religious art from the late Middle Ages into the height of the Baroque, their pursuits did not receive ample scholarly (as in wider than art history) or public attention until the modern feminist movement (of the late 1960s/early 1970s). Therefore, today there is a recognition that the role(s) of women in religious art now crosses the boundaries of simply “woman as subject” to the previously lesser-known classifications of women as patrons, critics, curators, and consumers of religious art.

Although it may be more universal than initially considered, particularly with the onset of the early modern world in the West, whenever women were empowered politically, they recognized the significance of their public image as manifested in displays of artworks expressive of power and authority. They commissioned or patronized artworks that either presented themselves or their religious alter egos, namely, patron saints, goddesses, or others, for public displays including monuments and coinage. Therefore, by the same process of visual analogy employed by male rulers with significant religious figures, these women of power sought to establish or confirm their political prestige. The art that aligned secular women rulers with religious female figures such as the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (1508–1458 bce) with the goddess Hathor or the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780), who identified herself with the Jewish heroine Judith, became the public propaganda that established them in the minds of the public as dispensers of power and authority. Whereas during those eras identified by the Americanized category of spiritual domesticity, women’s art flourished through the lesser arts identified as crafts including embroidery, tapestry, and perhaps calligraphy.

However, there were also multiple examples of works of religious art created or commissioned by women that are distinguishable in theme and presentation from those authorized by men. In many instances, these commissions became visual propaganda or evidence for the advancement of women’s status in the secular sphere, as for example in the evolution of the iconography of the Virgin Annunciate as a reader in medieval art. Initially presented as an illumination within books of hours commissioned by literate medieval women for their daughters, the visual motif of the Virgin reading at the moment of the Annunciation has no scriptural or legendary foundation.4 However, as young Christian women were raised to “be like Mary in every way,” if the Archangel Gabriel finds her in the position of a reader when he comes to bring her the significant news of the Miraculous Conception, then how could a husband deny his wife or his daughter the right to read? After all, they were simply being like Mary in this action.

As globalization and religious pluralism have resulted in the cultural fusion of the East and West and its symbolism and the diminishment of class distinctions between the aristocracy and the larger population, women, especially women artists, have been granted greater freedom to create and to participate on every level of religious art. Nonetheless, the iconography and the role(s) of women in religious art are significant elements in the “missing history” of world cultures that demand investigation and analysis premised on the reinterpretations of the canon(s) of traditional (read patriarchal) history, cultural studies, and religion.

Woman as Subject

From the perspectives of religion and of culture, the traditional (read predominant) interpretation of the iconography of women in religious art is one of passiveness, with the singular exception of domestic, especially maternal, activity. Premised upon what might now be identified as a misleading pattern of stereotypes, this style of labeling is both inadequate and perhaps inappropriate, and is probably not a universal tenet but is clearly applicable to the representation of women in the religious art of the West. The “authenticity” of the iconography of women in religious art is shaped by cultural, societal, and theological presumptions. From goddesses and female heroes, to female prophets and lovers, to female demons and seductresses, to daughters, mothers, and wives, female imagery has visually encompassed all the established and fantasized roles—proper and improper—envisioned by men.

In Western art almost from the earliest works, the distinctions between male and female were determined more by the action of the visual narrative than by bodiliness. In fact, a visual survey of western Christian art from the early period into the early Renaissance would argue for a parity of the sexes in the portrayals of scriptural figures, so, for example, Judith cuts off the head of Holofernes just as David decapitates Goliath.5 However, the traditional attitude is that within the Western patriarchal religions and cultures, the iconography of women in religious art reversed the earlier narrative practices given women’s societal and theological subordination by men.

Universally in early world cultures, as in the early Mediterranean cultures, including Pharaonic Egypt, Carthage, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, female imagery originated in fertility figures. These images emphasized elements of the female body decidedly related to fertility and fecundity as well as to nurture and sustenance from the breasts and womb to the genitalia. Thus the sanctioned female phases such as virgin, bride, wife, mother, widow, and crone were visualized without individuality or identity. From these earliest representations of women in religious art, female figures were categorized by the stages of the life cycle (daughter, wife, crone); by female occupations (milkmaids, lace-makers, spinners, calligraphers, musicians, acrobats, dancers); by personifications of beauty (courtesans, princesses, celestial beings); and by visualizations of vice and virtue (sorceress, fairy, angel). These female figurations, whether as the narrative subject or a lesser character, were epitomized by activities through gestures, postures, facial expressions, and costumes.

Further, identifiable women from history, especially religious history, such as Fatima and scriptural figures such as Eve and legendary characters such as the Buddhist queen and exemplary nun Khema were portrayed in religious art. Their depictions were found on sarcophagi reliefs and carvings, decorative amulets and cave paintings, catacomb frescoes and wall murals, manuscript illuminations and individual sculptures, jewelry and domestic objects, and paintings. Representations of female figures, whether saintly or demonic, within the domestic environment emphasized political, societal, and theological associations from the fantasy of the femme fatale and the romanticized innocent captive to the visual game of “the virgin and the whore.”

Woman as Artist

The fundamental problems and challenges that all aspiring artists face—where to study and with whom, how to identify mentors and patrons, how to discern the politics of the art market, and how to promote their art and their public personae—are the same for men and women artists. Nonetheless, even into the 20th century, women artists were characterized as second-class citizens as the economic reality of being/becoming an artist and the patriarchal system of Western culture generated impediments. No matter the historical era or the personal situation of these women inside or outside the borders of a convent or family residence, their journeys to becoming a painter or a sculptor was difficult and perilous.

Historical documentation and personal narratives affirm that women artists in the West, from the early Middle Ages into the 19th century, needed to triumph over the animosities within the studio/atelier environments, the proscriptions decreed by the church, and the traditional patriarchal perspectives ingrained within the larger spectrum of society. Such domestic and communal attitudes resulting from familial relationships, patronage, and politics corroborated the adage that women were to be either wives and mothers or nuns. Independent lives and professional careers were restricted to men, especially to those who had familial lineage, and forbidden to women.

Further, while men artists received emotional and financial support from such normative structures as guilds for the promotion of their work or for indemnity during periods of financial difficulty, these were always denied to women artists. Not to mention that the moral and financial support of aristocratic or ecclesiastical patronage was not available to individual women, beyond religious women, until the Renaissance. Typically, then, the women who became artists were either the wives or the daughters of male artists. Trained by their husbands or fathers not simply for the sake of their own inherent talents, these women rarely if ever attached their own female names to their artworks and almost always served as apprentices in their husband’s or father’s studios/ateliers.

The initial exception to this “rule” in the West were those medieval religious women who were involved in the design and production of liturgical objects, vesture, and altar cloths, as well as the illumination of Bibles and liturgical books. The medievalist Jeffrey Hamburger has studied the role of the visual arts in the daily prayer lives and identity formation of the convent communities of women religious.6 While the majority of these women artists are known simply as “anonymous,” there is the singular exception of the German nun Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). Along with her spiritual writings and musical compositions, she created illustrations and illuminations for her spiritual, medical, and musical books, including the Liber scivias.

Primarily perceived stereotypically, the example of medieval and Renaissance Christian nuns and women religious who were also artists provides new directions for cultural attitudes and perceptions of women as artists, patrons, and motifs in religious art. Art historical and theological studies focusing on these women artists and their work advances both affirmative methodologies for women artists globally and an expansion of the borders in the iconography of religious art. Narrowing the focus not simply chronologically and geographically but theologically to Catholic women artists imparts a model for analyzing the religious works and iconographic innovations of women artists in Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, Jewish, and Islamic milieus.

Beginning in the late 20th century, a significant group of Italian nuns have been identified by name, along with biographical data and distinguishable artworks. This research has provided breakthroughs and, if continued, will provide further ones in the transformation from anonymous artist nun into a named woman artist whose works financially supported her religious order.7 Caterina Vigri (1413–1463) belonged to the Franciscan Convent of Corpus Domini in Bologna. Her small holy images and manuscript illuminations were for the spiritual edification of her order as they practiced the reform movement Observance, which promoted writing and illumination. These intimate devotional works were created specifically for the advancement of the prayer lives of her religious sisters, so Vigri was a leading model for the artist-nun until Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588) initiated a new paradigm.

First as a member and then prioress of the Dominican Convent of Santa Caterina da Siena in Florence, Nelli initially painted works such as her masterpiece Lamentation with Saints (c. 1550s) for her own convent.8 Eventually she organized a workshop for both her own art, and perhaps more importantly, for the training of her Dominican sisters as artists and for the promotion of their art. Never intending to create art strictly for the spiritual inspiration or edification of her own community, Nelli recognized this studio as a commercial enterprise that could contribute significant financial support both to her own Convent of Santa Caterina and to other Dominican convents in Tuscany.

Although she was the daughter of the Italian mannerist painter Gugliemo Caccia, Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676) joined the Ursuline Convent of Bianzé and eventually became the abbess of the Ursuline Convent of Moncalvo (1652). While her father funded the establishment of the new convent, it was Orsola who sought to foster her own art and painting as a vocation for her Ursuline sisters.9 Her depictions of established biblical and theological motifs were carefully detailed and provided new symbolic insights. For example, as with her Saint Luke the Evangelist in the Studio (c. 1625), Nelli incorporated intriguing new iconography such as her presentation of the physician-artist-evangelist, not only painting but sculpting the image of the Madonna and Child.

As opposed to the earlier tradition of “anonymous” lay women creators of works of art, especially paintings and sculptures, distinctive women artists from the Renaissance through the Baroque periods have been retrieved and/or rediscovered by both art historians and feminist scholars. Thus they are now not simply identifiable artists but the forerunners of the women’s art movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether by accident of history or geography, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625), Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), and Josefa de Ayala Figuera, called Josefa de Óbidos (1630–1684), were born into artistic or cultured families. The majority of the cities they called “home”—Rome, Bologna, and Florence—were cultural centers that nurtured aspiring writers, poets, composers, and artists.

Throughout their formative years, the theological ferment of the Reformation and Council of Trent resulted in uncompromising political and economic situations that might be identified as favoring the inspiration of these women artists in the Roman Catholic environments of Italy and Portugal. These women, especially Artemisia and Josefa, were astute enough to recognize the significant role of art in promoting a new visual vocabulary attuned to the new religious tenor. As individual artists, then, these women emphasized the moral and religious effectiveness of female saints and biblical women as well as female heroes from classical mythology and legend in their paintings. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, art historians and feminist scholars have retrieved the oeuvre and the lives of these women. In many situations, their works were then credited directly and separated from the earlier attributions to their fathers or husbands. Anguissola, Fontana, Gentileschi, Sirani, and Óbidos created sufficient legacies to ensure their inclusion in art history courses and to garner museum exhibitions.

Recognized as the first European woman artist to receive that most prestigious of commissions, an altarpiece, Lavinia Fontana was the daughter of the mannerist painter Prospero Fontana (1512–1597).10 The theological controversies that separated Roman Catholicism from Lutheranism and the Reformed traditions included major debates over the meaning and roles of the Virgin Mary. Fontana highlighted these Marian themes throughout her career, including her first documented public commission, Assumption of the Virgin with Saints Peter Chrysologus and Cassian (1584).

She garnered both the patronage and moral support of the Bolognese bishop Ugo Boncompagni, later Pope Gregory XIII (r. 1572–1585), and then from the Borghese family, in part through Pope Paul V (r. 1605–1621), as she strove to be the financial support of her family, including her eleven children. Cognizant of the importance of the teachings on religious art by Gabriele Paleotti (1522–1592) in his Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images (1582), Fontana incorporated these into her work with elegant simplicity, intelligibility, and realism. She presented Catholic spirituality and piety in her Holy Family with Sleeping Christ Child (1589) and Assumption of the Virgin (1590s), among other works. She earned the esteem of her male artist colleagues who elected her to the Accademia di San Luca of Rome.

Coming from a privileged background and neither daughter, sister, nor wife of a painter, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625) offered a different model for a woman artist.11 The majority of her oeuvre was commissioned portraits, but she created a small number of religious paintings for private devotion, including The Holy Family (1559), Pieta (1570), Virgin Suckling the Infant Christ (1588), and Holy Family with Saint Anne and Young Saint John (1592).

As the daughter of Luca Longhi (1507–1580) and sister of Francesco Longhi (1544–1618), both painters from Ravenna, Barbara Longhi (1552–c. 1638) has a limited recognized oeuvre of only fifteen paintings. Twelve of her works focus on the intimacy between the Madonna and Child, and emphasizing the Tridentine dictum that images promote piety and spirituality. However, she is best known for her painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1589). who was imaged as a feminine model of Christian virtue, elegance, and erudition. Triumphant from her encounter with pagan philosophers, Saint Catherine stands tall with the sign of her martyrdom, the spiked wheel, beneath her arm.

Fede Galizia (1578–1630) was the first Italian woman artist to be renowned for her still life paintings. Daughter of the miniaturist Nunzio Galizia, Fede received public commissions for altarpieces for Milanese churches and altarpieces. Her most significant commission was a Noli Me Tangere for the high altar of the Church of Maria Maddalena. Like her later counterparts Gentileschi and Sirani, Galizia painted several variations on the theme of the biblical female hero, even inserting her self-portrait as the protagonist’s face, as in her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596).

However, it was Artemisia Gentileschi who took the visualization of biblical female heroes to new heights.12 While the attribution of several paintings continues to be ambiguous between Artemisia and her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), she was perhaps the most commissioned and prominent woman artist of the Baroque Age. Artemisia was one of the first women artists to be reclaimed by feminist art historians.13 However, too often emphasis has been placed on her personal life, especially her tumultuous relationship with her tutor/lover, Agostino Tassi (d.1644), who she accused of rape.

Her paintings stand as an enduring documentation of iconographic innovations of biblical women. Her religious themes paintings were divided between small devotional picture and her masterful presentations of biblical female heroes such as Susanna and the Elders (1610) and The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1615–1617). Among feminist art historians she is renowned for her graphic presentations of the story of Judith, including Judith Beheading Holofernes (1608), Judith and Her Maidservant (1613–1614), Judith Beheading Holofernes (1619–1620), and Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1625).

The daughter of artist Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610–1670), Elisabetta Sirani was perhaps the most dazzling painter among these Italian Baroque women. Although her career was brief, Sirani’s presentations of female saints and heroes were popular among Counter-Reformation patrons, including her versions of The Penitent Magdalene (1660), Judith Beheading Holofernes (n.d.), and her devotional images of Mary. Her intimate devotional paintings as well as her large altarpieces were perceived as being of the highest standards of painting. Sirani’s serene and intimate paintings of the Holy Family and of the Virgin and Child were especially prized during her lifetime.

Educated by Augustinian nuns, the Portuguese artist Josefa de Óbidos, born Josefa de Ayala Figuera, was the daughter of the renowned painter Baltazar Gomes Figuera (1604–1674). Although she entered the novitiate at Coimbra, Josefa found convent life untenable, so she made the singular action of having herself declared as “emancipated” from her family in 1634 and was thereafter a “free and independent” woman able to work as an artist. She went on to become the most accomplished painter of 17th-century Portugal, despite the fact that this was a time dominated by male artists.14

Her many altarpieces for churches and convents and single paintings for private collections were commissioned by either religious orders or wealthy patrons. Her most famous works were the multipaneled altarpieces dedicated to the life of Saint Catherine (1681) for the Church of the Holy Mary in Óbidos and to the life of Teresa of Avila for the Carmelite Convent at Casais (1673). Influenced by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), Óbidos was regularly inspired by the reformed wings of the Jesuit and Carmelite Orders in Portugal. While some of her standardized images incorporated a religious sentimentality, numinous scenes of fear-provoking penance and mystical experience punctuated others.

Her Child Jesus Salvator Mundi (1680) and Saint John the Baptist (c. 1670–1675) feature depictions of hermaphrodite children with clearly delicate, feminized faces and soft bodies highlighted by chubby limbs. Distinct from the realistic presentations by earlier women artists, Óbidos’s work offers her viewers an encounter with a mysterious, if not mystical, experience of these singular Christian male figures liberated from gender identity. Her ambiguously otherworldly verging on melancholy Saint Teresa of Avila, Mystic Spouse of Christ (1672) can be compared to the euphoric mysticism of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652), and raises the question of distinctive approaches of men and women artists to the same topic.

Clearly the identities and works of more women artists remain to be discovered. New questions can now be asked—how they came to be and who they were, and what the messages within their canvases are—beyond the past practices of psychological analyses that highlighted either the traumas and travails of their personal lives, or the intensity of the gaze directed to or by these women artists. Further, to complete the lacunae in their biographies and artistic iconographies requires study of the religious influences, theological knowledge, and/or individual spirituality of these religious and secular women. Additionally, consideration of women’s roles as patrons and collectors, and ultimately museum directors and curators, will support fuller knowledge of the role women play and have played throughout the history of religious visual culture.

The “normative” distinctions between high culture and popular culture paralleled the debate about art versus craft, especially in relation to those works created by women painters and sculptors. Even in the early modern period in the West, artists were more often than not anonymous, regardless of their sex, class, or ethnicity. Future research might prove that more of these anonymous artists were women than might have been originally believed. Nevertheless, the artworks created by women were separated, if not segregated, from the high artworks made by men. So women’s art flourished amid domesticity and convent cloisters, from embroidery and tapestry, to single panel paintings and altarpieces, to “simple” songs and hymns.

Remarkable Western women, such as the French writer Christine de Pisan (1363–c. 1431) and the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, became the paradigms of women’s creativity and skill. However, it was not until the late 19th century that women’s artistic gifts were deemed acceptable and women admitted into the academies to be trained formally to become artists. Similarly, these women artists, whether single or married, and with or without children, have occupied a principal station as creators, patrons, and critics of the arts.

Thus, they have transformed the normative classification of women artists as either daughters or wives of successful men artists into a new paradigm of women artists who are the daughters or partners of successful “mother” artists. Given the establishment of a female voice, female visual vocabulary, and a female sensibility in the arts, women’s creativity has become a legitimate emphasis for historical studies. Among those feminist scholars dedicated to the study of female imagery, the documentation of images of women are in fact more than simply pieces of “missing history” and necessitate the reinterpretation of cultural history within the canons of traditional Western history.

Ever since the 1976 innovative exhibition Women Artists: 1550–1950, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and co-curated by leading female art historians, the scholarship on and public recognition of women artists has expanded geometrically.15 As “hidden” or “lost” historical documents are discovered, the visual evidence belies Urban VIII’s suggestion that women artists were mere copyists. Disciplined and talented artists who made art from the energies of the creative impulse, many of these women were the financial support of their families or religious communities as well as iconographic innovators. Redefining the boundaries and limitations placed upon their sex, these accomplished women composed innovative visual motifs for significant biblical and historical women from Judith to Teresa of Avila. As they triumphed beyond the conditions of their sex, these women artists, from Nelli to Óbidos, created a dazzling and lasting visual legacy.

A note of caution, however: the majority of those women artists known to us and who created religious art from the sixteenth century forward have been predominately Western and Roman Catholic in outlook and iconography. Protestant and Anglican artists, whether male or female, reflected the generic reformed perspective that the visual arts were inappropriate for religious environments. Affirming the Mosaic proscription found in the Second Commandment, the reformed communities denied the visual in favor of the literary, poetic, and musical arts. However, Lutheranism took a more moderate course, and those well-known artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) created works of art for ecclesial interiors as well as prints and engravings to illustrate religious texts from sermons to manuals of behavior.

Regrettably, while Cranach and Dürer produced insightful images of traditional Christian themes such as the Last Supper, their images of women were less than favorable, especially in terms of negative readings of female personae and their sexuality. In particular, Cranach facilitated the genre of the “power of women,” which fostered the iconography of those women whose female (read sexual) wiles brought about the downfall of men. These female motifs established a pattern for those manuals of behavior and illustrated guides to moral and immoral women prepared by 19th-century clergymen who advocated the stereotypic virgin-whore dichotomy.

Nonetheless, the domain of what might be called “Protestant art” included the presence of female subjects and patrons, with less emphasis on women artists. Hopefully, future scholarship will provide a forum for the otherwise “unknown” women artists of the reformed traditions who may have created biblical illustrations, prints and engravings, and individual paintings and sculptures for the domestic environment.

Feminism and Women in Religious Art

Feminist art does not solely accentuate a female visual vocabulary, symbolism, or imagery. Feminist art is not simply created by women artists. Further, it does not concentrate solely upon female images or situations, especially those in which women are in positions of power and authority. Rather, the varied forms of contemporary feminism that ground feminist art include advocacy of multiple sexual orientations and the parity of the sexes. In this way feminist art affirms the larger feminist critiques of the political, economic, and ideological power relationships within contemporary society, in particular with reference to the Third World order and religious institutions.

Women have influenced and shaped religious values in all world cultures, whether officially or privately. However, the more challenging question is the consideration of how religions have influenced, shaped, oppressed, and/or liberated women. Feminist art is subversive when it contests patriarchal power and authority while also critiquing the foundation and tenets upon which patriarchal cultures and their institutions are premised. Given that religion in all of its forms and modalities incorporates the arts as an integral element of socialization and affectivity, then religious art especially reveals cultural values with regard to gender, class, and ethnicity.

As a political attitude, feminism has influenced both the critiques and, in some cases, the breakdown of patriarchal cultures. The concerns of feminism for the cultural and moral integrity of all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender stand in opposition to the violence against and commodification of women. For example, recent events have expanded perceptions of women and their positions in Islamic society. Influenced as much by globalization, economics, and politics, women have extended the boundaries for the arts throughout the Middle East. Although many of the centers for arts education and training were established under colonialism, women interested in becoming artists, curators, critics, and even patrons have been critical to the progression of women from passive but highly charged sexual figures in the Orientalist art of 19th-century colonialists to practicing artists, curators, and critics. Additionally, women have supported the transformation of the discussion from stating there is no such thing as Islamic art to asking what Islamic art is. They have been instrumental in multiple new categories of conversations and the arts given the recognition that whenever women have been politically or economically vested, they have acknowledged their agency through a public image that signified power and authority, such as the commissioning of artworks.

Princess Wijdan Ali (b. 1939) of Jordan supported the establishment of the Royal Society of Fine Arts (1979), the National Gallery of Fine Arts (1980), and the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Jordan (2001). While her own artworks are exhibited internationally, she continues to curate exhibitions and author definitive exhibition catalogs. International exhibitions since late 1980s have furnished spotlights on the paintings, photography, and video installations of women artists from the Iranian Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) to the French Algerian Zineb Sedira (b. 1963). The diversity of generations, media, and religious perspectives of Islamic women artists was presented by Deborah Frissell in Fluidity, Layering, Veiling: Perspectives from South Asia and Middle Eastern Women Artists (2011), which simultaneously raised the issues of the roles of Islamic women in the modern world and the re-presentation of women in modern religious art.

Women in Religious Art: Coda and Future Directions

As the umbrella of women’s studies has evolved over the past three generations, one of the innovative tools in this emergent field has been the visual as a primary form of documentary evidence. Further, the inclusion of this nontraditional apparatus, especially transforming iconology and iconography into primary evidence, has filled in the informative foundation for the lacunae in the history of women in religion and cultural studies. The overarching significance of the inclusion of visual images is the historical fact that the majority of the population, at least in the West, was textually illiterate but visually literate. Acknowledging the affirmative position of art historical and material culture entities has legitimated the image as equitable to the evidence of written texts or archaeological artifacts. As fundamental resource materials, the modalities of art, iconography, and cultural history enhance and expand the methodologies currently engaged by scholars and students of women’s studies.

Incorporating these considerations into the interpretations and analyses informs questions such as: Given the political and economic disenfranchisement of women throughout history, where, why, and by whom did this iconography originate, transform, or disappear? Why was religious art with women’s imagery produced in the first place? Beyond the appropriate renderings of the bodily distinctions between men and women and between adult and child, how were women depicted? Were there specific ceremonial or ritual situations in which women were represented in religious art? Was there a particular or significant iconography for women’s images? Were women in religious art simply topical subjects? Were there women artists, patrons, or collectors for these works? Were there historical or even legendary women who served as sources of inspiration for religious art? Did images of women merely reflect the generic social order, or did they pronounce transformations in women’s public and/or religious roles, or in the cultural definitions of gender, sexuality, and the social order?

While the majority of female figures in religious art have no discernible iconological patterns or little explanation, all of these silent and anonymous women have individual identities. So research, interpretation, and analyses continue to be performed by current and future generations of scholars, not simply on the iconology of women in religious art but on the sizeable cultural, religious, and artistic matrix of religious art from Asia to Africa, Oceania, and Meso- and South America that lies outside the comfort zone(s) of Western scholarship.

As far as we know, only a minimal number of the surviving images of religious art were made by women artists. However, any of those works identified as “anonymous” await re-evaluation and potential labeling as the works of women artists. Since women were generally discriminated against for both educational opportunities and career options throughout Western history, they were denied the appropriate credit for their works, especially works of art, literature, and music. Despite the burgeoning interest in women’s history since the late 1970s, the corpus of extant works of art by women artists remains insignificant in comparisons to those by men, and the books remains equally minimal. Thus much remains to be studied, interpreted, and affirmed publicly.

While it is a preoccupation of Western-trained scholars that iconographic patterns are significant, artists and scholars in non-Western cultures do not typically identify either those same styles of motifs and patterns or even the iconological principles of motifs and patterning. Further, the imposition of order and clarity that is so important to a Western scholar may prove to be inappropriate categories for the iconographies of women in the religious art of sub-Saharan Africa or Oceania. So it may be the case that gender distinctions and the visualizations of women in non-Western religious art are more subtly rendered and defy the “traditional” classification of Western iconographic patterning. Therefore, future examinations of these otherwise understudied traditions of religious art with special attention to the motifs and patterns related to women will provide innovative methodologies for evaluating the visual image, gender, reception, and their places in cultural history. If nothing more, these future studies will confirm the revelatory and heuristic nature of religious art.

Review of the Literature

While the identification of works of art, especially of religious art, has always included the iconography of female figures such as Aphrodite, Athena, Kwan Yin (Guan Yin), and Maitreya, the methodological focus of those studies or exhibitions was either art historical or history of religion. With the advent of “the marginalized,” that is, from women’s issues to racial and ethnic concerns, into the forefront of academic and social concerns from the late 1960s into the 1970s, the perspectival lens transformed toward (a) more detailed studies of women and (b) more interdisciplinary methodologies, especially in terms of religious art.

The role(s) of women as subjects, artists, patrons, and collectors was perhaps formally heralded by the groundbreaking lectures and publications of several feminist art historians, including Anne Sutherland Harris (b. 1937) and Linda Nochlin (b. 1931). The latter’s critical essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”16 was identified immediately as a classic and one that began the watershed of exhibitions, publications, and courses attentive to both women artists and female motifs that followed.

The academic study of religion and art has a similar history in that it was always a discrete discipline within the larger frames of history of Christianity or art history, for example. However, as the academic landscape shifted with the recognition of the appropriate nature of interdisciplinary study, investigations into the iconology and iconography of women in religious art began to take on a new energy and direction. In many ways this new direction was shaped by exhibitions (and their catalogs) such as In Her Image: The Great Goddess in Indian Asia and the Madonna in Christian Culture,17 which was curated by scholars of art history, history of religions, and feminist studies.

Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century into the early decades of the 21st century, scholarly and public attention has extended to the discovery and/or retrieval of the history of women in art. This resulted in the inclusion of entries not simply of goddess categories in research volumes such as The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d ed. (2005), Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion (1999), or the 2011 supplement volumes of The New Catholic Encyclopedia but also of specific women artists, art movements, and theological/religious events.

Further, the new research publications responding to the growing interest in interdisciplinary scholarship, especially between religion and art was highlighted by the incorporation of significant portions to the categories of women in religious art such as the Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Art and the Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism. The research for and publication of the Encyclopedia of Women in Religious Art (1998) was intended to serve as both an introduction to the then-current state of investigations and a description of the work that needed to be done and clearly remains to be confronted with historical inaccuracies and confounded by lacunae from missing or destroyed works to the continuation of attribution to “anonymous.”18

Primary Sources

Primary sources for investigations of women in religious art should initially be the search for and careful viewing of images, whether painting, sculpture, textile, photograph, and the like, and then secondly written documents. To this end, then, here is a listing with links to the majority of works noted in this essay:

Seated Statue of Hatshephut.

The Bodhisattva Padmapani Lokeshvara.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in Water Moon Form.

Buddhist Deity Guanyin.

White-Robed Kannon.

Isis and Horus.

Maya Devi and Siddhartha.

Madonna and Child.

Book of Hours (Annunciation with Virgin Reading).

Detail of Judith and David from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Liber Scivias of Hildegard of Bingen.

Caterina Vigri, Breviary with Miniatures.

Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child.

Lavinia Fontana, Noli Me Tangere.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait with Madonna and Child.

Barbara Longhi, Madonna Adoring the Child.

Fede Galizia, Judith with the Head of Holofernes.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Elisabetta Sirani, Judith with the Head of Holofernes.

Josefa de Óbidos, Saint Teresa of Avila as a Mystic Spouse (detail).

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

One of the finest online resources for both information and images is the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, available on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website. Here individual researchers will find information via art historical categories, artists, or subject, all accompanied by authoritative short essays explaining pertinent ideas, events, or historical epochs. The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History is not limited to the West but is global in presentation.

Another excellent general source is the research tools (images, historical information, and bibliographic apparatus) provided by the Getty Center.

Most museums offer online searches of the collection through their websites, and these can be used for specific or general searches, such as the National Gallery, London, site, which allows for iconographic searches in its collection.

Also accessible online via institutional libraries is the Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, and the updated version of the Dictionary of Art edited by Jane Shoaf Turner. These are basic resources that can help the student to identify “women in religious art” either by a specific world religion, artistic media, artist, or time period.

Further Reading

Ali, Wijdan. Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World. Amman: Royal Society of Fine Arts, 2002. Exhibition catalog.Find this resource:

Ann, Martha, and Dorothy Myers Imel, Goddesses in World Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. Encyclopedia of Women in Religious Art. New York: Continuum, 1998.Find this resource:

Baltrusaitis, Jurgis. Les perspectives dépravées. Vol. 3, La quête d’Isis: Essai sur la légende d’un mythe. Paris: Flammarion, 2009.Find this resource:

Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. New York: Viking, 1991.Find this resource:

Batra, Eli. Women in Mexican Folk Art: Of Promises, Betrayals, Monsters, and Celebrities. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Bracken, Susan, Andrea M. Gáldy, and Adriana Turpin, eds. Women Patrons and Collectors. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2012.Find this resource:

Brodsky, Judith K., and Ferris Olin. The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art, 2012. Exhibition catalog.Find this resource:

Cahill, James, Sarah Handler, and Julia M. White. Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2013. Exhibition catalog.Find this resource:

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. 5th ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012.Find this resource:

Fortune, Jane. Invisible Women: Forgotten Women Artists of Florence. Florence: Florentine, 2009.Find this resource:

Hamburger, Jeffrey F. Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Kaltsas, Nikos E., H. A. Shapiro, Onassis Cultural Center, and Ethnikon Archaiologikon Mouseion. Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens. New York: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, 2008. Exhibition catalog.Find this resource:

Kroger, Joseph, and Patrizia Granziera. Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the Divine Feminine in Mexico. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.Find this resource:

Larson, Gerald J., Pratapaditya Pal, and Rebecca P. Gowen. In Her Image: The Great Goddess in Indian Asia and the Madonna in Christian Culture. Santa Barbara: USCB Art Museum, 1980. Exhibition catalog.Find this resource:

Li, Huishu. Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.Find this resource:

McIver, Katherine, ed. Wives, Widows, Mistresses, and Nuns in Early Modern Italy: Making the Invisible Visible through Art and Patronage. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.Find this resource:

Moon, Beverly, ed. Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism. 2 vols. Boston: Shambhala, 1991–1996.Find this resource:

Murphy, Joseph M., and Mei-Mei Sanford, eds. Òsun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Neils, Jenifer. Women in the Ancient World. London: British Museum, 2011.Find this resource:

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother. Bollingen Series 47. New York: Pantheon, 1955.Find this resource:

Nicholson, Elizabeth S. G., ed. Italian Women Artists: From Renaissance to Baroque. Milano: Skira, 2007. Exhibition catalog.Find this resource:

Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. See especially her groundbreaking essay “Why have There Been No Great Women Artists?” from 1971.Find this resource:

Sree Padma. Vicissitudes of the Goddess: Reconstructions of the Gramadevata in India’s Religious Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Parthasarathy, V. R., and Indu Pathasarathy. Devi: Goddesses in Indian Art and Literature. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2009.Find this resource:

Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. Visualizing Guadalupe: From Black Madonna to Queen of the Americas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Pollock, Griselda, and Victoria Turbey Sauron, eds. The Sacred and the Feminine: Imagination and Sexual Difference. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007.Find this resource:

Roberts, Helene R., ed. Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Art. 2 vols. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998.Find this resource:

Sonbol, Amira El-Azhary, ed. Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Tingali, Paola, and Mary Rodgers, eds. Women and the Visual Arts in Italy c. 1400–1650: Luxury and Leisure, Duty and Devotion; A Sourcebook. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press. 2012.Find this resource:

Turner, Jane Shoaf, ed. The Dictionary of Art. 34 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1996.Find this resource:

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Metaphors of the Indian Art, and Other Essays. New Delhi: DK Printworld, 2016.Find this resource:

Walker, Barbara G. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.Find this resource:

Walker, Barbara G. The Women’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.Find this resource:

White, Gavin. The Queen of Heaven: A New Interpretation of the Goddess in Ancient Near Eastern Art. London: Solaria, 2013.Find this resource:

Young, Serinity, ed. Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1999.Find this resource:

Young, Serinity. Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconography, and Ritual. New York: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

(2.) The 1970s and 1980s were a particularly rich time for investigations into the works, history, and biographies of women artists. For example, see any of the following: Elsa Honig Fine, Women and Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century (Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram Prior, 1978); Karen Petersen and J. J. Wilson, Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 1976); Wendy Slatkin, Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985); and Eleanor Tufts, Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists (New York: Paddington, 1974). Further, the Woman’s Art Journal was established in the late 1970s, with an initial publication in 1980.

(3.) See, for example, Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, “Discerning the Hand of Fatima: An Iconological Investigation of the Rome of Gender in Religious Art,” in Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies, ed. Amira el-Azhary Sonbol (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 347–361.

(4.) The classic study of this phenomenon is Susan Groag Bell, “Medieval Women Book Collectors: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture,” Signs: Journal of Women in Society and Culture 7.4 (1982): 742–768. A more recent work is Virginia Reinburg, “‘For the Use of Women’: Women and Books of Hours,” Early Modern Women 4 (2009): 235–240.

(5.) Kevin Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann, eds., The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines (Cambridge, U.K.: OpenBook, 2010).

(6.) For example, see Jeffrey F. Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (New York: Zone, 1998), and also Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Susan Marti, eds., Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

(7.) For an overall discussion of this phenomenon and the lives and works of several of these women artists, see Elizabeth S. G. Nicholson et al., eds., Italian Women Artists: From Renaissance to Baroque (Milan: Skira, 2007), which served as the catalog for the special exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2007.

(8.) Jonathan K. Nelson, ed., Plautilla Nelli, 1524–1588: The Painter-Prioress of Renaissance Florence, Villa Rossa Series 4 (Florence: Syracuse University in Florence, 2008).

(9.) Paola Caretta, Daniela Magnetti, and A. Barbato, eds., Orsola Maddalena Caccia (Savgliano: L’Artistica Editrice, 2012) served as the catalog for the special exhibition at the Castello di Maradolo, San Secondo di Pinerolo, 2012, and, more recently, Timothy Verdon, ed., Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea (London: Scala, 2014) served as the catalog for the special exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2014–2015.

(10.) Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

(11.) Ilya Sandra Perlingieri, Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), and Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Maria Kusche, Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman (Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1995), exhibition catalog.

(12.) Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

(13.) Beyond Garrard’s now classic study, see among other books and exhibition catalogs: Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann, ed., Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), exhibition catalog; Mieke Bal, ed., The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Roberto Contini and Francesco Solinas, ed., Artemisia Gentileschi (Milan: 24 ORE Cultura, 2011), exhibition catalog.

(14.) The Sacred and the Profane: Josefa de Óbidos of Portugal (Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1997), exhibition catalog.

(15.) Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, eds., Women Artists, 1550–1950 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976). This initial “push” to open the doors and windows to women artists was substantiated by the many survey books, including those noted in endnote 2 as well as by Nochlin’s classic essay listed in “Further Readings” and Germain Greer’s now classic The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979).

(16.) Linda Nochlin, “Why have there been no great women artists?” ARTNews 70.1 (1971): 22–39; 67–71.

(17.) Gerald J. Larson, Pratapaditya Pal, and Rebecca P. Gowen, eds., In Her Image: The Great Goddess in Indian Asia and the Madonna in Christian Culture (Santa Barbara: USCB Art Museum, 1980).

(18.) Helene R. Roberts, ed., Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Art, 2 vols. (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998); Beverly Moon, ed., Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism, 2 vols. (Boston: Shambhala, 1991–1996); Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Encyclopedia of Women in Religious Art (New York: Continuum, 1998).