2021 Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, Virtual
IAS-Sponsored Session

Women and Gender in Italian Trecento Art and Architecture II

RSA virtual meeting room 27; Tuesday, April 20, 2021; 12:00–1:30PM EDT

Organizer and Chair: Judith Steinhoff, University of Houston

These sessions examine both the patronage and the representation of women in 13th- and 14th-century Italian art, topics that remain under-explored despite the large body of scholarship on women and gender in other cultures and periods. Papers go beyond the stereotypical gender identities and roles promoted by the Church and theological writings, to seek a complex understanding of the models for and the lives of Trecento women.

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Judith Steinhoff, University of Houston
“Up Close and Personal: Gendering Small Devotional Ensembles”

Small ensembles for private devotion became increasingly popular in 14th-century Italy among a wide range of social classes. Although much about individual objects remain unknown, their numbers and size indicate many were used in lay homes, while others served clerics and other religious. Even ensembles with standardized subject matter, experienced through daily, physically close, personal contact, were intended to engage owners’ emotions and thus enhance their devotions. Analyzing the specific contents, compositions, and the representation of the Virgin Mary in selected works, this paper argues that the education of lay owners’ feelings reached beyond spiritual matters to condition emotions and emotional behaviors in the secular realm. Comparing the imagery with messages conveyed through other widely known cultural instruments (eg. sermons, religious plays) it will argue that these intimate images played an important role in the gendering of emotional behaviors and expectations for women in accordance with social ideas.

Sarah Wilkins, Pratt Institute
"Late Medieval Vita Panels and Mary Magdalen as a Gendered Model of Penitence”

The vita panel—featuring a central iconic saint flanked by scenes from their life—appeared in Italy in 1235 to depict St. Francis, a new saint whom this combination of iconic and narrative imagery acted to authenticate. By 1280, the format was adapted to depict a very different kind of saint, Mary Magdalen. A well-established biblical woman famous for her dissolute life and sincere penance, the first female saint on a vita dossal appears the antithesis of the newly sainted alter Christus Francis.

I examine why Mary Magdalen was depicted using this format in the famous panel at the Accademia. I argue that this combination of narrative scenes with an iconic image presents the Magdalen as the exemplar of penitence, a virtue especially for women, seen as sinful by their nature, and explore the ways in which gender played a role in the Magdalen’s representation and reception as perfect penitent.


Erik Gustafson, George Mason University
“In the Footsteps of Women: Gender Segregation or Inclusion in Mendicant Churches”

This paper will revisit the question of lay female access through the tramezzo screens in mendicant churches. Building from the recent work of Cooper and Heller, I will argue that lay women’s access through dividing screens depending on the kind of friars resident in the church. Rather than representing an intractable barrier to the laity, I suggest the tramezzi connoted a spiritual transition between the nave area and the choir zone beyond. What such a transition might signify for women encountering both the church and the art within depended on the identity of the order. I will argue that as some orders explicitly denied access while others tacitly allowed passage, women’s experience of moving through screens was indelibly colored by the ethos of the order. Such experience, framed by the spatial and spiritual habits of each order, prepared how women might have intellectually approached the art within a church.

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