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medieval nun painting
While I was studying for my master’s degree in art history, a nearby library exhibited their collection of illuminated manuscripts. They invited a prominent scholar of medieval books to write the catalogue, and in this catalogue, he attributes two of the manuscripts to women, specifically nuns. He praises the first manuscript, a fifteenth-century Rule, or monastic handbook, from the convent of St. Catherine in Nuremberg. He waxes poetic on the convent’s renowned scriptorium and describes the Rule’s paintings as “splendid and spirited.” The other manuscript is a fifteenth-century breviary, or daily devotion, commissioned by a nun at the convent of St. Mary Magdalene in Hildesheim. For that manuscript, he writes:

“It would be grossly unfair to say that if a manuscript is crudely illuminated it must have been made by women, but it is true that late medieval books made or owned by nuns are often extraordinarily naïve and rough in style.”

When I read that sentence, I did a Scooby Doo-style double take in the middle of the library. Then I went to the front desk and submitted a manuscript requisition. A semester later, I presented a rather dry if tongue-in-cheek paper about scholarship on paintings made by medieval nuns. I got an A, but even reading between the lines of my eye-rolling civility, I never answered my question, the one that got under my skin that day in the library and never left.

How did a scholar look at one manuscript and say, “This is great because it was made by women” and then look at another manuscript and say, “This is terrible because it was made by women”?

"Nuns Can't Paint": Sexism, Medieval Art, and Dudes on Mopeds

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