The Birth of the Saints in the Fifteenth Century

How did women in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries construe representations of the ‘miraculous’ births of the saints, images which were omnipresent at this time? That is the central theme, approached by an analysis of the houses of Anjou, Brittany and France, of the latest work by Elizabeth L’Estrange, an FRS-FNRS researcher in the department of Historical Sciences at the University of Liège. The work is an attempt to discern a middle way between a feminist vision of history and a reading which is more romantic.

COVER L'EstrangeAt the origin of this imposing work (1), which teems with historical references and is the fruit of eight years of research, is a doctoral thesis carried out in the History of Art Department at the University of Leeds, in England. In carrying out research for her thesis, Elizabeth L’Estrange was in effect led to consult a large number of representations of the birth the saints, above all the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The young researcher was immediately struck not only by the quasi exclusive presence of women in this Quattrocento iconography but also by its generic nature as the theme of the divine and ‘miraculous’ birth of saints was found everywhere: in manuscripts or the famous books of hours, very common in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in the churches, in various tableaux, etc. And she asked herself: what is to be said about these women? How is their omnipresence in the tableaux and manuscripts to be interpreted? A first glance – notably at a majority of the manuscripts, sculptures and other miniatures depicting the birth of saints or heroic figures (Jesus, Saint John, the Virgin Mary, Constantine, etc.), typical at this end of the Middle Ages – brought into view a closed space, that of the birthing room, ‘a bastion of solidarity, communion and feminine omnipotence’ (2), from which men were systematically excluded or marginalised. That is effectively what leaps to the eye, particularly in the miniatures preserved in the library at the John Ryland university, such as The Birth of John the Baptist or The Birth of the Virgin. It is also this that said to historian Myriam Greilsammer that ‘the birth room was one of the rare spaces in which women could escape marital authority and express their specific femininity’ (3). As a historian Elizabeth L’Estrange wanted to go beyond this reading and offer a more nuanced interpretation of this iconography; she also looked to situate it in the context of devotion to Saint Anne (Holy Kinship) and the idea of beata stirps (blessed lineage) through an analysis of the houses of Anjou, Brittany and France.

To put it differently, what counts is discovering what representations women at the time themselves made of these divine or quasi divine motherhoods, and what meaning we can give them today. ‘Above all I was looking to understand,’ explains Elizabeth L’Estrange, ‘in what ways women looked at these representations and if they thought, on looking at them, that it would be in this way - ideal - that they would themselves give birth, or if instead this iconography constituted an aid which allowed men to explain to women that they should be inspired by them, a little as if they were guides whose advice they should follow.’

(1) Holy Motherhood, Gender, dynasty and visual culture in the later middle ages, Manchester University Press, 2008.
(2) Myriam Greilsammer, ‘The Midwife, the Priest, and the Physician : The Subjugation of Midwives in the Low Countries at the end of the Middle Ages’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 21 (1991).
(3) Op.cit.

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