Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Historical Representations of Women, Now With Visual Aids

Recently, a relatively fruitless research trip took me around a couple of new-to-me museums. In the course of my perambulations, I came across several visually arresting pieces that have a bearing on the discussions we’ve had here on, about historically authentic sexism and cop-out arguments.

So this week, I thought I’d present some visual arguments for the historical validity of many ways of representing many different sorts of women, from Hellenistic Greece to seventeenth-century France.

The photo quality is decidedly amateur. And the naked female wrestlers may or may not be work safe.

First, let’s look at a marble from late 4th century BC Attica, in Greece. Here we have a female slave (definitely a servant, free or unfree) in a posture of mourning. This marble was one of a pair, part of an elaborate funerary monument—for an elite man, needless to say—but still, we have a depiction of a lower-class woman, however tailored to upper-class mores it may be.

(Inscriptional evidence attests that a number of sculptors in Classical and Hellenistic Greece were themselves unfree.)

Our second image comes from Egypt. A funerary portrait on wood, painted sometime during the 2nd century CE, it depicts a young woman of prosperous standing, as witness her gold jewellery and earrings.

Let’s skip past the medieval period (shockingly, I’m not really geeky for the Middle Ages: too much religious art) to the Renaissance in Northern Europe, with St. Wilgefortis, known in Germany as St. Kümmernis, a mythical saint from the Iberian peninsula who took a vow of virginity, prayed to be made repulsive to escape a dreaded marriage, and whose father crucified her as a result.

This image of the saint—whose cult was debunked in the late 16th century—comes from Osnabrueck around 1540. She looks suspiciously cheerful for a woman who’s nailed to a cross, but I suppose that’s religion for you. (Or maybe it’s just Gothic art.)

I don’t know much about Eleonora of Toledo, Duchess of Florence and Tuscany (1522-1562) but what I do know is fascinating. A noblewoman of Spain with Castilian royalty in her ancestry, she married into the de’Medici family when they were still new to their ducal honours, and had a high public profile in Florence, as well as serving as regent while her husband was away.

This portrait was painted sometime during the final two years of her life, when she was suffering severely. She doesn’t look terribly happy (and I suspect my terrible photography doesn’t improve the matter one whit), but she does look impressive. And also rather In Charge, to my eyes.

Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to a piece of art that took me rather aback when I walked past it. A bronze from 17th century France, it depicts two nude, grappling female wrestlers. The erotic undertones are fairly clear, I think, but so is the musculature and the plausibility of the wrestling pose.

We talk a lot, and write a lot, about the roles and representations of women. It is also written: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Here is a small amount of visual evidence for the diversity of representations of women in history: let’s do just as well, or better, in speculative fiction.

Find Liz Bourke on Twitter @hawkwing_lb.


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