Women commissioned art, too

On Dr. Louise Bourdua’s recent stop in Montreal, the city wasn’t cloaked in a veil of ice and darkness, illustrating a scene from the children’s story of the ice queen.
“The last time I spoke at Concordia was during the ice storm,” Bourdua, from the Department of Art History at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, told an audience compiled mostly of students and faculty last Thursday.
Also reminiscent of the dullness brought on by the ice storm, the Medieval Period or the “Dark Ages,” as labeled by the Humanists in the Renaissance, were originally thought to have been culturally dormant in terms of producing anything of value following the decay of classical civilization.
However, later historians proved this theory wrong.
Bourdua’s lecture entitled Matrons and Patrons: Women and Franciscan Art in Late Medieval Italy, revealed that men weren’t the only ones fronting the bills in terms of commissioning art.
In her lecture, Bourdua focused on selected religious pieces believed to be commissioned by women and their representation in the works. “I don’t think [women] are as absent as one may think. According to some statistics, women are prominent benefactors [in commissioning religious art]. The problem is that there is only a small surviving sample of objects. And out of this small surviving sample, very few are documented, so we don’t know who paid for them.”
There were three types of women during the Medieval period likely to commission pieces: nuns, widows and rulers. Bourda cited that, “From a sample of 83 records for the 13th and 14th centuries (Franciscan church of San Fermo Maggiore, Verona): 51.8% were women benefactors. Of these, 38.6% were widows, 9.6% were married women, 8.4% were defined as daughters, and 2.4% appeared in their own name and with no reference to relations.”
However, Bourdua noted their statements were not what would be considered as feminist today. “Women commissioned things in a very traditional way – for their families, or for the benefit of their souls. When they picture themselves, it is traditional – not feminist – as the men were putting themselves forward.”
Bourdua stressed in her lecture: “There is quite a lot of participation of women as patrons in the Fransican order, but I don’t think that there is a feminine voice there. I think they are expressing their [individual] identity, as other groups do,” she added.
This is the third time that Bourdua has been invited to speak at Concordia. She has come to Canada on a fellowship from the British Academy and the Association of Common Wealth, and is collaborating on a project with Dr. Anne Dunlop, of the Art History Department at Concordia.
Bourdua was born in Montreal and graduated with honors in Art History at McGill, did her Masters in Medieval Studies at the University of London, and her doctrine at Warwick in Coventry.
Medieval art captured Bourdua’s heart by accident. “I was really interested in baroque art and realized that much medieval art had been destroyed in order to replace them, as it often happens, by works of the baroque period.
She was fascinated by this information and wanted to illuminate this aspect of the “Dark Ages,” and discover its hidden layers. ” I fell in love with the unusualness of it all, it was very foreign to me, I had seen very little of it in Montreal or in Ottawa.” That’s because most of our churches, although beautiful in their own right, are Neo-Gothic or Romanesque style.
Bourdua said that Medieval art could tell you what people felt and how it was expressed. It was religious art. “We must remember that we cannot generalize, we cannot come up with big patterns that this is what happens in the Franciscan church. Every commission has to be looked at separately.”
Those interested in Fransciscan art can have a small taste of it at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ European Masters collection, which offers a rich collection of paintings, sculptures and objects in part from the Middle Ages, like 14th-century religious scenes.

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