Women of the Renaissance

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Women of the Renaissance

In the many wonderful artworks in the Sixteenth Century Gallery, you can find representations of a plethora of strong female figures from the Renaissance and beyond, both real and imagined.

For International Women’s Month, Our Head of Communications, Kathryn Havelock, explores some of her favourite figures among these amazing women, delving into their histories, and how they broke with conventional gender roles and defied the patriarchy of their times.

Renaissance altarpiece showing Saint Catherine standing on a plinth with a palm and broken wheel in front of a countryside
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1502, by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1502, by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano

Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Christian tradition was a princess (or at least lady of noble birth) and noted scholar who lived in the fourth century. Around the age of 14, she is said to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and she converted to Christianity.

When the persecution of Christians began under Emperor Maxentius, she denounced the Emperor for his cruelty. Rather than immediately order her execution, Maxentius sent 50 of his most gifted orators and philosophers to persuade her to renounce her faith. Moved by the power of the Holy Spirit, Catherine converted some of her opponents.

Unable to defeat her rhetoric or make her refute her beliefs, Maxentius ordered her imprisonment and torture. When she still refused to deny her faith, he tried to persuade her to abandon it by proposing marriage, but Catherine asserted that she was married to Jesus Christ. In around 305, Emperor Maxentius condemned her to death, and she was executed in Alexandria in Egypt.

Catherine is pictured here with the instruments of her martyrdom – the broken spiked wheel and the palm – and wearing the crown appropriate to her status. She was originally sentenced to be put to death on the wheel, but as it shattered at her touch, Maxentius had her beheaded. The palm is a symbol of all martyrs, reminiscent of Palm Sunday when Christ was martyred for all of Christianity.

Catherine was a common subject for Renaissance artists. She was hugely popular during the late medieval period as an intercessor - someone who prays on behalf of others. She is shown here with an Italian countryside background and walled hilltop town with towers in the far distance, and raised on a stone plinth identifying Cima da Conegliano as the artist responsible for the painting.

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Painting from 1670 of a woman in a silk dress sitting at a desk reading
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1670, by Onorio Marinari

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1670, by Onorio Marinari

This later depiction of Saint Catherine focused on her learning and wisdom rather than her martyrdom, and highlighting her role as a patron of learning and education. Here she is shown reading, in quiet contemplation, her crown to one side.

She is seated on an upholstered chair, with two classical columns behind her and a distant landscape with a setting sun to the far left of the painting. Her future torment is indicated solely by a fragment of the broken wheel, just visible in the shadows by her side.

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A woman walking alone in the countryside with a sword over her shoulder and holding a man's head
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1510, by Domenico Beccafummi

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1510, by Domenico Beccafummi

The Book of Judith appears in biblical Apocrypha, and tells the story of Judith, a Jewish widow. As a subject in art, Judith is most frequently shown in the act of beheading Holofernes, an Assyrian Commander sent to besiege the Jewish city of Bethulia, Judith’s home.

In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Judith is invited to a banquet in her honour at the army camp by Holofernes eunuch, Bagoas, who said “Let this pretty girl not hesitate to come to my lord to be honoured in his presence”.

Holofernes was so pleased that he drank a great deal of wine, and Judith seized her opportunity. She took the drunken Holofernes by the hair and cut off his head, passing it to her maid. Judith returned to Bethulia, and held his head high in front of the people of the town, saying ‘See here, the head of Holofernes... The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman... I swear that it was my face that seduced him to his destruction”. At the news of his death, the armies fled and Israel was saved from invaders by this “pretty girl”. The story has come to be known as an allegory of virtue overcoming vice.

Judith has been depicted by many Renaissance and Baroque artists, from Cranach to Caravaggio. Most often, she is shown in the act of beheading Holofernes in his tent, with her servant at her side.

In this version from Beccafummi however, we see Judith alone in the countryside, walking barefoot holding the head of Holofernes in her hand. She appears to have been transposed into a Tuscan countryside, with a town in the far distance, presumably symbolising her return to Bethulia, but architecturally similar to those in Beccafumi’s native Sienna.

Judith’s large figure dominates the composition, and Holofernes only appears as a decapitated head, dramatically reduced in scale. This suggests Judith’s dominance over her victim. She holds her sword, the weapon used to enact the murder over her shoulder, as her gaze falls to the ground seemingly defiant as she returns to her people to proclaim their survival.

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An image of an enamel plaque depicting Marguerite de France as Minerva
Plaque of Marguerite de France as Minerva, 1555, by Jean de Court

Plaque of Marguerite de France as Minerva, 1555, by Jean de Court

Margaret of France was the youngest daughter of King Francis I of France and Claude, Duchess of Brittany, and sister to King Henri II of France. She was born in 1523 into the House of Valois, who ruled France from 1328-1589.

Marguerite is shown here as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and warfare. Marguerite was known for her erudition and for her encouragement of contemporary French writers. The poet Pierre Ronsard first made the analogy between Marguerite and Minerva in 1549; it was until her marriage in 1559.

By Renaissance standards, she married late in life at the age of 36, and was described at the time as a "spinster lady of excellent breeding and lively intellect". Her marriage, arranged by her brother, King Henry II, was a diplomatic arrangement to secure peace between Spain and France as part of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. The treaty was designed to bring an end to the conflict between the Valois and the Hapsburgs, however the wedding ended in tragedy.

Only days after Marguerite’s marriage contract was signed, King Henri II was fatally wounded in a jousting tournament, with his opponent’s lance splintering into his brain. Despite his injuries the king ordered that his sister’s marriage proceed, and so in sombre fashion at midnight in a small church, with queen consort Catherine de’ Medici in attendance, Marguerite married Emmanuel-Philibert, Duke of Savoy. The king died the next day, on 10 July 1559, plunging France into one of the worst political crises of its history. The crown went to Henry’s teenage son, with power effectively falling to his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, who became the most dominant woman in French political life until her death in 1589.

This plaque was made in 1555, four years prior to her marriage. As a symbol of the universe, the armillary sphere, showing objects in the sky on a framework of rings around the Earth, may allude to her motto, ‘Rerum sapientia custos’ [Wisdom, guardian of the world]. She is also shown with books and an owl, often referred to as the ‘owl of Minerva’, making reference to her wisdom and knowledge, and wearing the breastplate of a warrior on top of draping classical robes, with her shield and lance as instruments of war.

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Renaissance portrait of a woman in a white and blue silk brocade dress, pearl necklace and pearl earrings
Eleonora di Toledo, c. 1562-1672, by the studio of Agnolo Bronzino

Eleonora di Toledo, c. 1562-1672, by the studio of Agnolo Bronzino

Eleonora di Toledo was a Spanish noblewoman and Duchess of Florence during the high Renaissance years of the mid-sixteenth century. She married Cosimo I de Medici (later proclaimed Grand Duke of Tuscany and cousin of Catherine de’ Medici of France) by proxy when she was 17, travelling from Naples to Florence for her ceremonial entry into the city on 29 June 1539.

Because of her great wealth and position, she represented an advantageous match for Cosimo who was still trying to solidify his position as Florence’s leader. Eleonora is remembered by history as a very capable woman, ruling as regent of Florence during Cosimo’s absences, and purchasing the Pitti Palace for her family as a summer retreat along with commissioning and supervising the creation of the famous Boboli Gardens.

On 3 April 1540, nine months and four days after her arrival in the city, she gave birth to her daughter Maria, the first of her 11 children (only 8 would survive into adulthood). This painting (one of several versions, which functioned similarly to state portraits) is from Bronzino’s studio after the grand Bronzino portrait which resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, showing Eleonora with her first son, Francesco (born 1541), by her side from 1545.

Eleonora died from tuberculosis at the age of 40 in 1562, making this a posthumous portrait. Death is symbolised by the empty vase behind the sitter. She wears a dress that speaks to the influence of Spanish style on fashion, with a higher neckline and constricted bodice, and the azure blue background recalls the coat of arms of the family of Toledo. Her hair net was another article of Spanish costume, and pearls were little used in earrings before Eleonora arrived in Florence.

Italy however, was the leading silk manufacturer of sixteenth-century Europe, and Florence in particular was a thriving centre of the cloth trade, so the fine brocaded Florentine satin used in the dress would have been understood as a reference to her new city. This garment must have been a particular favourite, as she is known to have been buried in it. Although exempt from the sumptuary laws imposed by her husband, her jewellery is limited to two strands of peals, the shorter one with a large diamond (itself a Medici family symbol) and pearl pendant, pearls as earrings and one ring. Her clothing therefore combined references to her individual heritage, pride in her adopted city, and emblems of her Italian family.

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To learn more about women in the Collection, take a look at our talks and courses for March, as we celebrate International Women's Month.

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