Medieval female artists revealed by University of York researchers

Henrietta Strickland
January 12, 2019

MEDIEVAL women may have been the artists behind some of Europe's most richly-illustrated books, according to research by the University of York. Recently, researchers discovered the remains of lapis lazuli in the calcified dental plaque of a woman, buried in the cemetery of a small women's monastery in Dalheim, in western Germany, between 997 and 1162. Another possibility is that the woman prepared pigment from lapis lazuli, either for herself or another scribe, and inhaled it, though this is less likely because it's not clear that European artisans had mastered the technique necessary to create bright blue pigment from the rock; they may instead have imported the powder as a finished product.

Scientific detective work reveals that the blue colour - ultramarine, made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli - indicates she must have been involved in painting the holy books, and licked the end of her paintbrush when using the rare pigment. Because of the cost of carrying it to Europe, ultramarine was reserved for the most important and well-funded artistic projects. That means that only the most skilled, experienced painters would have access to it. Women's work on such documents has been largely invisible. She was 45-60 years old when she died around 1000-1200 AD.

"Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place", said Christina Warinner, a professor at the Max Planck Institute and senior author on the paper. This released fragments and mineral particles, which the researchers slipped under a microscope slide, let dry under controlled conditions, and inspected using light microscopy.

"It came as a complete surprise", study co-author Anita Radini, an archaeologist with the UK's University of York, said in a statement. She and her colleagues used spectroscopy to analyze the chemical composition of the mysterious blue flecks. It wasn't hard to find a match; most blue pigments used during the Middle Ages contain metal-usually cobalt, copper, or iron.

Today, we know the owner of these teeth only by a specimen number, B78.

But Anita Radini, an archaeologist at the University of York in Britain, saw something under the microscope she wasn't expecting: "It looked like nothing I had seen before-bright blue particles, nearly like robins' eggs". She added: "There is no lapis lazuli in the burial environment". It's rich in iron and magnesium, and it's possible to trace the ratio of those two elements to specific mining spots in northeast Afghanistan.

Flecks of blue pigment found in the teeth of a woman who lived up to a thousand years ago present a surprising picture of her life as a medieval nun in Europe. But women were not known to be the illustrators of such prized creations. And a single female scribe living in 12th-century Bavaria is thought to have produced more than 40 books alone. Fewer records-and fewer books-survive from those early days. And, like everyone in the Middle Ages, she didn't brush her teeth, preserving the gritty history of her work and life for scholars to find centuries later. Though many medieval scribes and painters didn't sign their work, it's always been assumed that women played a limited role in producing such highly valued documents.

"The case of Dalheim raises questions as to how many other early women's communities in Germany, including communities engaged in book production, have been similarly erased from history", the researchers write. "This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques".

Furthermore, the experts say that the blue pigment "was as, or more, valuable than the gold applied to manuscripts" during the time since it had to travel long before it reached Europe.

Listing image by Warinner et al.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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