Women Who Ruled - Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500-1650




Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500-1650 explores the ways powerful women were depicted in the visual arts of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. During the years 1500 to 1650, complex political circumstances resulted in unprecedented numbers of women ruling European states, a phenomenon that added fuel to the long-simmering controversy about the proper role of women in society. As artists responded to the heightened profile of women in public life, many of the paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and decorative art objects created at this time took powerful women as their theme. Some of this imagery reflects and promotes traditional roles and characterizations of women - wives, mothers, virgins, and widows - often interpreting them in novel ways. Other works of art, some commissioned by female rulers themselves, seek to justify a woman's movement outside of typical, accepted areas of perceived female authority, while yet another body of work responds to the opinion that having women in power was a dangerous trend.

Exploring these themes, one is bound to note parallels between this period of time and contemporary life: then as now, image was critical to a woman's ability to succeed "in a man's world." This exhibition documents the degree to which artists and public figures of the Renaissance and Baroque periods understood that visual culture not only reflected social attitudes and values but could be a potent force in shaping them as well. An awareness of the power of visual communication is not a modern phenomenon; the struggle to define one's own image - or be defined by others - was just as fierce 500 hundred years ago as it is today.

One of the major themes of Women Who Ruled is the way in which a woman's power was achieved and then conveyed to others over the course of her lifetime. With male leadership the norm, the anomaly of female rule often came about as a condition of the woman's relationship to a man in power, usually a husband, son, or father. How women exploited these links to secure and wield power, and went beyond them to fashion novel ways of projecting and communicating about their power, are subtle but consistent themes in many of the works in this exhibition.


Wives and Mothers

This period saw the development of the early modern nation-state through wars, imperialism, and international marriage alliances. In this context the state portrait became a key instrument to communicate important ideas about female rulers and the sources of their power. The first state portrait to depict a mother with her son was Agnolo Bronzino's portrait of 1545 showing Eleanora of Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I de' Medici of Florence. In its homage to the mother-child bond as well as to the female ruler's role in assuring the continuation of the dynasty, it became an important model for later portraits of female rulers. Justus Sustermans certainly had Bronzino's portrait in mind when he depicted Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of Cosimo II de' Medici, with her son, the future Ferdinand II (fig. 1).

Figure 1
Justus Sustermans
Flemish, 1597-1681
Maria Maddalena of Austria (Wife of Duke Cosimo II de' Medici) with her Son, the Future Ferdinand II, ca. 1623 oil on canvas
Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William L. Richards 1965.15

After the death of her husband, Maria Maddalena ruled as co-regent, along with her mother, Christine of Lorraine, until her son Ferdinand came of age. Although commissioned while Cosimo was alive, the portrait was not finished until after his death. It clearly conveys that her son, the future duke, is in her care, and carefully accentuates her dynastic role. Her son's body is engulfed by the voluminous folds of his mother's costume, suggesting her protection of his future right to rule on his own. Such images thus consciously spread the idea that a woman monarch would be a marker of stability for a family, a people, and a nation.


The Virgin Queen

Elizabeth I, Queen of England, owed her ascent to the throne to neither husband nor son but to supporters who pressed her claim as daughter of Henry VIII. Not only was she the most powerful woman of her day, but she broke new ground in image making, cultivating a system of self-portrayal that glorified her virginity as the source of her power. Elizabeth knew that any woman, even a queen, was subject to her husband's authority, and that this situation was incompatible with her vision of herself as ruler of England. While acknowledging that even virginity implies a definition of self that is driven by one's relationship to men, Elizabeth cultivated a system of symbols for use in portraits and decorative and commemorative pieces that positioned her as a woman apart from the traditional subservience of woman to man.

Elizabeth's portrayals evolved dramatically over the course of her rule, charting her growing ease with expressing power on her own terms. Visitors to the gallery will note an early depiction of the queen that is girlish, almost delicate, the figure nearly swallowed by the space around her. By contrast, on later official government documents, Elizabeth claims the traditional regalia for a male monarch: the scepter, the ermine robe, and the orb, symbol of world dominion (fig. 2).

Figure 2
After Nicholas Hilliard
English, ca. 1547-1619
Royal Grant with Miniature of Queen Elizabeth I (detail), 1571
tempera, gold leaf, and ink on vellum
The Burghley House Collection, Stamford, Lincolnshire

In state portraits she negotiated with court artists the modes of self-presentation that would bring to the fore her projection as the Virgin Queen. A painting by George Gower or an associate (fig. 3) displays the queen at the height of her power, shortly after her navy had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, an event that likely created a clamor for portraits of her.

Figure 3
George Gower (or associate?)
English, active 1540-1596
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1588
oil on canvas
Private collection courtesy of Peter Nahum At The Leicester Galleries, London, Photo: The Leicester Galleries

The portraitist has created a close-cropped view of the queen, centering tightly on the person of Elizabeth. She sits alone, bejeweled, decorated, her very head and torso signifying her kingdom's riches. This superfeminized depiction, which includes lace, brocade, and pearls, the traditional symbol of chastity, alludes to the potency of female glamour, particularly of the virgin who provokes and inspires, but withholds favor.


Seductresses and Other Dangerous Women

Western culture - perhaps human culture itself - has had an uneasy relationship with female power, particularly in the form of female beauty and sexual allure. At a period in history when several world powers boasted female heads of state, anxiety over the thorny issue of female power was expressed in a variety of prints and other artwork designed for popular audiences. The refinement of printmaking during the sixteenth century gave artists an inexpensive method of circulating visual material, not only in the service of the ruling elite, but catering to popular tastes and attitudes. A favorite secular theme was the disastrous consequences of a man of heroic virtue who is beguiled and bested by a woman.

In order to stress the universality of the threat, even men of great wisdom or strength, from both the biblical and classical traditions, were depicted succumbing to feminine wiles. The philosopher Aristotle, representing the paragon of human reason, was famously portrayed being ridden and whipped like a pony by his beautiful mistress, Phyllis, seduced into utter foolishness by feminine charms. This story could be taken as a warning to ordinary husbands as well. The Angry Wife (fig. 4), a print from the same period, from a series called Scenes of Daily Life, shows a woman beating her husband with a spindle as the "faithful" family dog looks on.

Figure 4
Israhel van Meckenem
Dutch, before 1450-1503
The Angry Wife, from the series Scenes of Daily Life, ca. 1495/1503
Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund

The husband's trousers, a conventional symbol of male authority, lie on the ground nearby. Though presented in a humorous vein, such popular themes reflected the deeply held cultural belief that women were meant to be controlled by men, but could use their charms to wreak havoc on the natural order of things: men on top, women at the bottom of the power hierarchy.

Popular tales of heroines who use their seductive powers for the good of the nation presented artists with an irresistible mix of beauty, virtue, and seduction. In Hans Sebald Beham's engraving of Judith (fig. 5), the heroine from the Old Testament Apocrypha who seduced and slayed the Assyrian general Holofernes, nearly all details of the biblical narrative have been eliminated.

Figure 5
Hans Sebald Beham
German, 1500-1550
After Barthel Beham, German, 1502-1540
Judith Seated in an Arch, 1547
University of Michigan Museum of Art, The W. Hawkins Ferry Fund, 1998

This sensual reinterpretation puts the focus on the naked Judith, who caresses the decapitated head of Holofernes, its beard brushing against her thigh. The upright sword in Judith's left hand alludes to her triumph over the oppressor of her people, but heroism plays a secondary role here to Judith's femininity and beauty. Representations such as this one, and others that more overtly satirized famous women, carried a powerful warning against the deceit of women and their sexual attractions.


Heroines and Warriors

While suites of misogynistic images of women were being circulated at this time, so were more positive depictions of powerful women. The phenomenon of women ruling inspired artists to depict strong women acting heroically, often in painting cycles or book illustrations known as "galleries of strong women." These sets of images celebrated the femme forte, or strong woman, who possessed both female virtues such as chastity but also the traditional masculine virtue of fortitudo, which encompassed liberality, magnanimity, and constancy. This laudatory propaganda about female power reached its peak during the reigns of Marie de' Medici and Anne of Austria in France, both of whom had themselves portrayed heroically by the great artists of their day.

Though many Renaissance and Baroque artists presented ambiguous messages about powerful women, there are instances in which heroic female virtue is the dominant message. Massimo Stanzione's painting Susanna and the Elders (fig. 6), the biblical heroine whose honor was unjustly maligned, is emblematic of such an approach. Here Susanna is a formidable, even monumental, figure, her partial nudity appearing more noble than sexual or provocative, in stately contrast to the scheming men in the background.

Figure 6
Massimo Stanzione
Italian, 1585-1656
Susanna and the Elders, 1631-1637
oil on canvas
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Museum purchase

The early modern period in Europe was marked by wars, and many noblewomen had to defend their lands, achieving success and renown in the traditionally masculine sphere of warfare. Famous female warriors from the past served as role models, perhaps inspiring contemporary women to courageous acts - for example, Joan of Arc, the peasant French woman who lifted the siege of Orleans; Zenobia, queen of ancient Palmyra; and Clorinda, the chaste warrioress from Torquato Tasso's epic Jerusalem Delivered. Female rulers had themselves represented as allegorical figures of war and peace, in the guise of the classical goddess of war, Bellona, or as the goddess of military triumph, Minerva Victrix. As well, the period saw a fascination with Amazons, the legendary ancient tribe of women renowned as warriors. It became a fashion among queens and noblewomen to have themselves portrayed as warriors or to decorate their castles with paintings of scenes of Amazonian battles.

Protected by her armor, the female warrior was considered to embody the essence of purity. Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus, from the middle of the sixteenth century (fig. 7), is an interesting commingling of female virtue, beauty, and strength, its subject referring to the chaste goddess Athena who successfully resisted the unwanted advances of a powerful male.

Figure 7
Paris Bordone
Italian, 1500-1571
Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus, ca. 1555-1560
oil on canvas
Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation



Today's political leaders, male and female, rely on expensive media consultants to project qualities such as nobility, courage, honesty, and even beauty. Divinity is a claim beyond their grasp, but in the 1500s and 1600s, the idea that kings and queens were quasi-divine figures still held currency. Allusions to the gods and goddesses of antiquity are a common feature of works of art from the period. The histories and attributes of Greek and Roman deities provided a symbolic visual shorthand that savvy rulers and court artists used to convey a range of majestic traits.

A pair of salt cellars in the exhibition bears exquisite miniatures of Marie de' Medici and Henri IV of France along with classically derived decorations that glorify their rule. The foot of the salt cellar bearing Marie's image is decorated with a chariot driven by Diana, a goddess associated with both chastity and childbirth - likely used in this case to honor Marie's role in producing royal offspring and heirs to the throne (fig. 8).

Figure 8
Attributed to Jean de Court
French, active 1572-1585
Portrait of Marie de' Medici and The Triumph of Diana, salt cellar (detail), early 17th century
Cliché Musées d'Angers

In other art forms, such as painting, sculpture, and medals, Marie had recourse to images of other female goddesses - including Juno, chief female goddess of the Olympian pantheon, and Minerva, goddess of learning and the arts and of just war - to express her power and authority in a variety of roles as a female ruler.

The fact that the likenesses of kings and queens appeared on tableware, medallions, and cameos, in addition to the more stately media of painting and sculpture, is a reminder to contemporary viewers that these rulers missed no opportunity to disseminate positive images of themselves. The works of art in this exhibition reveal that the intense concern with beauty, image, and visual self-representation that we see demonstrated today by politicians and other public figures has historical precedent. Similarly, the proliferation of works showing powerful women as heroines, warriors, and goddesses was a creative response on the part of artists to important contemporary trends. Like artists today who give expression to the pressing issues of their time, those featured in this exhibition were both shaping and reflecting society's interest in the rise of female heads of state and the debate over the appropriateness of female rule. In addition, they were finding new ways of engaging with and depicting an ancient and popular subject - the perennially fascinating, aesthetically rewarding female form.


If you would like to read more about the ways in which female power was visualized and constructed during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, look for the exhibition catalogue Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons in Renaissance and Baroque Art, available in the Museum Shop or through Rizzoli International/St. Martin's Press. Published by Merrell Publishers, London, it features 130 illustrations and in-depth discussions of the works of art included in this exhibition.



Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500-1650 is made possible by Ford Motor Company.



Additional support has been provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Friends of the Museum of Art, a generous anonymous donor, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Sheila and Steven K. Hamp, Mary Jane Helfrich, the State Street Area Association, and the following University of Michigan units: the Center for the Education of Women, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the Film and Video Studies Program, the History of Art Department, the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the Institute for the Humanities, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the International Institute, the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Program, the Office of the Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the School of Music, the Visual Culture Program at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the Women's Studies Program.