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53. Kremlin, Moscow, 9-10-2015 (29-5-2020)

Kremlin, Moscow, 9-10-2015 (29-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

When five years ago, Sarah and I visited Moscow to present our paper on long-term gender relations and family systems, we visited the Kremlin, which was just around the corner of our hotel. I did not know that the best part of the old center of the city was a series of cathedrals from the 15th and 16th centuries, but I never object to visiting a beautiful church. They were all filled with the images that we know from icons – lots of St. Georges and other male saints. But one cathedral was really different. Female saints –  not just Mary but many other women – were painted as well, and the style was clearly different from the rather strict ‘iconic’ format that was usual elsewhere. Soon we discovered that Italian Renaissance painters had done the job there, hired by the Moscow court of Ivan the Terrible.

Were these different iconographic styles reflecting different gender relations in Russia and Italy, was a question we could  not entirely ignore. Renaissance Italy is full of pictures of women – the most famous paintings are without doubt the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vince and, as runner up, The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (although Google suggest the latter is only no. 5, but in their ranking ‘popular on the web’ numbers 6-8 are also pictures of women). Late Medieval Flemish paintings have almost as many formidable women – and, perhaps even more significant, often in more down to earth roles, such as in (Sarah’s favorite) the Arnolfini portrait by van Eyk, or, moving to Dutch paintings in the Golden Age, the many women painted by Vermeer (whose women easily outnumber his men), Rembrandt and many others. Often very mundane women, symbols perhaps, but down to earth symbols. If you start counting of the first 100 paintings in the relevant categories of Google pictures, it appears that women are present on about half to two-third of the Western European paintings from the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. In other parts of Europe men dominated much more: in Byzantine art, or Russian ancient art – again according to Google pictures – 15 to perhaps 25% of pictures included a woman – most often, of course, this was a Virgin with Child. Against the background of the Girlpower paper this may be significant, the general assumption being that the art a society produces reflects basic values of that society. Would it be possible to detect more systematic patterns and developments by counting women on paintings, perhaps classifying them according to different roles – a St Mary is probably different from a Venus and from a Girl with a Pearl?

The general idea that there might be some relationship between art and cultural values could be accepted, but quantifying this was ‘not done’ among art historian – Deborah, our in house art historian soon made clear to me. To begin with, there was the problem of making a sample of paintings that were representative of their region and period. Current popularity on Google, or the collection of paintings of famous musea, reflect our preferences, not necessarily those of the Renaissance or the Golden Age. Perhaps 98% of paintings of the Italian Renaissance are of terrible men, but they might be ignored by us because we like Mona Lisa and Venus. And simply classifying paintings ignores the fundamental symbolic character of those pictures – you should look beyond what you see to appreciate their real meaning.

It is a more general problem of the ‘economic history of artefacts’ that art historians generally don’t like us counting cathedrals, books, paintings, manuscripts and the lot. And the gap between what we would like to know, and what interests them, is big. So I gave up – Deborah simply had too many good arguments. Via the backdoor of comparing famous – representative? – cases we will speculate a bit in the airportbook about these links, as it such appealing material, but we will not count the share of Maria’s in Medieval paintings.

Continue reading: Thirty lost years? (2-6-2020)