The Secret Life of Medieval Female Artists Discovered by Accident

The examination of teeth plaque shows evidence of religious women painting with rare and expensive paints.
Jessica Miley

Richly illustrated texts were commonly commissioned by religious orders and the nobility during the European Middle Ages. These beautiful manuscripts were often embellished with gold leaf and a rare and expensive blue pigment made from lapis lazuli stone. 

The Secret Life of Medieval Female Artists Discovered by Accident
Source: Wikimedia Commons

New research led by a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York has revealed that women may have played a large role in the creation of these illustrated books. 

Analysis of calcified dental plaque in a middle-aged woman buried at a small women's monastery in Germany around 1100 AD. has revealed evidence of lapis lazuli pigment. 

Religious woman likely to have been a highly skilled painter

This may indicate the woman was a painter of these highly sought after manuscripts. The study was examining dental calculus - the plaque that fossilizes on human teeth during life - of bodies found close to the site of a women's monastery at Dalheim in Germany. 

Little is known about the monastery, but a women's exclusive community may have formed there as early as the 10th century AD. 

Written records indicate that a lively community present in 1244 AD. Researchers believe up to 14 religious women may have lived on site until its destruction in a fire in the 14th century. 

The discovery of the blue pigment embedded in the dental calculus of one particular woman came as a complete surprise to the researchers. They estimate she was between 45-60 years old when she died around 1000-1200 AD. 

"It came as a complete surprise - as the calculus dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles," recalls co-first author Anita Radini of the University of York. 

Humble artists rarely signed great works

Analysis of the blue particles using energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) and micro-Raman spectroscopy revealed the blue pigment to be made from lapis lazuli. 


The scientists brainstormed many ideas as to how this rare stone came to be in the mouth of a religious figure. 

"We examined many scenarios for how this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus on this woman's teeth," explains Radini. 

"Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting," states co-first author Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 

The ultramarine pigment was a rare and expensive commodity and only used for the most luxurious of illustrated texts. "Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use," says Alison Beach of Ohio State University, a historian on the project. 

While it was known that Germany was a prolific book producer at this time in history, finding information on who actually produced the illustrations is a difficult for researchers due to artists often not signing their work as a sign of humility. 

Female artists to get more credit

This was especially common among female artists. The low visibility of women artist at this time has led some to believe that they were not an active part of the arts and illustration scene. 

This new revelation has the potential to change that. The discovery animates the life of this woman who otherwise appeared to live an ordinary life in a relatively unremarkable way.

“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," explains Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author on the paper.

"This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries - if we only look."

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