How come we see a lady artist getting away with painting a nude in a 15th century Manuscript illumination (shock horror!), when Dame Laura Knight (the English 20th century artist), got into such trouble for doing the same thing in 1913? Answer: Women in the Middle Ages were surprisingly liberated! Especially if they lived and worked in a monastic setting. Look at Hildegarde of Bingen. She preached (not the done thing for a lady), wrote ground-breaking musical compositions AND allowed her nuns to wear jewellery – and that was in the 12th Century. Also, the scene depicted is an historical/mythological one – it shows the Ancient Greek painter Thamyris depicting the Goddess Diana. Nudity was acceptable in such a genre. Thamyris is described in Boccaccio’s On Famous Women which contained 124 biographies of successful ladies (many from Classical Civilization, which was much admired during the Renaissance). This ground-breaking manuscript was first published in 1374 and many reproductions followed. Artists who illustrated these (probably many of them were nuns), took great delight in depicting these very confident women. Though it is unusual and daring, to see a picture of a woman painting a nude, the private nature of the manuscript meant it allowed more freedom.
Some interesting questions arose from the first session of A History of Women Artists.