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The many faces of medieval women on view in Bilbao

Elegant, humorous, erotic—and liberated

Virgins, schemers, mothers, seductresses and saints: depictions of medieval women were as varied as the objects that bore their image. Over 50 works dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries including paintings, textiles, toiletry items, sculptures, furniture, gold and silver jewellery, and chastity belts have been assembled by the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao to illustrate the ways women were portrayed. “Today, the female image is used to sell anything and everything,” said the medievalist and curator, Corinne Charles. “I wanted to explore why women were so widely represented in medieval art and investigate the objectives of the artists and the men who commissioned these extraordinary pieces.”

The show seeks to dispel common misconceptions about women in the Middle Ages. “Medieval women shared many of the same dreams and fantasies as women do today,” said Charles. “They enjoyed political and economic power and had more freedom than women in Renaissance times when it came to issues such as choosing a husband,” she said. Charles argues that the chastity belt, believed to restrict a woman’s freedom during her husband’s absence, was actually a sexual enhancement device. “For health reasons, it’s simply impossible to wear a chastity girdle for more than a few hours,” said Charles. “In my opinion they were used as pleasure enhancers in the sexual game.” Highlights include a 14th-century ivory mirror depicting scenes of a courting couple (left). Two manuscripts are on loan from Swiss collections: the Roman de la Rose, an illustrated poem of chivalric love begun by Guillaume de Lorris in the 1230s and completed by Jean de Meun in the mid 1270s, and the Cité des Dames by Christine de Pizan. Labelled an early feminist by some scholars, in it, Pizan imagines a city built and run entirely by women.

“The Middle Ages is not the Dark Ages. I’d like visitors to come away knowing how beautiful, elegant, humorous and erotic medieval works of art can be,” said Charles.

There Is More in You: Women in the Middle Ages

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

7 February-15 May

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The many faces of medieval women'