Magazine article History Today

She-Devils, Harlots and Harridans in Northern Renaissance Prints

Magazine article History Today

She-Devils, Harlots and Harridans in Northern Renaissance Prints

Article excerpt

The social, sexual and demonic power of women was an important theme in the popular print of Germany and the Low Countries in the 16th century, as Julie Nurse shows.

They beat men, stole their money, killed them even, and they could fly - a veritable feat for any ordinary woman. The Renaissance woman was, indeed, a she-devil or so we are led to believe from prints by German and Netherlandish artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries currently on show at the British Museum, in an exhibition The `Power of Women' and the Northern Renaissance Print.

The `Power of Women', or `Weibermacht' as the theme was known in Germany, was a popular subject for artists and writers during the Renaissance period. It was not an early form of feminism, as the term might suggest, but a concept that emerged out of the complex religious and social turmoil that was provoked by the European Reformation of the sixteenth century. The idea achieved popularity largely through the format of the print, a medium that rose in status to rival painting as a respected art form during the Renaissance period. To meet the growing demand for images that disseminated the changing ideas of the Protestant Reformation, entrepreneurial publishers developed the print production process into a commercial enterprise. This was particularly so in the North European regions of Germany and the Netherlands. Furthermore, the iconoclastic clampdown on religious, didactic forms of art throughout Europe meant that painters were forced to seek other avenues for work.

Although it is not clear who first coined the term Weibermacht, it is evident that the theme gained currency, while the `print series' helped to popularise the topic. In 1511, the Flemish artist Lucas van Leyden (c.1494-1533) was the first printmaker to produce such a series on a commercial basis. The success of this series is reflected in the apparent trend for `Power of Women' sequences thereafter: Lucas van Leyden produced a second smaller version in 1516 and many other printmakers, like Phillip Galle (`Women's Tricks in the Old Testament'), followed suit throughout the sixteenth century. The theme applied not only to biblical women. Mythological and secular scenarios were also seized upon by printmakers as marketable subjects for their prints.

The cultural climate of Northern Europe was ripe for the production of images reflecting the deep-seated prejudices that embodied the Weibermacht idea. A liberal atmosphere prevailed in cities like Leyden, Strasbourg and, in particular, Nuremberg - the city that produced Albrecht Durer and many other innovative printmakers. Artists were allowed a freedom unmatched elsewhere. Compared to the elitism of more traditional forms of art, the print medium offered a portable format that was not only accessible to wider audiences, but gave the freedom to illustrate everyday anxieties and fears.

The Southern Renaissance region of Italy presented a marked contrast. Here, artists were conditioned, controlled even, by the intellectual tastes of their wealthy patrons - the demand, in short, for images that enhanced Italy's great classical tradition. To Northern European artists, this was a borrowed legacy and an archaic one from which they were able to distance themselves. Of course, Italian artists also produced powerful images of the women of mythology and the Bible, but the emphasis was different. The images were at once lush and bathed in the natural warmth of the Mediterranean imagination as opposed to the quirky, bizarre and often coldly grotesque interpretations that flourished in Northern Europe.

Although the Weibermacht idea was more suited to the print album of the specialist or the domestic decor of the ordinary citizen than to the public sphere, it was deemed fashionable enough to be considered for major art commissions. Albrecht Durer was initially commissioned to decorate the great hall of Nuremberg's Town Hall with scenes on the theme of Weibermacht in 1520-21. …

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