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Church Commissions - Any women?

I wasn't sure about what to write for this week's entry, so I asked a friend and he suggested how about church commissions? To which I added "were women even allowed to paint for churches?" Granted, I have been binge watching Handmaid's Tale, so my views are slightly more skewed at the moment. It also made me wonder if women had to paint under a man's name, or submit an artwork under a male pseudonym. It didn't take long to find a list of Catholic artists on Wikipedia and the first name was female. There was hope! Unfortunately, as I researched further, not all women below were commissioned to create pieces for the Church, but were only included on the list for being Catholic Artists. Although it seemed that more than half the men on the list created for the church, architect to being commissioned to design entire buildings and painters to create frescoes and paintings that covered entire walls and ceilings.

I decided to stick to the Renaissance and the Rococo Periods and added a ╬ to artists who were commissioned to create altarpieces and paintings for churches. I also only included artwork that was in a church.

1. Agnes II, Abbess of Quedlinburg (1139 - 21 Jan 1203)

A significant patron of the arts, when Agnes became Abbess, the nuns made large curtains which are presently used to study the art industry of the era. Her greatest masterpiece was the manufacturing of wall-hangings and one such piece is the best preserved example of Romanesque textile. She also wrote and illuminated books for divine service.

2. Angelica Veronica Airola (c. 1590 - 1670)

Active in 17th century Genoa, Veronica became a nun of the order of San Bartolommeo dell' Oliveta, where she painted several works, mainly religious. She was a pupil of Domenico Fiasella.

3. Catherine de Bologna ( 08 Sep 1413 - 09 Mar 1463)

Catherine has quite a list of achievements and it is interesting to note that she was considered first, and foremost, an Italian Poor Clare nun, followed by writer, teacher, mystic, artist, and saint. Born into an upper class family in Bologna, Catherine was raised as a lady-in-waiting during which she had access an education in reading, writing, music, as well as access to illuminated manuscripts. This set her up to her achievements as a nun. As a Sister, she also lived a life of piety and experienced miracles and several visions of Christ and Saints, and of future events, such as the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Her literary achievements include religious treatises, lauds, sermons, and in 1438, she copied and illustrated her own breviary called Seven Spiritual Weapons Necessary for Spiritual Warfare which she then rewrote and added to between 1450 and 1456. Her artworks are preserved in her personal breviary.

4. Lavinia Fontana (24 Aug 1552 - 11 Aug 1614)

Daughter of Prospero Fontana, she was trained by her father and was the first female career artist in Western Europe, and relied on receiving commissions as an income. Her husband was her agent and raised their eleven children. Bolognese society was very supportive of her work and helped her make the right connections. In 1603, Fontana and her family moved to Rome and the invitation of Pope Clement VIII. There, where she gained patronage of the Buoncompagni family of which Pope Gregory XIII was a member. Lavinia was eventually appointed as Portraitist in Ordinary at the Vatican Her sitters included Popes Clement VIII, Gregory XII, and Pope Paul V in full ceremonial regalia, a privilege which, until then, had been reserved to male artists.

 "St. Francis of Paola Blessing a Child" by Lavinia Fontana (1590)
"St. Francis of Paola Blessing a Child" by Lavinia Fontana (1590)

Her pieces commissioned by churches include "St. Francis of Paola Blessing a Child" (1590) for the Vizzani Chapel at the church of Santa Maria della Morte, in Bologna; an altarpiece commissioned by Philip II of Spain "The Holy Family with the Sleeping Christ Child" for the grand Escorial Palace in Madrid; Pope Clement VIII commissioned a 20 foot altarpiece titled "The Stoning of St. Stephen Martyr" for Rome's church of San Paolo Fuori le Mura - this one was unfortunately lost to a fire in 1823 which consumed the building.

5. Artemisia Gentileschi (08 Jul 1593 - c. 1656)

Artemisia is probably the best known artist to make her way into the art history books representing female artists as a thing that existed in the past, even if most were scrubbed from the history books. As women slowly write their way back into art history, we get to see some of the wonderful artworks they created. Artemisia was a prolific painter and popular during her time including contributing to painting the ceiling of Casa Buonarroti at Michaelangelo's great-nephews request. She was assigned Allegory of Inclination and was paid three times more than any other of the contributing artists.

"Penitent Magdalene" by Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1625)
"Penitent Magdalene" by Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1625)

While other male artists were being commissioned by Pope Urban VIII inner circle to paint large-scale decorative works and altarpieces, Artemisia's training at easel painting seem to contribute to the suspicion that women didn't have the energy to carry out large-scale work. But Rome had a wide range of patrons and Artemisia was kept busy and forged relationships with other artists and patrons.

It was in Naples that Artemisia was first able to work on painting in a Cathedral in Pozzuoli where the work was dedicated to Saint Januarius in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli. She also painted Penitent Magdalene which has been hanging in Seville Cathedral since around the late 17th century, although its first home was in the collection of Fernando Enriquez Afan de Ribera. Other than that piece, I can't seem to find which specific paintings were commissioned for churches, or simply church patrons, or which cathedral she painted for.

6. Caterina Ginnasi (1590 - 30 Nov 1660)

Orphaned at a young age, Caterina was placed under the care of her uncle Cardinal Domenico Ginnasi, dean of the Holy College in Rome. He was also responsible to arranging her to marry her cousin, but she chose to remain single and dedicate her life to painting.

She painted religious altarpieces including Guardian Angel (now lost) for the church of dell'Angelo Custode. Most of her works were completed for the church Santa Lucia alle Botteghe Oscure, which was restored under her uncle's patronage. Her works for that church, which was destroyed and her works, lost, included The Martyrdom of Saint Lucia, which was placed above the main altar; Last Supper was placed on the cymatium (molding on the cornice) of that altar; Madonna in the apse room; San Biagio Vescovo for the San Biagio altar. The Martyrdom of Saint Lucia survived the destruction as it had been moved to the Chapel in Palazzo Ginnasi, but then in 1824, it was lost during the construction works that took place. More on Caterina can be found here, in Italian.

7. Barbara Longhi (21 Sep 1552 - 23 Dec 1638)

Admired in her life as a portrait artist, Barbara's fame did not extend beyond her home of Ravenna, Italy. She assisted her father, Luca Longhi (1507 - 1580) with his large altarpieces, but she herself was never commissioned by the church. Very little is known of her life, but she was one of the few female artists mention by Vasari in the second edition of his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Unfortunately, most of her portraits are now lost, or unattributed.

8. Josefa de Óbidos (c. 1630 - 22 Jul 1684)

Spanish-born Portuguese painter, Josefa completed all her work in Portugal, her father's native country and where she moved to aged 4. She was one of the most prolific Baroque artists in Portugal with approximately 150 works attributed to her.

"Transverberation of St Teresa" by Josefa de Óbidos (1672)  Igreja Matriz de Cascais
"Transverberation of St Teresa" by Josefa de Óbidos (1672)

Although Josefa's specialty were still-life paintings with religious undertones, throughout her career she completed many commissions for altarpieces and other paintings to be displayed in churches and monasteries around central Portugal. These were some of her works: Six canvases for the Saint Catherine altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria de Óbidos (1661); six paintings representing Saint Theresa of Ávila (1672-1673) for the Carmelite Convent of Cascais; Adoration of the Shepherd (1669) for the convent of Santa Madalena in Alcobaça; four paintings for the Casa de Misericórdia of Peniche in 1679.

9. Elisabetta (Isabella) Piccini (1644 - 29 Apr 1732)

Isabella was trained in etching, engraving and illustration by her father, GiacomoPiccini. She joined the Convent of Santa Croce in 1666 where she changed her name to Sister Isabella. She worked mainly as an engraver for Venetian publishers illustrating liturgical books, biographies of saints, and prayer manuals. She worked until her death at the age of ninety.

10. Elisabetta Sirani (08 Jan 1638 - 28 Aug 1665)

Elisabetta was only 27 when she passed away leaving a legacy behind. During her short life, she became one of the most renowned painters in Bologna thought to have overshadowed both her father and two sisters, who were also painters. Her success has also been attributed to Bologna's progressive atmosphere that accepted and celebrated female artists.

"The Baptism of Christ" by Elisabetta Sirani (1658)
"The Baptism of Christ" by Elisabetta Sirani (1658)

By the age of 17, Elisabetta had already created over 190 drawings, and over her lifetime, she produced over 200 paintings and 15 etchings. She painted at least 13 altarpieces including The Baptism of Christ (1658) for the church of Certosa di Bologna which was her first major public commission work. She was also a well regarded teacher and taught women painting regardless of whether or not they came from an artist family.

Her unfortunate early death was from a perforated stomach attributed to overwork, exhaustion, and gastric ulcers. She kept records of all artwork she ever created with details regarding who had commissioned them and where they ended up. This meticulous record keeping was then published, together with her biogrphy, in Carlo Cesare Malvasia's two volumes of Lives of the Bolognese Painters (1678).It is also believed that, as the sole supporter of her family, she never kept any of the earnings for herself. She also remained unmarried because, as the golden goose of her family, her father kept suitors away so as not to interfere with her work.


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