March 9, 2018

The Power of Women

        March and Women’s History Month seems an appropriate time to feature the “Power of Women” theme, which was very popular in late medieval and Renaissance art.  With my twenty-first century feminist sensibilities, I think of the Power of Women as being surely a good thing, but it was definitely more worrisome for Renaissance viewers.  Subjects were generally legendary historical women who took on roles of men or reversed roles of women, and while some of these women were considered to be virtuous and heroic, most were exemplars of how destructive it is when women wield power.  The message was that even the most heroic of men can be manipulated and brought low by the cunning and seductive wiles of a strong woman.  The stories served to reinforce the patriarchal social system by illustrating the terrible consequences, and in some cases the ridiculousness that surely would ensue whenever women took on the roles and power of men.  Subjects included Eve tempting Adam, Delilah betraying Samson, Salome having John beheaded, Jael killing Sisera, Judith killing Holofernes, Phyllis riding Aristotle, and other such scenes from history and classical literature, plus, for comic relief, genre images of hen-pecked husbands.  On the one hand, the whole theme clearly betrayed a fear of strong women and a vilification of women’s sexuality, but on the other hand, some of the subjects, such as Jael and Judith, are held up as virtuous heroines.
        The illustrations of these Power of Women stories were often fairly standardized so that they were easily recognizable.  I guess that means less scope for the artists to get creative, but there are still some amazing wood block prints among them.  The Power of Women was an especially popular theme for prints, and such prints seem to have been displayed in both public buildings and private homes (despite often having distinctly erotic undertones).  Lucas van Leydan (Netherlands, 1494-1533) is famous for having made two woodcut series on the Power of Women, as well as exploring some of the Power of Women stories in separate pieces.  So today I have for you a few of his masterful illustrations on the theme.
        First up is the most amusing: Phyllis riding Aristotle.  The story goes that Aristotle taught Phyllis’s husband or lover (Alexander the Great) that in order to concentrate on philosophy, he should forego relations with women.  In revenge, Phyllis seduced Aristotle and convinced him to let her ride him like a horse.  This is a story with which artists have had a lot of fun, and the images vary widely depending on whether the emphasis is on the humiliation, or the eroticism, or the humor.  I could probably do a whole post on different versions… but not today.  Van Leyden’s is relatively straightforward and neutral in tone, but very attractively and clearly composed - not too busy, but with plenty of interesting detail.  I love Phyllis’s
wild, luxuriant hair, and the lovely folds of her dress and Aristotle’s robes - not too easy to crawl in.  It was the disheveled hair, by the way, that helped Phyllis seduce the old philosopher.
        Next up, Salome presenting the head of John the Baptist to Herod and Herodias.  This is not a picture I would want on the wall of my house, but one interesting thing about the composition is that the scene visible out the window is John about to be beheaded.  Obviously these two elements of the picture couldn’t be happening all at once, so it’s an interesting way to get an extra story element into the scene.  Too bad Van Leyden didn’t manage to get Salome’s dance in there somewhere, too.  I do like her posture, and the tassels on the canopy are quite elegant, as well.
        Finally, here’s Delilah giving Samson a surreptitious haircut as he sleeps with his head on her lap.  Out of sight around the edge of the bluff lurk the Philistine co-conspirators, waiting to seize the warrior, who should never have allowed a woman power over him.  I love Delilah’s scissors, and the details of the landscape.  I like that Samson’s spiked club makes him look more like an ogre than a hero, and how Delilah’s sleeves pushed back make her look more like someone getting down to work in a practical way, rather than a mere seductress.
        There’s no doubt that the idea of powerful women was cautioned against in the Renaissance trope of the Power of Women, and unfortunately it’s also true that there are still plenty of people today who vilify strong women.  But at least these woodcuts allowed some exploration of the possibility of women choosing to exert their influence, and the possibility that a woman might be able to defeat even the strongest warrior or the most respected philosopher.  Even today it’s important that in art, books, movies, television, and all media we continue to explore the different ways humans can find and use their power… and make sure we start showing more positive examples of powerful women, and more healthy relations between the sexes.

[Pictures: Phyllis Riding Aristotle, woodcut by Lucas van Leyden, 16th c. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Herod and Herodias from The Small Power of Women Series, woodcut by van Leyden, c. 1517 (Image from The British Museum);
Samson and Delilah from The Small Power of Women Series, woodcut by van Leyden, c. 1517 (Image from The British Museum).]

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