Through May 5 the Michigan Museum of Art will be showing its “Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500-1600” exhibit. This exhibit features art from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with pieces borrowed or obtained from 45 major collections located all over the world. Some of the pieces, including the headlining picture of Elizabeth I, were borrowed from a private collector. Visitors to the exhibit will have the privilege of viewing works of art that the public rarely has a chance to see.
The over 100 pieces in the exhibit are split into five major categories, with each section containing a mixture of oils on canvas, engravings, books containing illustrations known as “galleries of strong women” and different artifacts, often in bronze. The five categories are differentiated by how the piece portrays women and they are titled: “Wives and Mothers,” “The Virgin Queen,” “Seductresses and Other Dangerous Women,” “Heroines and Warriors” and “Goddesses.” The pieces in each exhibit draw inspiration from several different sources, including history, Greek mythology and biblical texts.
The different ways of portraying and understanding women’s roles were especially important during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The years of 1500 to 1650 were times of great political upheaval that resulted in several women being put in places of power. This caused a lot of controversy at the time, in regards to what the proper role for women was. This uncertainty is reflected in the pieces displayed in the exhibit. Some imagery used in the pieces promotes the traditional role of women (that of wife, mother, virgin and widow), which is a role determined by the women’s relationship to their men. Yet, there are other works that strive to justify this phenomenon of women coming to power, attempting to illustrate them as competent and able to rule a kingdom. Still a third stance attempts to illustrate the dangers of having a woman in power, as women are often associated with malevolence and deceit.
The organization of the collection is ingenious. Instead of separating the pieces of art by their type (all the oils on canvas together, for example) or placing them in chronological order, the pieces are separated by the image of women that is portrayed, corresponding to the titles of the different sections of the exhibit. Because of this, there are several subjects in the art that reoccur throughout the different sections. In this way, one is able to see the different ways a character in history can be interpreted and illustrated.
An example of this is the story of Judith and Holofernes, which appears in the Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Bible. Judith was a beautiful widow intent on saving her people from the invading Assyrian army. She sneaked into the enemy army’s camp, and was invited into the tent of Holofernes, the Assyrian general. Holofernes intends to seduce Judith, but fell into a drunken slumber, and while he slept, Judith decapitated him. This image of Judith was portrayed in several sections of the exhibit and her role in the story was interpreted in different ways. There were some artists, such as Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, who attempted to portray the deadly power of a woman’s beauty in his etching of Judith. Conversely, the female artist Freda Galizia portrays Judith as a virtuous heroine.
More than anything, the pieces featured in “Women Who Ruled” portray the power and importance placed on aesthetic beauty in women, be it in the name of virtue or malice. In a way, the works of art in the exhibit can be likened to the importance of self-representation demonstrated by politicians and other public figures in the media.