Analysis of the fossilized dental plaque of a medieval woman reveals lapis lazuli, suggesting she was an accomplished painter of illuminated manuscripts Christina Warinner

Blue Plaque Signals That Women Illuminated Religious Texts 1,000 Years Ago in Germany

Traces of precious ultramarine pigment identified in dental tartar provide first direct evidence that women also illuminated books magnificently in Medieval Europe

Stop obsessing about your dental coffee stains and spare a thought for a woman who smiled blue in medieval-era Europe.

Scientists reported on Wednesday that they had found particles of precious ultramarine pigment in the dental plaque of a woman who was buried 1,000 years ago in the cemetery of the Dalheim church in Lichtenau, Germany. The discovery is the first direct evidence that women, not only men, illuminated religious texts in Medieval Europe, say the researchers.

Reporting on the discovery in Science Advances, the team, led by Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York, postulates that she not only illuminated religious manuscripts, but she was highly skilled.

In the Middle Ages, literacy was largely the fief of religious orders, and books for the church and nobility were almost exclusively produced in monasteries - both male and female, Prof. Christina Warriner of Max Planck told Haaretz.

The pages would be decorated with images that mainly filled the margins. The finest works featured gold leaf and ultramarine, a rare and expensive blue hue made by grinding and purifying lazurite crystals from lapis lazuli stones mined from a specific region in Afghanistan, Warriner explains.

Humility in great art

The conventional wisdom is that in Medieval Europe, from the 5th to the 15th century C.E., illuminators of religious books were exclusively male.

Christina Warinner

“That’s the general assumption, that it was men,” says the team’s historian, Associate Prof. Alison Beach of Ohio State University. “I have spent the vast part of my career looking at the role that medieval women played in the production of manuscripts and it’s a lot more common than the popular imagination would suggest."

“We know that religious women were prolific producers of books, but most of the records date to the 13th century and later,” Warriner says.

Also: for the sake of the artist’s humility, very few works were signed.

“In the Middle Ages, one of the pressures on women in a religious community was to express humility,” Beach explains. “I argue that women, more than men, felt this pressure to remain invisible as an act of humility. Copying manuscripts is an act of piety. So if I took a lot of credit for it, I would mitigate the spiritual efficacy of the task.”

Although the vast majority of medieval manuscripts are anonymous, Beach says, some were signed. Happily, the names were written in Latin, so we can know the gender. Among the signatures, she says, 2 percent were female names.

However, Beach doesn’t think that low figure is a reliable reflection of women’s contribution to illuminating religious books. Because of their heightened duty to humility, a disproportionate number of the anonymously done texts could have been copied by women. “We just don’t know,” Beach sums up.

More precious than gold

The woman’s remains were radiocarbon-dated to about 990-1160 C.E., and she was about 45 to 60 years old at her death, Warriner says.

She does not think it likely that the woman got the blue particles in her tartar through “contaminated” food, or by being a servant in the vicinity of monks painting pages, but was an embellisher or producer herself who used her lips to shape the brush.

“This is a common artist’s technique to make a fine brush point and is described in medieval artist manuals,” Warriner observes.

Also, she was buried at a small women’s monastery, as we learn from surviving historical records documenting the names of some of the canonesses who lived there. “After the monastery was destroyed in a 14th century during a battle, a group of male monks purchased the property and founded a new monastery. They wrote about the monastery having previously been one for women,” Warriner says.

The pigment particles aren’t likely to have originated from contamination of the surroundings with lapis lazuli dust, for instance in food, because the source material was rarer than gold and often more expensive, Warriner says. “There were few ways one could come in contact with it other than painting. Artists were really the only ones who had access to it, and even then, only the best artists."

So if a woman buried in a Middle Ages monastery for women had pigment in her teeth, they concluded, she didn’t eat it, she had probably worked at illuminating religious manuscripts.

Christina Warinner

This is the first direct evidence that a Medieval-era woman used precious ultramarine, they say. The implication is that she was not only a painter but a master of her art.

Nor is she likely to have simply eaten an embellished page in a snit. Anita Radini of York and colleagues found more than 100 calculus fragments and mineral particles in different teeth. They inferred that the particles entered the tartar building up on her teeth over time, rather than during one event.

“It’s a good visible kind of statement that women were involved in making religious manuscripts,” Beach says.

Who might she have been? A thousand years later, we cannot know that either, Beach says. Probably a religious woman: a lay sister, recluse or a nun affiliated with the religious community at Dalheim.

There was no formal documentation of the Dalheim monastery until the 13th century and this woman predated that charter. So we cannot say with confidence that the she was a nun: she might have belonged to a community of religious women, freelancers living in little buildings around a parish church, Beach suggests. But we can suggest that whoever she was, she was a great artist.

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