The Non-Gendered Appeal of Vierge Ouvrante Sculpturee: Audience, Patronage, and Purpose in Medieval Iberia

Melissa R. Katz, Brown University,

Pioneering scholarship on women's influence in the production and dissemination of art has revolutionized our understanding of the Middle Ages, especially with regard to the distinctive devotional experience of nuns. Yet, just as first-wave feminism gave way to new theories and strategies, the time has come to rethink gender-based approaches to medieval art, to assess past scholarship and retool methodologies for the next stage of informed analysis. This paper considers factors that may be missed or misread when approaching art through the lens of female devotional experience. It explores the Vierges ouvrantes, sculpted figures of the Virgin Mary that open to reveal religious imagery incorporated within the cavities of their bodies, which have been interpreted as works produced for monastic women. The fact that the earliest known owner of such sculpture was a woman—Violante de Arag√≥n, queen of Castile—seems to further support a strictly gendered analysis.

My research demonstrates that these views, while reasonable given current scholarship on devotional art, do not accurately reflect the historical record. In-depth study reveals that the Vierges ouvrantes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries appealed not to any particular gender, audience, or devotional practice, but rather to all simultaneously in areas ranging from Spain to Germany. This raises the question of how to make sense of patterns that contradict our assumptions of gendered appeal, authority, and agency. The collapse of seemingly stable categories encourages us to engage critically with current methods and formulate new perspectives that will energize and advance the field at a crucial point in its history