Women as Builders and Decorators of Churches: ca. 500-1100

Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, University of Wisconsin-Madison, jschulenburg@dcs.wisc.edu

The formative role of women as “makers”—patrons, builders, and decorators of medieval churches—has not received the kind of attention it deserves. Over the years there has been an assumption by scholars that churchmen, kings, male aristocracy, and townsmen were responsible for most of the religious building activity in the Middle Ages. However, chronicles, saints’ lives and miracles, cartularies, correspondence, inscriptions, and other sources tell us something quite different: they underscore women’s major contributions to all aspects of the fabric of medieval churches. As sponsors and patrons they provided essential land, materials, money, and oversight for building projects. (In a few sources they were even said to have been involved in the actual construction process: they are described as transporting stones and sand to hurry the completion of their new buildings.) Moreover, these women dictated iconographic programs for wall paintings, sculpture, and embroideries; they decorated their churches with rich hangings, tapestries, and embroideries which they not infrequently made “with their own hands.” As avid collectors of relics, they also commissioned special reliquaries for their churches. Some of these art works contained portrayals of their female patrons along with their names.

This article explores the early involvement of laywomen, abbesses and nuns as “makers” of churches from ca. 500-1100. It discusses some of the patterns that emerge from a study of the following: the Merovingian wife of Namatius, bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, who was the donor and decorator of the church of Saint Stephen of Clermont-Ferrand; St. Rusticula, abbess and important builder of the monastery of St. Jean of Arles; the royal Anglo-Saxon St. Edith who built and decorated her monastic church at Wilton; the building activities of Edith, the wife of Edward the Confessor; and Sts. Cunegund, Adelheid, and Margaret of Scotland. This essay examines the function of gender, class, wealth, and religious profession in these artistic processes. It also looks at some of the strategies as well as subversive roles assumed by the female patrons and builders of these early churches.