Women in Art: Medieval to 16th Century

This module covers the Medieval era through the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century. It focuses on women’s opportunities to access education. Such access was at best difficult, but due to family workshops in guilds, dual monasteries, and nunneries’ scriptoriums, some women learned academic subject matter and received training in the arts. Works produced by women at this time included manuscript illuminations, textile arts (including embroidery), and paintings. 


  • educational opportunities for women
  • known and unknown women artists and their works
  • Hildegard von Bingen–artist, musicologist, mystic, naturalist, and writer of the Middle Ages
  • Claricia–Claricia Psalter
  • other known Medieval artists such as Guda, Herrad of Landsberg, and Diemud
  • Renaissance artists of note–Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Clara Peeters, Properzia de Rossi, Marietta Robusti Tintoretto, Caterina van Hemessen
  • monastic environments for women


By end of this module, you should able to

  • recognize the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque styles
  • list the women artists’ names, if known, and their works
  • understand the struggles and successes these women experienced
  • describe the historical background and the culture of the regions involved
  • discuss the educations and varied life styles of the artists
  • analyze the role nunneries and dual monasteries played in the creation, preservation, and dissemination of manuscripts

Listing Women Artists:

The “Women in World History” site includes modules and case studies that can be used for project research and discussions.

The Analyzing Evidence section, Paintings and Prints, presents what to look for and consider when analyzing a work of art and offers text, changing imagery, and audio media resource examples.

The Case Studies section is helpful in general to give examples of other types of case studies, from which you may gain and apply different perspectives to your own projects.

The Primary Sources section gives resources from various regions from around the world.

The Modules section provides introductions to different eras in roughly chronological order, including specific artists. Not all topics directly address visual art but enrich with contextual backgrounds of the eras.

Although no longer updated, this is a useful resource for finding basic information on women artists from the Renaissance till today. 

A list of seventeenth century women artists and thier works. 


Medieval (Romanesque and Gothic Europe)

This article by Alixe Bovey looks across manuscripts illuminated from the Romanesque and Gothic eras and describes the roles of women in culture at the time. 

This site includes an extensive introduction to the women artists of the Middle Ages, including separate indexes of known artists by name, anonymous artists, and illuminators.

This resource addresses lesser-known women artists from the medieval period, their depictions of women, and how the depictions differed from those of male artists. Includes signed depictions of recreation of life, “using the ancient and sacred art of giving forms and colours to the unrepresentable divinity, through weaving, through embroidery, that is, through their most daily, most utilitarian tasks, and also through drawing and painting.”

This link provides several resources covering medieval art and architecture. This is useful for your research, especially for term projects.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

Claricia Psalter (c.1200)

Christine de Pizan


Italian Renaissance 

Throughout the Renaissance, women faced challenges to gain access to education, patrons, and subjects that were more accessible to their male artist counterparts. The perception of women as artists during this time was summarized by Giorgio Vasari who wrote The Lives of the Artists, essentially becoming the first art historian and writing as a contemporary of many of the artists from this time. In his description for Properzia de'Rossi, he highlights the Renaissance notion that women aritsts were an anomaly but several were important enough for him to mention in his writing. The shift toward Humanism further limited the subjects that were considered proper for women to learn versus men, leaving women without formal understanding of mathematics or proportion that was highlighted as Renaissance artistic ideals. 

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)


Northern Renaissance

Protestant Northern Europe maintained many similar roles for women as their Catholic southern Italian counterparts. Women were challenged by their social postion and their access to various forms of education. Women in northern Europe became known for engaging in portraiture, embroidery, minatures, and later became involved with still-life, genre painting, and other fashionable themes and media. The political and economic climate for women was much different, so it is important to understand this in comparison with women of the Italian Renaissance as it is influenctial in determining how women of this region wre able to produce and the result of that production. 

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-1588)


Italian Baroque

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614-20

Artemisia Gentileschi was a female artist who was instructed by her father, Orazio, who was strongly influenced by Caravaggio’s style. Her work often depicts dark subject matter. Historians often attribute themes such as Judith slaying Holofernes with Gentileschi's personal struggles as a female within a male dominated society. The story in the painting refers to a Jewish story of Judith who, after coercing the general to take her to his tent, assasinates the Assyrian to avoid battle. The heroic female theme is well painted in comparison to much of her other work, and demonstrates her ability to overcome as a female artist at this time. Her popularity has grown over the past few decades and her paintings now fetch massive prices on the art market.


Other interesting articles:


Discussion Questions

Question: After reading our Resources, respond to the following:

What educational opportunities were available to women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance? How did they receive art training or did they?

1. Select either the Middle Ages or the Renaissance.

2. Give a brief explanation using information about a particular female artist or group.

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