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During the medieval times in Europe, the illuminated manuscripts were works created to be used by members of religious institutions and the nobility.
Generally, these texts are characterized by being accompanied by borders, miniatures and capital letters embellished, in some cases, with luxurious paints and pigments such as sheets of gold and silver or ultramarine.
Until now, this artistic performance had been exclusively associated with the men of the time.
However, a study published in Science Advances suggests that women of yesteryear were also able to actively participate in the elaboration of these manuscripts.
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This new historical approach relies on the discovery of lapis lazuli pigments –A deep blue mineral used in painting and ornamentation– embedded in the calcified dental plaque of the jaw of a woman buried more than 900 years ago, which has been found and analyzed by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Germany) and the University of York (United Kingdom), among others.
According to experts, this discovery The unexpected of such a valuable and early pigment in the mouth of an 11th century woman in rural Germany is unprecedented, for could be a direct indication of the involvement of women in the creation of these manuscripts.
The illustrator in a small monastery in Germany
The dental plaque was found in 2014 in an old cemetery of a medieval monastery of religious women located in Dalheim, Central Germany. Although few records remain of this monastery, it is estimated that this community of women was formed during the 10th century.
The first known writings of the monastery date from 1244 AD. and suggest that it housed approximately 14 women since its inception, until it was destroyed in a fire during a battle in the 14th century.
Sergún explains to Sync Christina Warinner, lead author of the Max Planck Institute study, almost no element of the monastery survives today. “No art, no books, almost no artifacts. Even the building is largely destroyed. All that remains today is a stone foundation, a broken comb, and a graveyard”, Comments the researcher.
Warinner and his team began to analyze the remains found in the cemetery in order to investigate the eating habits and health status of people in the Middle Ages.
The first observations estimated that This jaw belonged to a woman who was between 45 and 60 years of age at the time of his death, which took place between 1000 and 1200 AD. Furthermore, no pathology was identified in the skeleton, nor evidence of trauma or infection in the body.
However, upon further study of the remains they began to observe that this woman had more story to tell.
The story of a peculiar denture
The study's co-leader, Anita Radini, from the University of York, recalls that it was "a real surprise to see how, as the stone dissolved, it released hundreds of small blue particles."
“We discovered the blue pigment in dental calculus by accident. We were actually doing a dietary study and looking for starch grains and pollen. Once we found it, we tried to identify what it was, and then what it meant, ”adds Warinner.
Using various techniques it was determined that these particles came from lapis lazuli. "We examined many possible scenarios in which this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus (tartar and plaque accumulated on the teeth and fossilized over time) of this woman's teeth," says Radini.
“Based on the distribution of the pigment in your mouth, we concluded that it was most likely that she was painting with the pigment herself and licking the end of the brush while painting”Says study co-author Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute.
In short, this it could be “direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but using a very rare and expensive pigment, and in a very secluded place. His story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques and it makes me wonder how many other artists we could find in medieval cemeteries if we looked more closely, ”Warinner explains.
Lapis lazuli, a pigment as coveted as gold
Lapis lazuli pigment, also known as ultramarine pigment, it was one of the most expensive art materials of the European Middle Ages. Ground and refined from lapis lazuli stone, the color was used to represent the heavens and the vestments of the Virgin Mary.
The use of this pigment and its stone, along with that of gold and silver, was reserved for the most expert. "Only scribes and painters with exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use," says Alison Beach, project historian and researcher at the Ohio State University (USA).
From its origin in the Badakhshan mines in Afghanistan, lapis lazuli was traded overland to cities in the Levant and Egypt, from where it was shipped to Venice, the main port of entry to Europe.
Taking into account these historical data, experts deduce that the lapis lazuli analyzed in this study traveled more than 6,000 kilometers to reach its final destination, in that small religious community of women in Germany.
“This woman was connected to a vast global business network that stretched from the mines of Afghanistan to her community in medieval Germany, through the commercial metropolises of Islamic Egypt and Byzantine Constantinople. The growing economy of 11th century Europe sparked demand for the precious and exquisite pigment that traveled thousands of miles through caravans and merchant ships before serving the creative ambition of this female artist, ”explains historian and co-author Michael McCormick , from Harvard University.
Although Germany is known to have been an active center of book production during this period, it has been particularly difficult for historians identify the contributions of women at the time. To a large extent, this complex search has been mainly due to the absence of the signature of the artists who omitted their name in the works as a sign of humility.
“Now we can have a new way of identifying artists in the archaeological record. I suspect this can lead to quite a few surprises about art history, both in medieval Europe and elsewhere, ”concludes Warinner.
Warinner, C. et al. "Medieval women’s early involvement in manuscript production suggested by lapis lazuli identification in dental calculus", January 2019, Science Advances, DOI: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/1/eaau7126.