The Dinner Party – Wing 2 – Part 1

This is part 2 of the series on The Dinner Party By Judy Chicago. I will be splitting this into 2 parts as it gets a bit long I noticed with the first one. Please enjoy!

I do shorten what is on the website to make it slightly more readable in our format here.

The photos and all information in this post are from the Brooklyn Museum. (Copyright © 2004–2019 the Brooklyn Museum.)

Link to Website: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/home

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Wing One blog here.

Wing Two

Christianity to the Reformation

The Dinner Party: Wing Two

 


Marcella
(b. circa 325, Rome, Italy; d. 410, Rome, Italy)Marcella was a Roman noble woman who was canonized, or declared a saint, by the Vatican for her role in founding the Christian monastic system. Monasticism dates back to Marcella’s time and is practiced today as a system in which religious devotees renounce their worldly possessions and declare their lives to God. They live together in monasteries under strict religious rules that vary according to the sect.Marcella was married at a young age, following the death of her father. She was subsequently widowed in the seventh month of her marriage. Rather than remarry, as was custom in Roman society, she declared celibacy, devoting her life to God and the study of the Bible. She owned a palace on Aventine Hill, one of the seven hills that would make up the site where Rome was built, which she turned into a refuge for other noble women wishing to devote their lives to Christianity. The women followed the model of the ascetic monks by renouncing worldly pleasures such as lavish meals, material possessions, and sexual pleasure, to attain spiritual goals.Marcella’s piety and the reputation of her Christian refuge prompted the formation of several other similar groups in Rome, which began the Roman monastic movement. Marcella ran her informal convent until the year 410, when the Goths invaded Rome. Soldiers ransacked her palace searching for the treasure Marcella was rumored to have. Though she had given away all of her fortunes to the poor, the soldiers beat her to learn the hiding place of her wealth. She managed to escape, but she died from the injuries soon after, in the arms of her favorite pupil, Principia.Despite her contributions to the founding of the monastic system, Marcella remains one of the lesser-known saints of the Roman Catholic Church. She is remembered each year on her saint’s day, January thirty-first.

Marcella at The Dinner Party:
Marcella’s place setting is decorated with the symbols of her sainthood and those of the Christian church. On the runner is an outline of the architectural plan for early Christian basilicas. Marcella’s plate rests on this plan, locating her as an important figure in the early organization of Christianity, central to its development. The front edge of the runner is made of woven camel hairs, also used to make shirts worn by early Christians like Marcella and members of the ascetic women’s convent she founded. These shirts, whose rough fibers irritated the skin, were worn under clothes in an act of penance. Another important symbol on the front of the runner, located in the first initial of Marcella’s name, is the figure of a woman praying in orans posture—her arms spread out and reaching upward.

The back of the runner contains other symbols important to the early church and to Marcella’s life. The scroll symbolizes learning, an important part of convents, as they were often the only sites of education for women in early society. Below the scroll is a composite image of a fish, staff, and triangle. The triangle was an early symbol of female genitalia, which became a symbol of the goddess and the sacred feminine, but in Christianity it also represents the Holy Trinity of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The triangle encompasses the staff, a symbol of Christ as the “Good Shepherd”; it also symbolizes the leadership and authority conferred on bishops. The fish, another early symbol of the church, was used by Christians as a secret means of denoting their faith under fear of persecution; the Greek letters that spell out the word “fish,” also start each of the words “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” These symbols identify Marcella as a “savior of women” during the early Christian period, comparable to Christ (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 109). The ship, also appears on the back of the runner, is another important symbol of early Christianity, representing the Christian church sailing through the “perilous waters” of all that is not Christian; its presence links Marcella’s life, including all of the peril she faced, with the development of the church and Christian monasteries.

 

Saint Bridget
(b. 453, Fochard, Northern Ireland; d. 523, Kildare, Ireland)Saint Bridget of Ireland was a determined, faithful Catholic who was responsible for starting convents and monasteries throughout Ireland. Also known as Bride, Bridget of Ireland, Bride of the Isles, and Mary of the Gael, she now reigns as one of the most recognized saints in Ireland; she and Saint Patrick are the only Irish saints to hold a place on the celebrated Catholic Calendar of Saints. (Bridget’s day is February 1st.)She was born to a Pagan Scottish king and his Christian slave; her mother raised her as a Christian. At a young age she was returned to her father who arranged a marriage for her, which she refused, desiring to keep her virginity. During her early life, there were no convents or religious houses for women in Ireland, and the local bishop, St. Mel of Armagh, gave St. Bridget permission to start one with seven other nuns. She established what would become known as Kildare, or “the church of the oak,” in 470 at the foot of Croghan Hill, building her own room under a large oak tree. As it was the first of its kind, it was soon filled with like-minded followers.At the invitation of bishops throughout Ireland, Bridget soon founded other convents, as well as the first double monastery, a house with separate lodgings for both nuns and monks called Kildare on the Liffey.  The lore of Bridget is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the adaptation of Celtic and Pagan beliefs to Christianity. Bridget is equated with her Pagan counterpart, Brigid, who was the Celtic goddess of poetry, healing, and metal arts. Christian hagiographers, or biographers, transformed one figure into the other by embellishing the details of Bridget’s life and stressing her virginity and community-building qualities in an effort to appeal to Celtic Pagans and to draw them into the fledgling religion. She eventually developed into the Christian saint of learning, healing, and domestic arts.

Saint Bridget at The Dinner Party:
In an early drawing for the plate, Chicago refers to Saint Bridget as a “goddess of milk and fire.” She is represented as a flame in the plate imagery; on the back of the runner, surrounding the Celtic cross; and on the runner’s front, in the illuminated letter “S” in her name. The flame is a literal translation of her Celtic name, which means “fiery arrow.” It also represents the fire that nuns kept lit in honor of Saint Bridget after her death.

The flame and plant imagery coexist on the plate, complementing each other; the leaves are not singed from the fire. The overlaying of the imagery suggests the Christian Saint Bridget emerging from the Pagan and Celtic goddess Brigid. The front border is a wooden panel carved in a Celtic knot motif popular in Northern Europe. On the back of the runner, there is a stylized wooden Christian cross, based on a Muiredach cross, a symbol of Irish Christianity. The oak used for the Celtic and Christian images and the bark-colored silk in the runner represent the first convent Bridget founded, Kildare, or “the church of the oak.”

 

Theodora
(b. 500, Crete or Syria, exact location unknown; d. 548, Constantinople)Empress Theodora was born into the lowest classes of Byzantine society, eventually advancing to rule over the Byzantine Empire equally with her husband.She grew up on the outskirts of the Byzantine Empire with a father who was an animal trainer. After his death, Theodora took the stage as an actress to support the family. In 516, at the age of sixteen, she traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, where she discovered and adopted Monophysitism, the belief that Jesus Christ was wholly divine. Theodora converted, renouncing her former career and lifestyle.Theodora met Justinian I in 522, who was at that time heir to the throne. Justinian wanted to wed immediately, but as heir, he was forbidden to marry an actress, even one who had reformed. Justinian had this law repealed the following year, and the two were married in 525. Theodora and Justinian were known for ruling as intellectual and political equals, and Theodora was responsible for much of the reformation of Byzantium. In 528, construction began on the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, built as an imperial church on the outskirts of the Byzantine Empire. The basilica’s mosaic, completed in 548, depicts both the emperor and the empress participating in an imperial procession, signifying her equal role and importance in ruling the empire.

In 532, religious unrest plagued the region. A conflict between two political and religious groups, the Blues and the Greens, began during a chariot race at the Hippodrome and quickly grew into what is now known as the Nika Revolt. This revolt destroyed much of Constantinople, and many saw this as a chance to overthrow Justinian, who wished to flee. Instead, Theodora spoke out, preferring to die a ruler than to be removed from power, and her courage prompted Justinian to send in troops to calm the rebels. After quelling the revolt, Theodora and Justinian confronted the destruction of important monuments in Constantinople, including the original Hagia Sophia. The couple rebuilt the basilica, which was rededicated in 537. It was the largest church of the period and later became one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture.

During her time as empress, Theodora fought for the persecuted. She attended to the rights of prostitutes in particular by closing brothels, creating protective safe houses, and passing laws to prohibit forced prostitution. In addition, she passed laws that expanded the rights of women in divorce cases and abolished a law that had allowed women to be killed for committing adultery. Finally, she strove to protect the persecuted Monophysites, building houses of worship that served as refuges. Theodora died in 548, but her influence was apparent in Justinian’s subsequent rule. He sought to maintain the same level of freedom for women, setting a precedent for women’s equality. He also fought for the Monophysites, despite his own conflicting orthodox beliefs.

Theodora at The Dinner Party:
Empress Theodora’s place setting uses Byzantine iconography and mosaics to convey her important role in building the Byzantine Empire. The mosaic portrays Theodora and Justinian in full imperial regalia and sets the color scheme of gold, green, and purple for both the plate and the runner.

Theodora’s plate was painted to resemble mosaic tiles. The imagery is a symmetrical abstract butterfly form, each wing stretching to the edge of the plate. The extended wings represent Theodora’s ability to expand her own role in Byzantium and to create freedoms for women during her time. The symmetry of the image echoes a basilica plan, with a colonnade of Roman arches in the upper quadrants of the wings.

A mosaic-like halo is embroidered on the runner, the plate resting in its center, which references the halo in the Ravenna mosaic and associates Theodora with both her imperial reign and her religious work. Embroidered on the illuminated capital “T” is the dome from one of the most celebrated architectural monuments of Theodora’s reign, Hagia Sophia, built in 530. The back of the runner is finished with a half-shell design, referencing the imperial collars worn during Theodora’s reign.

 

Hrosvitha
(b. circa 935, possibly Lower Saxony, Germany; d. circa 1000, Gandersheim, Germany)Hrosvitha is the earliest-known woman poet in Germany, and some scholars even consider her the first dramatist, or playwright, since ancient times. During her lifetime, Hrosvitha divided her own works into three manuscripts: Book of Legends, Book of Drama, and Epics (dates uncertain). The legends and plays still exist, but the two works included in Epics are lost.Very few details are known about Hrosvitha’s life and those that are known are often disputed. We do know that she was a nun, or canoness, at the Benedictine monastery of Gandersheim in Saxony. Gandersheim was founded in 852 as a monastery for the nobility, and so it is assumed that Hrosvitha was of noble Saxon birth. She probably entered the monastery at a relatively young age although some scholars believe she spent a good portion of her childhood at the Ottonian court, based on similarities between her work and the work of writers who frequented the Ottonian court during the early part of her lifetime.Most of Hrosvitha’s writings recount the lives of martyrs, praising those who lead ascetic lives, forgoing sumptuous meals, material possessions, and sexual pleasure in the pursuit of spiritual goals. The lost Epics comprised a history on the life of Otto I, the King of the Germans and Holy Roman Emperor who lived from 912 to 973, and a history of Gandersheim Abbey as it existed between the years of 846 and 919. A woman ahead of her time, Hrosvitha’s last work was completed in 973, and not until two hundred years after her death was medieval drama again composed.

Hrosvitha at The Dinner Party:
Hrosvitha’s place setting, particularly her runner, recounts her life through imagery from medieval German abbeys. Her plate portrays a stylized version of a nun’s cap and hands clasped in prayer, in a relief that references ivory carvings of the Ottonian dynasty (early 900s–1024).

The runner pays tribute to her contribution to literature as a poet and playwright.  The roundels on the front of the runner mimic the coins frequently made by German abbesses, who had considerable power in society and counted the right of coinage among their many privileges. The four roundels portray scenes of early German history and folklore, including a scene from the household of a noble medieval family; a female servant telling Germanic tales to the lord and lady’s daughter; a princess from the warring Germanic Cimbrian tribe of the second century B.C.E. with the head of an enemy soldier; and a Valkyrie, one of the minor female deities descended from Germanic mythology, who were in charge of finding the most heroic warriors to fight alongside the chief god, Odin, in the battle at the end of the world. These roundels both illustrate the roles women undertook and the activities they engaged in; they also recount tales of courageous mythical women, who are depicted in the third and fourth scenes.

On the back of the runner are three embroidered scenes from Hrosvitha’s life that also illustrate the activities of medieval nuns. In the first, she is entering the abbey where two nuns are singing and playing music, demonstrating the types of education women received there. In the second panel, Hrosvitha is writing while her abbess looks on. In the third, she is asleep at her writing table, dreaming of a visit from a royal messenger, who would present her with a relic in recognition of her literary work.On the front of the runner, the illuminated letter “H” pays tribute to Hrosvitha’s work as a writer; an embroidered portrait depicts her holding a quill, engaged in the act of composition.

 

Trotula
(b. unknown; d. 1097, Salerno, Italy)Trotula of Salerno was an eleventh-century Italian doctor, who is frequently regarded as the world’s first gynecologist. Her many achievements in the male-dominated specialty of gynecology both educated her contemporaries and advanced progressive ideas about women’s health care.

Trotula served as a physician and professor at the Medical School in Salerno, Italy, the first medical school in the world. Her husband and sons were also doctors at the school, which was one of the only schools in Europe to instruct and employ both men and women. Trotula distinguished her work with a specific focus on the medical needs of women. Attentive to women’s diseases and overall health, she became highly skilled at diagnosing uniquely female medical issues ranging from pregnancy-related complications to those related to female hygiene. She advocated for the use of opiates during labor, opposing the Christian belief of the time that women should experience a maximum of suffering during childbirth as punishment for Eve‘s sin. She also revolutionized the medical field by suggesting that men could also be infertile.

Long after her death, doctors throughout the medieval world relied on her medical reference work to treat female patients. Trotula Major on Gynecology, also known as Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women), was a sixty-three chapter book first published in Latin in the 12th century; it is still regarded as the definitive sourcebook for pre-modern medical practices. The only book written to educate male doctors about the female body, it included information about menstruation and childbirth in addition to general medical advice.

During the Renaissance, some scholars began to express doubt that Trotula was a woman, and others believed she was an entirely fictional character. It was supposed that a male physician Trottus had written the complex material in Trotula Major, and that Trotula was a midwife. Though scholars today believe she did, in fact, exist, there is continued research into whether Trotula’s writings are solely hers or compiled from many authors.

Trotula at The Dinner Party:
Trotula’s place setting combines references to her role as a doctor with childbirth and caretaking. The Tree of Life image in the runner highlights Trotula’s profession as a gynecologist. Tree of Life imagery has a strong and evolving heritage, beginning in ancient times and continuing into Christianity, as a symbol of life and regeneration. In creating the runner, Chicago chose to use the trapunto technique with a quilt that can be dated back to 11th century Sicily. The white fabric of the runner is reminiscent of swaddling cloth, and the piece itself is a quilt, creating a visual link to the familiar baby blanket.

Trotula’s plate features a birthing image, as well as serpentine imagery that resembles the caduceus, a symbol for medicine and doctors that is now used as the symbol for the American Medical Association. These serpentine forms also reference the Aztec fertility goddess who served as the patron of midwives. Chicago chose the snake motif “because of its historical association with feminine wisdom and powers of healing” (Chicago, A Symbol of Our Heritage, 74).

Eleanor of Aquitaine
(b. 1122, Aquitaine, France; d. 1204, Anjou, France)Eleanor of Aquitaine served as queen of both France and England in the twelfth century, making her one of the most powerful women of the time. Eleanor and her court were also responsible for the development of courtly love, ideals and etiquette governing the courtship of knights and ladies, which became the accepted mode of behavior for the nobility throughout medieval Europe.

Upon her father’s death in 1137, she inherited Aquitaine along with seven other countries. She was placed under the guardianship of King Louis VI and married his son Louis VII at the age of fifteen. In 1146, Louis VII embarked on a crusade, in Jerusalem and Damascus; he was joined by Eleanor, her ladies in waiting, and many of their subjects, who weren’t part of the nobility. Legend suggests that during the crusade, Eleanor and her ladies dressed as Amazons, or mythical warrior women of ancient Greece, to pay tribute to women as warriors and to mark the presence of women in Louis VII’s military actions. The French armies were largely unsuccessful during the crusade, and Eleanor was partially blamed for poor strategic decisions one of her subordinates had made. This association further sullied her reputation, which was already tainted by rumors of affairs with one of her subjects as well as with her uncle, the Prince of Antioch.

Eleanor’s marriage to Louis VII was annulled in 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity, or relationship by blood or common ancestor; consanguinity was often used as the case for annulment, if the familial relationship was unknown at the time of marriage and the degree of relation was close. To protect herself and her lands from political enemies that would have taken advantage of her vulnerability as a single female ruler, Eleanor was married six weeks later to Henry II, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy (in modern-day France), and her cousin to the same degree that Louis had been. Henry II became king of England two years after his marriage to Eleanor.

In 1173, Eleanor and Henry’s son, also named Henry, launched a revolt against the king; she instructed some of her other sons to join in. Learning of it, Henry II imprisoned his wife, first in France, and then in various locations throughout England. Her imprisonment lasted 16 years, until the day of Henry’s death in 1189. Her son Richard I became King of England, but due to his age, Eleanor ruled in his name. She outlived Richard and also became important in the reign of the next king, her youngest son, John.

At the age of seventy-seven, Eleanor traveled to Castile, France, where she chose one of her granddaughters to become a wife to Louis VIII, heir to King Philip II of France. During the return trip, their escort, a famous warrior, was slain by a rival; afterwards Eleanor fell ill from the emotional trauma of the event. She entrusted her charge to the Archbishop of Bordeaux and went to rest at Fontevrault, her castle in France, where her health remained poor. Eleanor took the veil and lived as a nun at Fontevrault until her death in 1204, having outlived nearly all of her children. She was buried at Fontevrault Abbey where her second husband, Henry II, and son Richard were also entombed.

Eleanor of Aquitaine at The Dinner Party:
Eleanor of Aquitaine is represented by a fleur-de-lis, repeated on the front and back of her runner, as well as in the illuminated letter “E” at the beginning of her name. The fleur-de-lis is a symbol of France and was commonly found in the art of the Middle Ages. It is also related to the iris, and both the iris and the fleur-de-lis are symbols of the Virgin Mary. Their deep blue color represents her fidelity; the blade-like shape of the leaves denotes her heart being pierced by sorrow for her son, which refers to Mary’s conversation with Simeon in Luke 2:35. The Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, was increasingly worshipped in the Middle Ages; the allusions to her in the runner also signify Eleanor’s power as queen.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s runner is modeled after tapestries made by noble women to hang as decoration in feudal castles or to use during ceremonial parades. The imagery is taken from the famous Unicorn Tapestries, circa 1495–1505, in which mystical unicorns appear within the corrals. The corral on the runner surrounds Eleanor’s plate. It symbolizes Eleanor’s imprisonment by her second husband, Henry II, and compares her power as queen with that of the mystical unicorn. The flower patterns on the runner are derived from the tapestries of the Middle Ages, which were covered with mille fleurs, also seen in the Unicorn Tapestries.

Hildegarde of Bingen
(b. 1098, Böckelheim, Germany; d. 1179, Ruperstberg, Germany)Hildegarde of Bingen, also known as St. Hildegard and the Sybil of the Rhine, was an enormously influential and spiritual woman, who paved the way for other women to succeed in a number of fields from theology to music. She was a mystic writer, who completed three books of her visions. During a time when members of the Catholic Church accorded women little respect, Hildegarde was consulted by bishops and consorted with the Pope, exerting influence over them.

The tenth child to a noble family, Hildegarde was placed under the care of a Catholic anchoress named Jutta, at the age of eight. Jutta was a recluse who set up a Benedictine community just outside of Bingen.  Although she claimed to have had supernatural visions as an infant, she hid her prophetic ability, revealing it only to Jutta, who died when Hildegarde was 38.

In 1136, Hildegarde assumed the role of Mother Superior of the convent. In 1147, she moved the convent to Rupertsberg, a town near Bingen, as urged by one of her visions. Although never formally educated and unable to write, Hildegarde quickly became a well-regarded authority and gave influential advice, relying on secretaries to transcribe her ideas onto paper. She was an idolized visionary who earned a saint-like status and name, despite her lack of official beatification.

She wrote on topics ranging from philosophy to natural healing with a critical expertise praised by both German advice-seekers and the highest-ranking figure in the Church, Pope Eugenius III. An esteemed advocate for scientific research, Hildegarde was one of the earliest promoters of the use of herbal medicine to treat ailments.

Hildegarde may be best known as a composer. Stemming from the traditional incantations of Church music, Hildegarde’s compositions took the form of a single chant-like, melodic line. These compositions are called antiphons and are a single line of music sung before and after a psalm. Hildegarde combined all of her music into a cycle called Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum, circa 1151, or The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations, which reflects her belief that music was the highest praise to God. Hildegarde of Bingen stands out as an extraordinary figure in women’s history, not only as a talented musician but also as an unapologetically prodigious woman who found remarkable success by expressing her unique voice.

Hildegarde of Bingen at The Dinner Party:
Hildegarde’s place setting is based on the structure of a Gothic cathedral. Her plate is painted as a rose window, the central stained glass window in any cathedral, often considered the spiritual center of the church. When viewed from different angles, the iridescent white and yellow hues of the plate transform, playing with light and shadow, and giving the effect of rose glass.

One arch frames the plate, putting focus on the rose window. Chicago used the opus anglicanum, or “English work,” embroidery technique, which was generally used in ecclesiastical vestments. Its use in the runner associates Hildegarde with bishops and kings whose vestments would have been adorned in the same manner. The runner replicates the iridescent colors in the plate, and includes two additional stained-glass windows stitched on either side of Hildegarde’s name, completing the Gothic architectural structure.

Hildegarde herself created a drawing, or illumination, in her manuscript Scivias (Know the Ways), circa 1140–50, of her defining vision, in which the great span of the universe revealed itself to her in a trance as “round and shadowy…pointed at the top, like an egg…its outermost layer of a bright fire.” Chicago chose to duplicate that drawing on the back of the runner. The center is a deep blue, dotted with stars and faces breathing life into the universe. Bordering this blue is ring of abstracted flames in burgundy and dark orange. The outermost portion is raised gold embroidery done with the opus anglicanum technique.

By adding this illumination, the place setting displays the harmonious balance between the religious and secular aspects of Hildegarde’s life. As a woman of the church, a composer, and a pioneer of holistic medicine, she devoted herself to helping others in the physical world, while simultaneously maintaining a spiritual life.

 

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