The Dinner Party – Wing 2 – Part 2

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:


Wing One blog here.

Wing Two – Part One here.

Wing Two

Christianity to the Reformation

The Dinner Party: Wing Two

Petronilla de Meath
(b. circa 1300, Meath, Ireland; d.1324, Kilkenny, Ireland)Petronilla de Meath was the first Irish woman to be burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. She served as a maid to Lady Alice Kyteler, one of the earliest women to be accused of witchcraft.

In Kilkenny, Ireland in 1324, Lady Alice Kyteler, along with her son and ten others, became one of the earliest targets of witchcraft accusations, centuries before the more famous rash of witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She was charged by the Bishop of Ossory with a wide slate of crimes, from sorcery and demonism to the murders of several husbands. Lady Alice was believed to have illegally acquired her wealth through magical and devilish means.

To extract her confession, the bishop ordered the torture of Lady Alice’s maid and confidante, Petronilla de Meath. Petronilla claimed that she and her mistress applied a magical ointment to a wooden beam, which enabled both women to fly. She was then forced to proclaim publicly that Lady Alice and her followers were guilty of witchcraft.

With the help of relatives, Lady Alice used her connections to flee to England, taking with her Petronilla’s daughter, Basilia. Lady Alice’s followers, including Petronilla, remained behind. Some were convicted and whipped, but others, Petronilla included, were burned alive at the stake. This was not the first recorded sentence of death by burning for heresy, but was the first known trial to treat women practicing witchcraft as an organized group. Petronilla serves as an emblem of the many women tried and convicted of witchcraft during the Middle Ages.

Petronilla de Meath at The Dinner Party
Petronilla’s place setting employs many of the most familiar symbols of witchcraft from both Petronilla’s time and today, including the broomstick incorporated into the illuminated letter “P” on the front of her runner.

The interlacing patterns on the front and top of the runner are based on Celtic motifs drawn from The Book of Kells, a book of illuminated manuscripts dating to the 9th century. On the back of the runner there is a horned form, representing the goat that was worshipped by many covens, or groups of witches. The red cords lining the black front edge echo the red witch’s garter, which signified higher rank in the coven.

The plate also incorporates other symbols of witchcraft, including a bell, a book, and a candle. The cauldron represents both the Great Mother, to whom witches pay honor, and the meeting place of covens. The flames that “envelop the center of the plate are a terrible inversion of the sacred fire that once burned in honor of the Goddess…” (Chicago, A Symbol of Our Heritage, 78).

Christine de Pisan
(b. 1364, Venice, Italy; d. 1430, Poissy, France)Christine de Pisan (Christine de Pizan) was a medieval writer and historiographer who advocated for women’s equality. Her works, considered to be some of the earliest feminist writings, include poetry, novels, biography, and autobiography, as well as literary, political, and religious commentary. De Pisan became the first woman in France, and possibly Europe, to earn a living solely by writing.

De Pisan was raised at court in Paris with her father, Thomas de Pisan, the astrologer and secretary to King Charles V of France. In 1380, de Pisan married Etienne du Castel, a nobleman from Picardy. He was an unusual husband for the time in that he supported her educational and writing endeavors. When he died in 1390, de Pisan was only in her early twenties. After receiving attention from patrons in the court for her poetry and love ballads dedicated to her husband, she decided that rather than remarry she would support her three children and newly widowed mother through her writing. While she was still establishing herself as a writer, de Pisan also transcribed and illustrated other authors’ works.

Her own writing, in its various forms, discusses many feminist topics, including the source of women’s oppression, the lack of education for women, different societal behaviors, combating a misogynistic society, women’s rights and accomplishments, and visions of a more equal world. De Pisan’s work, though critical of the prevailing patriarchy, was well received, as it was also based in Christian virtue and morality.

Le Dit de la Rose (The Tale of the Rose), 1402, was a direct attack on Jean de Meun’s extremely popular Romance of the Rose, a work about courtly love that characterized women as seducers, which de Pisan claimed was misogynistic, vulgar, immoral, and slanderous to women. She later published Letters on the Debate of the Rose as a follow-up to the controversial debate.

Although de Pisan’s work was primarily written for and about the upper classes (the majority of lower class women were illiterate), her writing was instrumental in introducing the concept of equality and justice for women in medieval France. De Pisan lived the majority of her life in relative comfort, and in 1418, she entered a convent in Poissy (northwest of Paris), where she continued to produce work, including her last poem Le Ditie de Jeanne d’Arc (Song in Honor of Joan of Arc), 1429.

Christine de Pisan at The Dinner Party
Christine de Pisan is represented in her plate as an abstracted butterfly form painted in swirling, vibrant hues of red and green. Chicago describes the form as having “one wing raised in a gesture of defense, to symbolize her efforts to protect women” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 86).

The runner is done in tones from the same color palette, and jagged flame-like forms adorn the edges. The wavy, colorful pattern is characteristic of Bargello needlepoint, also called “flame stitch” or “Florentine stitch,” thought to have originated in medieval Italy. According to Chicago, this design, which appears to be encroaching on the plate, represents the suffocating Renaissance-era constraints on women (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 86).

On the front of the runner, embroidered on the illuminated capital “C” in her name, is a scene based on an illuminated manuscript in which de Pisan presents a volume of her work to the queen of France.


Isabella d’Este
(b. 1474, Ferrara, Italy; d.1539, Romagna, Italy)Isabella d’Este (Gonzaga) was a powerful and well-educated political figure, humanitarian, patron of the arts, and mother of seven. Known as “The First Lady of the Renaissance,” she was related to nearly every ruler in Italy either by birth or marriage.

D’Este was the oldest of six children born into the ruling family in Ferrara, Italy. Her parents believed in schooling their daughters equally to their sons, and she received an education not frequently afforded women. At sixteen, she could speak and translate Greek and Latin and had a variety of musical talents, including singing, dancing, and playing the lute. She could also engage in intellectual debates with ambassadors.

In 1490, d’Este married Francesco Gonzaga, the fourth marquis of Mantua, and thus became the marchioness. When he was captured as a prisoner of war in 1509, d’Este became the acting regent of Mantua. She secured the loyalty of her people and was able to successfully control the military, eventually negotiating the release of the ailing Gonzaga. D’Este was known for a non-confrontational approach to foreign policy. She kept the support of her people by defending Mantua against French attacks in 1527 and offering aid and comfort to refugees. Gonzaga was often jealous of d’Este’s popularity, and due to this conflict, d’Este traveled to Rome to spend time in the court of Pope Leo X, where she met and became a patron of many artists.

In 1519, Gonzaga died and their son Federigo II officially became marquis of Mantua. At age nineteen he was too young to rule, and d’Este acted as regent. Soon after he took power, he was persuaded by popular support to request that his mother return as head of Mantua. With her authority, she positioned Mantua as a duchy, or sovereign territory, which advanced her son’s title to that of duke.

D’Este was a great patron of the arts, supporting painters such as Mantegna, Titian, and da Vinci, all of whom she commissioned to paint her portrait. She transformed Mantua into a cultural center by converting the ducal apartments into a museum. She invited writers, artists, and poets to her home to exchange ideas and corresponded frequently with a variety of prominent figures, letters that now provide us with a rare woman’s point of view on Renaissance Italy. During her time as ruler, d’Este also funded an ongoing school for girls.

In 1529, as the result of an exchange of property during her husband’s life, d’Este became the official ruler of Solarolo, a small region of Romagna that she ruled as a city-state. There, she oversaw an active government until her death in 1539.

Isabella d’Este at The Dinner Party
The plate, painted in gold, white, and royal blue, is characteristic in its color palette and motifs of the popular Urbino majolica ceramicware, created in factories that d’Este supported. The gold sections of the plate are raised, providing the structural framework for the design. The plate highlights Renaissance artistic innovations, including the use of perspective, horizon lines, and vanishing points. These techniques, popular in antiquity, were revived in the Renaissance and were used to create three-dimensional and realistic works. These artistic ideals are represented by the colonnade in the center of the plate, which has a vanishing point that makes it appear to recede into space.

The runner is designed like a royal banner, complete with tassels, shields, and fleur-de-lys, patterns reserved for the ruling classes. The insignia on the back of the runner was derived from the d’Este crest. The tassels reference the similarly ornamented gowns shown in many Renaissance portraits.


Elizabeth R.
(b. 1533, London, England; d. 1603, London, England)Queen Elizabeth I, or Elizabeth R, as she referred to herself, was a revered English queen, and a member of the Tudor family, who ruled over a period of English history often referred to as “The Golden Age.” Ascending the throne at a time when England was in religious conflict and economic hardship, Elizabeth earned her country’s respect as a bold and independently minded ruler, who successfully lifted England out of its troubled state.

As queen, Elizabeth quickly set out a plan to stabilize England following years of conflict under turbulent and controversial rulers. Religion quickly became one of the new queen’s primary concerns. Years earlier, King Henry had severed England’s ties with the Catholic Church so that he could obtain a divorce. Following, Mary I, a Catholic, also known as “Bloody Mary,” re-established Catholicism as the state religion and during her reign, persecuted many Protestants. The English public welcomed Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, and she reinstated Protestantism in 1559. She is heralded as a champion of religious freedom and tolerance, although there is evidence that she persecuted Catholics in an effort to establish a Protestant state.

During Elizabeth’s rule, the British Empire prospered politically and economically, expanding westward as the first British colonists arrived in America in the mid sixteenth century. In 1588, England finally defeated the Spanish Armada, ending a decades-long threat from Spain, a country attempting to retain its dominance as a world power. The victory increased her popularity with her people and caused economic growth during the relative period of peace.

The literary, performing, and fine arts flourished during Elizabeth’s reign as well, with countless artists, such as Nicholas Hilliard, and playwrights, such as William Shakespeare, benefiting from the court’s patronage.

Although revered by her people and courted by suitors, Elizabeth never married. Despite her father’s lifelong reservations about a woman occupying the throne, Elizabeth’s arrival ushered in a new era in British royal history. She quickly and consistently proved herself to be a powerful and intelligent ruler and an inimitable symbol of female strength. Her nearly half-century reign ended officially with her death in 1603.

Elizabeth R. at The Dinner Party
An expert in determining her own representation in art, Elizabeth often commissioned artists to paint portraits of her in sumptuous costumes. Those same portraits, created while Elizabeth was at the height of her reign, inspired her place setting. The Queen’s elaborate dresses are suggested in the undulating folds depicted on the plate, and the regal deep blues, purples, and reds are reminiscent of the colors typically used in her portraits. The plate is adorned with an embroidered fabric ruff, the lace edges reminiscent of the high, stiff collars Elizabeth wore. A “cloth of gold” placed over the ruff recalls the famous “Field of the Cloth of Gold,” an event in which Elizabeth’s father met with Francis I of France and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to negotiate a treaty. For the three weeks of the meeting, the monarchs had ostentatious tents made of gold cloth set up in a field.

The runner includes feather and floral patterns stitched in blackwork, a form of textile decoration in which outlines of flowers and leaves are interspersed with geometric patterns. This intricate embroidery was popular on costumes during Elizabeth’s reign and can be seen in portraits of the queen.

Elizabeth’s royal signature is the basis for the illuminated capital letters “E” and “R” in her name on the front of her runner, referring to Elizabeth as she referred to herself, “Elizabeth R.” The elaborate and snaking “R” was used by the Queen after her name; it stood for “Regina,” which is Latin for queen. Elizabeth’s name is embroidered in her own inimitable penmanship. Just as she refused to give up any self-control during her lifetime, Elizabeth personally introduces herself to The Dinner Party guests in her own exquisite hand.


Artemisia Gentileschi
(b. 1593, Rome Italy; d.1652/3, Naples, Italy)Our blog about her here. 🙂

Artemisia Gentileschi was an early Italian Baroque painter, and the only female follower of Caravaggio, whom she worked with in Italy in the early 17th century. Her innovative compositions and focus on Biblical heroines set her apart from her male contemporaries and have lead to the celebration of Gentileschi as a painter with a uniquely female perspective.

Gentileschi was born in Rome, the daughter of celebrated painter Orazio Gentileschi. As a young girl, she served as an apprentice to her father, learning the skills of a professional painter. When her father recognized that she had advanced beyond his training, he hired the painter Agostino Tassi to further her painting skills. In 1612, Tassi raped Gentileschi, an event now inextricably linked to her name. After a lengthy and painful trial, Tassi was found guilty and jailed for eight months. This event had a tremendously negative impact on Artemisia Gentileschi’s reputation, and the artist suffered from gossip that branded her a promiscuous woman.

Soon after the trial, Orazio Gentileschi arranged a marriage for his daughter, after which she moved to Florence, Italy, where she earned the generous support and patronage of the Medici duke, Cosimo II. In 1616, she was the first woman to be accepted into the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts, where she continued her artistic education. During this period, Gentileschi was held in high esteem by both the royal court and scholars, eventually establishing a much-heralded relationship with the astronomer, philosopher, and physicist, Galileo.

She and her husband had two daughters, both of whom eventually became painters. When Gentileschi and her husband separated, she became the head of her own household, enjoying a freedom and independence known to few of her female contemporaries. She and her daughters frequently moved in Italy for career opportunities and to accommodate patronage that included the Medici family and King Charles I of England. In 1641, Gentileschi relocated to Naples where she lived out the remainder of her life. While Gentileschi was a recognized painter in her lifetime, after her death a great deal of her work fell into obscurity and was often attributed to other followers of Caravaggio or to her father.

Art historian Mary Garrard notes that Artemisia Gentileschi “suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her caliber” (Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi, 3). Only now, in light of recent academic activity, has Gentileschi become recognized for her retelling of biblical stories from the perspective of a woman.

Artemisia Gentileschi at The Dinner Party
Judy Chicago celebrates the link between Artemisia Gentileschi and her often-painted subject, Judith, by repeating the place setting’s color palette. Additionally, the sword image that pierces the first letter “A” of “Artemisia” is the same as that of the “J” in Judith’s illuminated letter, signifying each woman’s physical and emotional strength. The illuminated letter “A” on Gentileschi’s runner is comprised of an artist’s paintbrush and palette, representing her life as an artist.

The plate is surrounded by rich and luscious velvet fabric, modeled on the costumes of Gentileschi’s female subjects. The gold fabric references the color in Gentileschi’s paintings, which became known as “Artemisia gold,” and was often associated with the artist. Chicago explains that this fabric nearly engulfs the plate, representing the safe, protective environment that Orazio Gentileschi attempted to create for his daughter (Chicago, A Symbol of Our Heritage, 82). Underneath the velvet there is fabric decorated in a repeating Baroque-style pomegranate motif, indicative of the time period in which Gentileschi painted. This stenciled motif was modeled on “bizarre silk,” a popular style in the seventeenth century in which pattern was overlaid on pattern, creating a repetitive and unique design.

The butterfly image of Gentileschi’s plate demonstrates the chiaroscuro technique, made famous by one of the artist’s masters, Caravaggio. Chiaroscuro uses a dramatic play of light and dark to convey a theatrical quality to the painting and was popularized during the Baroque period. The “twisting and turning form” on the plate serves also to represent the “extraordinary efforts required of any women of [Gentileschi’s] time who desired to become an artist” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 97).


Anna van Schurman
(b. 1607, Cologne, Germany; d. 1678, Wieuwerd, Netherlands)Anna Maria van Schurman is readily considered the most highly educated woman of the 17th century. She questioned the role that women should play in Dutch society, and her determination to receive an education, along with her achievements, made her stand out from other women of her time. Her radical belief that women should be educated to receive an education, not just for a professional purpose or for employment, was controversial and differed from other 17th century arguments for the education of women.

Van Schurman received a strong classical education from her father. Considered a child prodigy, she could freely read and translate both Latin and Greek by the age of seven and had learned German, French, Hebrew, English, Spanish, and Italian by age eleven. She also studied art and became a distinguished artist in the fields of drawing, painting, and etching, though few examples of her art exist today.

At the age of 29, after years of advocating for women’s education, van Schurman was invited to attend the University of Utrecht as the first female student. The administration required that she sit behind a curtain in class, as they believed she would distract the male students. She graduated with a degree in law—the first female graduate.

Van Schurman spent much of her adult life writing on the importance of equal education for women, publishing the majority of her works in the 1640s and 50s. In her book Whether the Study of Letters is Fitting for a Christian Woman, published in 1646, she stated that anyone with ability and principles should be allowed to be educated. She believed women should receive an education in all subjects, so long as it did not interfere with their domestic duties.

She actively published articles detailing the ways in which women’s brains functioned as effectively as men’s, and the damage that occurred to women’s abilities if they were only considered capable of being wives and mothers.

Anna van Schurman at The Dinner Party
Anna Maria van Schurman’s plate is painted with many thin lines, referencing popular Dutch etchings of the 17th century. Chicago chose an abstracted butterfly form for the plate, a symbol of “Anna’s valiant efforts on behalf of women’s rights” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 100).

The colors of the plate, shades of orange, complement the colors of the runner, which is embroidered in a style that was common in 17th century Holland. Young girls practiced these tiny stitches on samplers, which were meant to teach them the virtues of womanhood, such as docility and obedience. The needlework represents the educational limits of van Schurman’s Dutch counterparts (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 176) and shows how girls were forced to “think small” during this period (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 83).

The runner is patterned on early stitch samplers; on the back is an embroidered flower basket, a common motif in Dutch samplers that signified renewal. The rabbit, also a sampler motif, represented timidity. These images of domesticity are offset by the embroidered angels flanking van Schurman’s name, which reflect her role as a religious leader.
Van Schurman, in her writings and her life, fought the idea that women should be confined to domesticity. One of her famous quotes is embroidered across the top of the runner:

Woman has the same erect countenance as man, the same ideals, the same love of beauty, honor and truth, the same wish for self-development, and yet she is to be imprisoned in an empty soul of which the very windows are shuttered.


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:


Wing One blog here.

Wing Two

Christianity to the Reformation

The Dinner Party: Wing Two


(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.”


(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.


(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.


(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.


The Dinner Party – Wing One Prehistory to Classical Rome


In our last episode in the section about Caroline Herschel i mentioned i would do a blog on The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. Well this project is much larger and way more awesome then i knew at the time so i will be covering it in chucks! I hope you 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:


The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago is an icon of feminist art, which represents 1,038 women in history—39 women are represented by place settings and another 999 names are inscribed in the Heritage Floor on which the table rests. This monumental work of art is comprised of a triangular table divided by three wings, each 48 feet long.

The principal component of The Dinner Party is a massive ceremonial banquet arranged in the shape of an open triangle—a symbol of equality—measuring forty-eight feet on each side with a total of thirty-nine place settings. The “guests of honor” commemorated on the table are designated by means of intricately embroidered runners, each executed in a historically specific manner. Upon these are placed, for each setting, a gold ceramic chalice and utensils, a napkin with an embroidered edge, and a fourteen-inch china-painted plate with a central motif based on butterfly and vulvar forms. Each place setting is rendered in a style appropriate to the individual woman being honored.

Wing One of the table begins in prehistory with the Primordial Goddess and continues chronologically with the development of Judaism; it then moves to early Greek societies to the Roman Empire, marking the decline in women’s power, signified by Hypatia’s place setting.

Wing One

Prehistory to Classical Rome

The Dinner Party: Wing One

Primordial Goddess –

The original conception of the goddess is that of Mother Earth, the sacred female force responsible for the creation of the earth and all its flora and fauna. The goddess was the universal soul, who accepted plant, animal, and human matter in death in order to create new life from the remains.

The tradition of the Mother Earth Goddess can be seen reflected in many different conceptions of the divine feminine including the Greek mother goddess, Gaea, the original inspiration for the Primordial Goddess place setting. Regardless of the many forms she takes that are celebrated globally, all goddess traditions owe something to the early worship of and appreciation for the Primordial Goddess.

Primordial Goddess at The Dinner Party:

The Primordial Goddess place setting references early goddess traditions, in which women were creators, associated with the primordial earth. The plate evokes both flesh and rock, symbolizing the ties between the female body and Mother Earth. Judy Chicago calls the Primordial Goddess the “Primal Vagina,” the original source of all life (Chicago, Symbol of Our Heritage, 57). The coil around the Primordial Goddess’s first initial represents the early baskets and pottery made by women using coil forms. The calfskins represent the early clothing made by women; they are adorned with cowry shells, an ancient symbol of female fertility. Fur, a soft, appealingly tactile material, is also related to the production of clothing and associated with women and women’s work.

Fertile Goddess-

Many societies have worshipped the Fertile Goddess as the supreme site of fertility, motherhood, and the creation of life.  Famous pieces, such as the Venus of Lespugue and the Venus of Willendorf are Upper Paleolithic (30,000–10,000 B.C.E.) examples that may have been worshipped as goddesses.

Marija Gimbutas, a leading scholar in the study of early goddess worship, has linked the prehistoric goddess figures to water, having found early female figures incised with symbols denoting water in its various forms, as well as imagery linking rain and streams with breast milk and amniotic fluid. In The Language of the Goddess, considered a significant work in the field, she suggests that these figurines and their associated symbols, found throughout the Neolithic period as well and into the Bronze Age (2000–1400 B.C.E.) in Crete, could represent a goddess religion that was passed down through time.

Fertile Goddess at The Dinner Party: 

All the materials on the runner were made with techniques probably used by Paleolithic-era women to produce similar objects. Bone needles were handmade from cow femurs and the wool was spun on a drop spindle, one of the earliest tools invented by women. As in the Primordial Goddess place setting, the coil is the predominant form on the runner; it refers to the early coil baskets and pottery made by women. The coarse burlap used as the backing references early textiles, another product believed to have been produced exclusively by women. As farming marks the start of the Neolithic period and is considered responsible for advancing civilization, the place setting also signifies women’s roles in shaping ancient society.

Many of the formal and stylistic decisions for the runner and plate were influenced by early goddess images, such as the Venus of Willendorf. Figures woven into the runner represent early reproductions of the female body, effigies that were used to worship women as creators and nurturers. Shells and starfish adorn the runner and refer to the association of the sea with women, fertility, and goddesses, such as Venus.


Ishtar, called the Queen of Heaven by the people of ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), was the most important female deity in their pantheon. She shared many aspects with an earlier Sumerian goddess, Inanna (or Inana). A multifaceted goddess, Ishtar takes three paramount forms. She is the goddess of love and sexuality, and thus, fertility; she is responsible for all life, but she is never a Mother goddess. As the goddess of war, she is often shown winged and bearing arms. Her third aspect is celestial; she is the planet Venus, the morning and evening star.

As the goddess of sex, Ishtar may have been connected with sexual practice in cults, in a way that is not yet fully understood. Explicit erotic and sexual references do abound in texts concerning Ishtar/Inanna. However, ancient terms for classes of individuals associated with her cult or temple (formerly often translated to “sacred prostitute”) more likely encompass a range of roles in cult rituals that changed over time.

Because of her multiple aspects and powers, Ishtar/Inanna remains a complex and confusing goddess figure in modern study. Scholars suggest she incorporates contradictory forces to the point of embodying paradox: sex and violence, fecundity and death, beauty and terror, centrality and marginality, order and chaos. Ishtar, in all her variety and contradiction, was a central figure in ancient Mesopotamian religion and culture for millennia.

Ishtar at The Dinner Party

Ishtar, the great Goddess of Mesopotamia, is represented at The Dinner Party through architectural motifs. The geometric forms of her runner are taken directly from the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, and the earlier Ziggurat of Ur. The stepped edges mimic the ascending stepped levels of a ziggurat, while the interior edge of the arch is done in brick stitch, a reference to the glazed tiles that cover the Ishtar Gate. The runner is outlined in black braid, which also acknowledges the ancient technique of braiding.

The colors of the plate and runner, mainly shades of gold with green highlights, were chosen as Ishtar’s colors. The gold represents her grandeur and also echoes some of the colors of the Mesopotamian architecture and landscape, while green is her sacred color. On the plate, she is depicted as the positive female creator with multiple breast-like forms that allude to her role as a giver of life. These forms are paralleled in the stitching around the capital letter, done in Italian shading.



Worship of Kali has roots in ancient East Indian belief systems from the first millennium B.C.E.  Today Kali is primarily worshipped in Bengal, eastern India, and throughout Southeast Asia in various forms. Kali, whose other names include Sati, Rudrani, Parvati, Chinnemastica, Kamakshi, Umak Menakshi, Himavati, and Kumari, is the fierce manifestation of the Hindu mother goddess, or Great Goddess Devi (also known as Durga). She is a complicated symbol, simultaneously feared and adored. As she is associated with the opposing forces of destruction and death, as well as creation and salvation, she has been characterized as both vicious and nurturing. She serves as a reminder of death’s inevitability, which encourages acceptance and dispels fear. She is also a goddess of fertility and time, and is the protector often called upon during disasters and epidemics. As a symbol of productivity, she represents the cycles of nature, and can also be interpreted as a constant creator, taking life to give new life. As destroyer, Kali kills that which stands in the way of human purity and peace in both life and death, such as evil, ignorance, and egoism. Kali’s name comes from the Sanskrit word for “time,” signifying her presence throughout the course of human life.

Kali is also often portrayed standing over her husband and consort, Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, with one foot on his leg and another on his chest. This position suggests the narrative of his throwing himself under her feet to stop her spree of destruction. Kali is believed to be the formless energy of Shiva’s demolishing forces; the couple is also often depicted dancing or in sexual union, which suggests Kali is the female counterpart to Shiva; together they represent dynamism and the dualistic nature of the world.

Kali at The Dinner Party:
Kali’s plate is painted with central core imagery, which is filled with seed forms symbolizing fecundity and referencing Kali’s association with the cycles of nature. The plate is painted in deep reds, purples, and browns that repeat in the finger-like protrusions stitched into the runner and in the illuminated letter “K.” These colors remind the viewer that the goddess drinks the blood of demons and that her thirst can never be satiated. The rib-like vertical bands on the plate are evocative of her anthropomorphic form, which is typically depicted as emaciated with prominent ribs.

The undulating flanges on the runner were made using layers of sheer iridescent fabrics, called luminaires, which were then covered in shimmering white fabrics to create a pearlescent effect. This layering is suggestive of the flayed skin of a human corpse, a direct evocation of Kali’s power and her role in death. The forms also reference Kali’s multi-armed manifestation. On the back of the runner, the jutting shapes culminate in an illusory, mouth-like opening, or “gaping maw” as Chicago describes it (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 47). Through the abstract representation of an organic form, Kali’s powers as the Great Destroyer are represented as restorative rather than horrific.

Snake Goddess-

Because written evidence is scarce, scholars have been forced to rely on ancient Minoan material and visual remains in order to understand the nature of Minoan religion. The goddess is thought to have been worshipped in Crete from circa 3000–1100 B.C.E. Early interpretations of her worship, focused on a domestic cult practiced in houses and palaces. Subsequent excavations have revealed shrines with goddess figures located in towns or certain areas of palaces, suggesting that the sphere of the Minoan goddess extended to the official public arena.

Numerous clay figurines of goddesses and clay ritual equipment found in shrines outside the palace of Knossos suggest that Minoan goddess figures are primarily associated with snakes and birds, although this distinction is not exact and evidence exists for other possible associations. Bared breasts, and the bell shapes of some clay goddess figures, suggest a connection with fertility; the association with snakes evokes a chthonic or underworld aspect as well.

Goddess figurines excavated later at other sites are clay and have simplified forms; they are often known as the “Goddess with upraised arms.” Figures of Minoan goddesses similar to those from Knossos appeared on the antiquities market and some were purchased by museums. Made of ivory, stone, and in one case, of terracotta, their authenticity has been challenged by a scholar in the field, Kenneth Lapatin. Of interest are the ivory examples, particularly those embellished with gold. This technique is known as “chryselephantine,” taken from the ancient Greek words for gold and ivory. A specialist in objects of this type, Lapatin has questioned these examples. At the time of their appearance and for many years thereafter, however, they were hailed as exquisite examples of Minoan sculpture and their colors of ivory and gold are used in the runner for the Snake Goddess in The Dinner Party.

Snake Goddess at The Dinner Party:

The runner is decorated in both ivory and gold with brown and yellow accent colors. The snake motif is apparent in the images of gold snakes on the back of the runner and in the snake intertwined in the letter “S” on the runner’s front. The front of the runner echoes the Cretan figure, with a flounce that mimics that of the goddess’ skirt. Inkle-loom woven strips border the runner and are embroidered with patterns similar to those found in Minoan garments.

The plate is rooted in vulvar (or central core) imagery found throughout The Dinner Party, and is largely based on the color-scheme of Cretan Snake Goddesses statues. Echoing their gold and ivory tones, the plate contains four pale yellow arms growing out from a center form, “whose egg-like shapes represent the generative force of the goddess” (Chicago, A Symbol of Our Heritage, 60).


The goddess of wisdom has appeared in nearly every society in a variety of different manifestations, including Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and military victory; Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war; Tara, the Buddhist goddess of compassion who teaches the wisdom of non-attachment; and Inanna, an early Sumerian Goddess. Sophia, whose name in Greek means “wisdom,” is connected to the different incarnations of sacred female knowledge and to those goddesses listed above.

Sophia is one of the central figures of Gnosticism, a Christian philosophical movement with uncertain origins that most likely originated in ancient Rome and Persia. Its followers worship Sophia as both divine female creator and counterpart to Jesus Christ. According to Gnostic beliefs, Christ was conceived of as having two aspects: a male half, identified as the son of God, and a female half, called Sophia, who was venerated as the mother of the universe.

According to The Apocryphon of John, one of the main texts of Gnosticism dating to circa 180, Sophia represented divine wisdom and the female spirit.  She is also celebrated in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, as the female expression of God. In nearly all representations of sacred wisdom some aspect of Sophia can be found; she, like many other goddesses, even became integrated into the worship of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages.

Since the emergence of the modern feminist movement in the 1970s, Sophia has gained popularity as a figure for goddess worship. There has also been a scholarly effort to locate Sophia historically as the goddess of wisdom within the context of Christian religious practices, texts, and images. One of the most interesting theories relates to Michelangelo’s paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Some scholars and art historians believe that the female figure under God’s left arm in the Creation of Adamis, in fact, Sophia, acting out her role as the female being in the creation of life and man.

Sophia at The Dinner Party:

Sophia appears at The Dinner Party in the form of a single flower, echoed in both her plate and runner. According to Chicago, Sophia’s presence at the table represents the downfall of female power, particularly religious power. It is also meant to convey Sophia’s historical transformation in society from a goddess of wisdom and female strength, to a purely spiritual image that plays a secondary role to the male figures of Christianity (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 51). The place setting depicts one of the many incarnations of the goddess of wisdom and her transformation in popular culture throughout history. Compared to the changing colors of the petals, the white center of the flower on Sophia’s plate is a stable and central focal point. It represents the original nature of the goddess of wisdom and her strength as a creative force in the universe. 

On the runner, the petals’ vibrancy fades from the edges toward the center, which signifies the waning of female power that followed the development of Christianity. The chiffon netting that veils the flower petals on the runner is intended to make the vibrant fabric underneath look pale, suggesting how life has paled for women since the downfall of the goddess in popular society (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 38).The netting is the wedding veil of Karen Valentine, one of the women who worked on The Dinner Party. The veil is a symbolic reference to marriage, and one interpretation of its presence suggests that marriage is an institution that can be seen as contributing to the decline of women’s societal power.


According to Greek mythology, the Amazons were warrior women living northeast of Ancient Greece during the later Bronze Age, between approximately 1900 and 1200 B.C.E. The source of the Amazonian myths is classical Greek literature, where they were first mentioned by Homer.

There are many legends of the Amazon warriors; in some accounts, they live in an exclusively female society and seek out men only once a year in order to procreate. There are versions that recount their killing, mutilating, or selling their male offspring into slavery. Although there is no conclusive evidence linking these myths to any ancient tribes resembling the Amazons, the subject’s popularity and its representations in art and literature has engendered many successive legends. The Amazon Warrior holds an important place at The Dinner Party, representing a tradition of powerful female warriors and the value of unified communities of women.

Amazon at The Dinner Party:

The Amazon women are represented in the place setting as a symbolic individual. The place setting represents Amazon women both as warriors and as goddess worshippers. The color palette—black, red, and white—is traditionally used in their artistic representation.

On the plate is an image of breasts covered in gold and silver, representing the breastplates that the warriors wore in battle. The image may also refer to the legend that Amazon warriors cut off one of their breasts to be better archers. The plate also depicts two double-headed axes, a white egg, a red crescent, and a black stone, all of which are associated with the Amazons. In addition to their use in battle, double-headed axes were an element of goddess worship in Crete, the center of the Minoan world, 2600–1400 B.C.E., and they were also traditionally used by women to cut down trees. The white egg is a symbol of fertility; the red crescent is tied to the worship of the Great Mother and her connection with the moon; and the black stone was the earliest incarnation of the goddess in Sumer, 3500–2334 B.C.E., present-day Iraq.

The runner echoes much of the same imagery used in the plate—the white egg, red crescents, double-headed axes, and breastplates appear on the back. A triangle, a symbol of the goddess and the sacred feminine, provides a base for the egg and crescents. Snakeskin, on the front of the runner, was a material the Amazons wore into battle.  Both the titanium blades of the axes, and the lacing, are tied with French knots made of copper fibers, which come from the studs on the Amazon’s boots. The image of the axe is repeated in the illuminated capital letter “A” on the front of the runner.

Hatshepsut –
(b. 15th century B.C.E., Ancient Egypt; d. unknown)
(Read our coverage of her here. Listen Here)

Hatshepsut reigned over Ancient Egypt as its veritable pharaoh while the official king was still too young to rule effectively. During her reign she adopted a role and title typically reserved for male rulers.

Thutmose III was just a child at the time he was crowned pharaoh, which allowed Queen Hatshepsut to rule alongside Thutmose III as his regent. Despite her legal title as regent, Hatshepsut actively took the pharaonic role, because the king himself was still young. Though this role was traditionally assumed by mothers of young kings, Hatshepsut acted as principal king while Thutmose III was treated as co-regent, a role usually reserved for younger, designated heirs appointed by their fathers. Hatshepsut actively asserted her role as pharaoh and sought to legitimate her rule over Egypt in numerous, highly visible ways. In reliefs she commissioned of herself, she is often represented in the dress of a male pharaoh, even wearing a fake beard; the only indication that she is a woman is her name inscribed beside her image. At other times, Hatshepsut is identifiably female, but wears the royal regalia of a male pharaoh.

A famous series of reliefs at her temple at Deir el-Bahari in the Valley of the Kings, depict Hatshepsut’s divine birth and coronation. In such divine birth scenes, a god—in Hatshepsut’s relief it is the chief god Amun—impregnates the pharaoh’s mother, thus establishing the pharaoh’s rule as a rightful and god-granted part of the divine order of the world. In representing herself as a divine daughter of the gods, she sought to erase any doubts about the legitimacy of her rule as pharaoh.

After her death, Thutmose III, now sole king, emphasized his relationship to Thutmose II, his natural father, and minimized evidence of Hatshepsut’s more than twenty-year dominance during his reign. Despite Thutmose III’s efforts to downplay her role, Hatshepsut is still widely considered to have been the legitimate fifth king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and her life as a powerful ancient female authority continues to fascinate thousands of years later.

Hatshepsut at The Dinner Party:
Hatshepsut’s plate is the first at The Dinner Party to have a raised relief surface. It symbolizes the authority Hatshepsut exerted over Egypt as its most renowned female pharaoh. It also mirrors the Egyptian low relief, a popular and important method of sculpting during the Dynastic period, in which figures protrude slightly from the surface, creating contour and visibility. In keeping with that tradition, the center of the plate is only slightly, nearly imperceptibly, raised; according to Chicago, this place setting represents the transition from the flat plates in The Dinner Party to the three-dimensional ones. The plate’s blue and red tones recall colors often seen in Egyptian tomb paintings and reliefs. The smoothly curving shapes in the image suggest Egyptian hairstyles, headdresses, pharaonic collars, and the rendering of partial profiles used repeatedly in Egyptian portraits.

Hieroglyphic symbols praising the pharaoh’s reign were embroidered onto strips of fine white linen, which emulate the high-quality fabric used in Hatshepsut’s time (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 43). The pink and green border on the runner replicates the geometric motif and color palette found in the frescoes in Hatshepsut’s tomb. The blue-green roundlettes on the back of the runner are designed to resemble the same style of pharaonic collar. In ancient Egypt, blue-green was an important color, as it was associated with the deities, and rulers who wore the color visually connected themselves to gods and goddesses. The illuminated letter “H” on the front of the runner combines the Egyptian symbols of the eye of justice and the life-giving symbol of the pharaoh (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 56). Also on the front of the runner are embroidered symbols “suggesting the phrase: ‘Well-doing Goddess, Just Pharaoh of Egypt’” (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 61).

Judith –

Judith, whose name translates from the Hebrew as “Jewess” or “Praised,” was a widow of noble rank living in the Jewish city of Bethulia during 6th century B.C.E. During the time when the city was under attack by the Assyrian army headed by Holofernes, Judith is said to have devised a plan to reclaim her land for her people.

Pretending to flee the land of the Israelites, she requested a meeting with Holofernes to discuss a strategy to help his army win. Holofernes was mesmerized by the noblewoman’s great beauty and her desire to serve his army, and he invited her to remain as his guest. After a feast, when she was left alone with the intoxicated general, she and her maid decapitated him with his own sword and carried his head back to the Bethulian people. Her act restored the Israelites’ strength and courage and caused chaos within the Assyrian army. The army quickly fled, and the people of Bethulia were left in peace.

Judith’s story has not fully been accepted as history. Many scholars believe that it is a fictionalization of historical events, while others believe it can be read as a parable. This heroic tale has been depicted throughout history by countless artists, including Donatello, Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio, among others. Perhaps the best-known artistic representation is Artemisia Gentileschi‘s (Read about her here. Listen here.) Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612–13, painted by one of the first women to take on religious and heroic themes.

Judith at The Dinner Party:

Judith’s place setting combines symbols of Middle Eastern traditions with symbols of femininity. The runner evokes the intricate headdress known as a gargush, traditionally worn by a Yemenite bride. The gold threading, cords, and coins in the runner suggest the Middle Eastern custom of displaying the bride’s dowry to demonstrate her family’s wealth and her value as a commodity. Central to the runner is a bold, triangular belt buckle similar to those used as ornamentation on ancient Hebrew clothing. The triangle is used here as a symbol of Judith’s strength and her loyalty to her sex. On top of the runner, appearing vertically on either side of Judith’s plate, are Hebrew letters proclaiming Judith’s bravery on behalf of the people of Bethulia. Translated they read, “Judith, heroine to her people.” Judith’s name is slashed by a sword, which represents the weapon used to kill Holofernes.Judith’s plate features a floral design with leaves, whose edges create curved dark and light triangles like those on the front of the runner. The combination of dark and bright colors echoes the colors of the runner and the dramatic play of light and dark in Gentileschi‘s Baroque painting depicting the event.

(b. 625 B.C.E., Island of Lesbos; d. 570 B.C.E., location unknown)

Called the Tenth Muse by Plato, Sappho was a prolific poet of ancient Greece. She innovated the form of poetry through her first-person narration (instead of writing from the vantage point of the gods) and by refining the lyric meter. The details of Sappho’s life have been obscured by legend and mythology, and the best source of information is the Suidas, a Greek lexicon compiled in the 10th century.

The community of women on the Isle of Lesbos often gathered to read poetry, perform music, celebrate women’s religious festivals, and collectively welcome their daughters’ first menses. Sappho herself was knowledgeable and skilled in music and dance and enjoyed intertwining these art forms during performances. During this period of Greek history, homosexuality was accepted and relationships between women on the island were common.

Sappho was one of the earliest poets to write vivid and emotional poetry in the first person. Her most common subject was love and the strong emotions it generated, such as passion, jealousy, affection, and hatred. Her poems were recited accompanied by a lyre, which heightened their emotional impact.

Not only was Sappho’s subject matter revolutionary, but her use of language also changed poetry. She wrote solely in the local dialect, using common expressions and words in her poems. She had a graceful and elegant style; the lyric meter that she refined is now called the Sapphic meter, a type of lyric that influenced both Ovid and Catullus. (The form is defined as a stanza of three such verses followed by a verse consisting of a dactyl followed by a spondee or trochee.) While acclaimed during her lifetime, Sappho’s writings were criticized and ultimately destroyed by the church after the 4th century because of their erotic and lesbian imagery. Attempts to revive her poetry began in the Renaissance and have continued throughout history. Well into the 20th century, translations often obscured the lesbian themes in her work. The accompanying legends and mythology that surround her life, as well as a lack of textual remnants of her poetry, have made Sappho a mysterious figure perhaps better known for introducing the terms “lesbian” and “sapphic” into modern vocabulary.

Sappho at The Dinner Party:

Sappho’s place setting incorporates motifs from Greek art and architecture, which reflect her important cultural influence. There are also references to her as the “flower of the graces,” a name which contemporary writers ascribed to the poet.

The plate incorporates vulvar (or central core) imagery, including an abstracted floral form with petals glazed in purples, blues, and greens. The color palette also suggests the Aegean Sea surrounding the Island of Lesbos.

On the back of the runner, the colors of the sea are the backdrop for an embroidered Doric temple. Four wavy lines border the runner, mimicking the long curly hair often found in Greek statues of the Classical period. On the front of the runner, Sappho’s name is embroidered in an eruption of color that identifies her poetry as a “burst of female creativity” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 68). The “S” in her name is illustrated with a lyre, the instrument that often accompanied the recitation of her poetry.

(b. circa 470 B.C.E., Miletus, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey); d. circa 410 B.C.E., location unknown)

Aspasia of Miletus was a scholar and philosopher whose intellectual influence distinguished her in Athenian culture, which treated women as second-class citizens during the 5th century B.C.E. She used her status to open a school of philosophy and rhetoric, and she is known to have had enormous influence over such prominent leaders and philosophers as Pericles, Plato, and Socrates.

As she was from Miletus, Aspasia was able to circumvent the legal restrictions on Athenian women, who lacked the most basic rights and were sheltered from public life. Whereas the majority of Greek women were illiterate, and would never have been welcomed into the philosophical and academic circles associated with Plato and Socrates, Aspasia arrived in Athens in the mid-440s B.C.E. as an educated woman, schooled by her father, Axiochus. She established an academic center for the exchange of ideas, which served as a school for elite young women in Athens.

Aspasia’s writing, and her knowledge of philosophy and local politics, drew the most powerful citizens in Athens, including notable writers and thinkers, to listen to her lectures. Aspasia was acclaimed for her intellect and charisma, and Socrates, in his writings, credits her as his instructor in rhetoric. Though none of Aspasia’s own writings exist, many of the most famed ancient Greek scholars have featured her in their texts, acknowledging her as their muse.


Aspasia at The Dinner Party:
Her plate shows a blooming floral pattern, suggestive of her femininity, and done in earth tones used in the art and architecture of 5th century B.C.E.

The runner references the types of clothing and jewelry that both men and women wore during Aspasia’s time. One of the most familiar elements of ancient Greek attire, the Greek chiton (similar to a Roman toga) is suggested in the draped fabric on the front and back of the runner. Two embroidered leaf-shaped pins hold the draped fabric to the runner, similar to the jeweled clasps the Greeks would have used to fasten their robes. On the back of the runner are six black palmettes, embroidered as a stylized version of a honeysuckle or palm tree frond, a dominant motif in Ancient Greek paintings, pottery, and architectural detail. The floral vine pattern, stitched in gold, silver, and black on the runner’s edges, mimics motifs found on many Greek vases and urns. This pattern is also repeated in the illuminated letter “A” on the front of the runner.

(b. circa C.E. 25, Celtic Britain; d. circa C.E. 62, Celtic Britain)

Boadaceia is one of many spellings for the name of the famous warrior queen from Celtic Britain, who ruled during the first century, when the Roman Empire was growing and taking over many of the area’s Celtic tribes. Other spellings of her name include Boudica, Boadicea, Buduica, and Bonduca, though a more popular version is Boadicea, which may be a mistranslation from an original manuscript.

Boudica (this spelling is used in an effort to stay as true as possible to her original Celtic name) was married to Prasutagus, king of the Iceni people, a Celtic tribe living in southeastern England (present-day Norfolk). Prasutagus, following tradition, willed his kingdom to the Roman Empire, with the provision that his two daughters be co-heirs. After his death, the Romans annexed his kingdom as though it were conquered territory. The Iceni people’s property was stolen, and Prasutagus’s family treated as slaves. His widow Boudica was reputed to have been beaten by the Roman soldiers and her two daughters raped.

In the year C.E. 60, the Iceni joined with the Trinovantes, a neighboring people, to revolt against the Romans. They chose Boudica, the popular widow of their beloved king, as their leader. After a series of smaller battles in which Boudica’s troops were victorious, they met the full force of the Roman army. The Roman soldiers were far outnumbered by the rebel Celtic forces, but they were better equipped and defeated Boudica and her army after a long battle, which Boudica commandeered from a chariot with her daughters. Boudica’s army was slaughtered, and it was shortly after this battle that she died. There are two historical sources on Boudica’s life—one claims she poisoned herself and the other asserts she died from illness. Historical sources note that she was buried with all the pomp and ceremony accorded the funeral of a great leader.

Boadaceia at The Dinner Party:
After researching Boudica, Chicago and her team decided to use powerful Celtic images to represent her as a warrior queen. The patterns on the runner are constructed from felt, which many scholars agree was the first fabric, predating any woven textiles. The felt on the runner was made using the traditional process of compacting wool with water, heat, and pressure. The powerful curvilinear forms encircling the plate “signify both [Boudica’s] personal strength and the Roman encroachment upon her autonomy and power” (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 80).

On the plate there is a structure similar to Stonehenge, representing the British Isles where her people were from. A stylized golden helmet, also decorated with Celtic patterns, signifies Boudica’s status as a warrior.

Adorning the swirling patterns in the runner are handmade enameled jewels, which could be found on the traditional Celtic jewelry that Boudica would have worn as queen. The embroidered patterns on the runner and in the illuminated letter “B,” were also adapted from designs found on first-century jewelry, shields, and mirrors.


(b. 370, Alexandria, Egypt; d. 415, Alexandria, Egypt)
Hypatia of Alexandria was the first woman to make significant advances in the fields of mathematics and philosophy and was also a respected teacher and astronomer. She became a teacher and eventually the head of a Platonist school in Alexandria, known as the Museum of Alexandria, in 400. It was here that she taught and mentored some of the greatest Pagan and Christian minds of the day, including Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, who later became a close friend. In teaching, Hypatia focused primarily on the work of two Neoplatonic figures—Plotinus, the philosophy’s founder, and his student Iamblichus.

Hypatia resurrected an interest in Greek religion and goddesses. She came to embody the type of science and learning equated with pagan teachings, such as astrology and numerology, and was an ardent supporter of Greek thought and philosophy. It is unclear whether she conducted her own mathematical research, but she furthered the efforts of established men in the field, her most extensive work being in algebra.

In an environment that was turning increasingly Christian, Hypatia’s sex was less controversial than her Paganism. Most scholars during her time converted from Paganism to Christianity in order to protect themselves against religious hostility. Hypatia refused and continued to teach Pagan beliefs, which made her a target for violence. She became the focal point in a series of riots between Christians and Pagans. The rioting increased, and Hypatia was murdered by radical Christian monks in 415, who stripped her of her clothes, scraped her flesh from her bones, tore off her limbs, and burned her mutilated body.

Hypatia at The Dinner Party:

The runner is bordered with woven bands of wool with interlacing patterns as well as heart motifs similar to those found in the ornamentation of Coptic tunics. The orange, red, and green palette used in the runner is repeated in Hypatia’s plate, which incorporates a leaf motif also based on those found in Coptic tapestries. The plate’s imagery can also be interpreted as a butterfly form; the scalloped edges of the lower wing segments give the illusion of motion. Chicago suggests that this reference to flight, as well as the form’s raised relief, refers to Hypatia’s attempt to “break free from the constraints imposed upon so many women of her time” (Chicago,The Dinner Party, 58).

Embroidered on the back of the runner are four crying female faces from youth to old age that represent Hypatia in the Coptic style, suggesting that she stood for women of all ages. The image’s blurred appearance, and the depiction of four limbs being pulled in different directions represents the brutality of Hypatia’s death and the conflict created by her religious beliefs. Chicago uses a blood-red color in this panel, along with a rainbow of tones, which suggests the dichotomy of violence and beauty in Hypatia’s life.

A rendering of Hypatia’s face, based on an actual Coptic weaving of a goddess, peers through the capital “H” in her illuminated letter. Her mouth is covered in a band, which represents her silencing as well as the “deliberate muting of other powerful women” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 58).