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#Nuntastic women artists

evidence of artist nuns keeps surfacing

I have a new favorite hashtag on Twitter: #nuntastic. I smile every time I see it. But it’s not just entertaining. For a historical fiction writer, #nuntastic is a potentially great search tool. It’s pretty new on the scene, but if #nuntastic catches on, it will help researchers quickly locate evidence of women artists in history who happened to live in convents.

Hey monks, make room for the nuns

The word ‘nuntastic’ resonates with me on a deeper level, too. It reminds me of the fluid nature of history. After all, there is scant evidence of artist nuns in comparison to the wealth of evidence of artist monks. Many historians concluded that women artists did not exist in pre-modern monastic life. I certainly remember hearing this “fact” and reading about the plethora of monks who spent their days bent over leaves of parchment, applying lapis dust and gold leaf to prayer books, often working images of themselves into their drawings.

More than one #nuntastic artist

When I first began researching The Girl from Oto, Book 1 in the Miramonde Series, I was stunned to learn about a woman named Guda, a 12th century nun who drew a self-portrait in an illustrated manuscript, including the words: “Guda, a sinful woman, wrote and painted this book.” Heavens to Murgatroyd, I thought. An outlier! How cool! But as I dug deeper into research, I learned that Guda wasn’t alone. Not by a long shot.

Guda’s story, along with the treasure-trove of information about artist nuns I found in the book Nuns: A History of Convent Life by Silvia Evangelisti, gave me permission to create my character Miramonde de Oto, a young woman who grows up in a Renaissance-era Pyrenees convent and trains as an artist there.

Evangelisti’s book introduced me to Plautilla Nelli, a largely self-taught Renaissance-era nun who lived in Florence and painted mostly religious works, including a large-scale rendition of The Last Supper. She was one of the few women included in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of Artists (published in 1550). Vasari wrote that there were so many of Nelli’s paintings on the walls of Florentine houses that it would be tedious to mention them all. Talk about #nuntastic!

Plautilla Nelli, Lamentation with Saints

But when American art aficionado Jane Fortune restored a work of Nelli’s in 2006, only three of the artist’s paintings were known to still exist. Now, thanks to the work of Fortune’s Advancing Women Artists and other devotees of pre-modern female old masters, nearly 20 paintings of Nelli’s have been rediscovered.

No arguing with dental records

The latest sparkling jewel in the #nuntastic crown is the story that came out recently about evidence of lapis lazuli pigment in the teeth of a 10th-11th century German nun whose remains were examined by a team of archaeologists. The researchers found blue dental tartar on her teeth. Further testing revealed lapis lazuli. The most likely cause was from licking her artist’s brush while at work illuminating a manuscript, or inhaling dust while grinding the stone to make pigment.

This brings me back to what I said before about the fluid nature of history. When historians make sweeping assumptions based on the evidence we have at hand, they don’t account for the gaping holes in the historical record. Most people interested in medieval European history have heard that monks, not nuns, illustrated manuscripts—because that’s the story we’ve been told.

But Guda, ‘a sinful woman,’ wasn’t the only nun who ever wielded a paintbrush. Maybe there were lots and lots of women creating art at the very same time as all of those monks. Maybe if archaeologists examined more #nuntastic dental remains they would find so much lapis lazuli and other pigments that the art world would reconsider old assumptions about who, exactly, painted all of those exquisite manuscripts.

Until then, I look forward to the next #nuntastic newsflash about women artists whose work has languished in the shadows of history for far too long.

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