Tabica con aguadora. Catedral de Teruel

Women in the Museum

Itinerary available in the museum with the Multimedia Guide.

Length: 90'



From women without a story to a History of Women

This Neanderthal woman lived in an Asturian cave called El Sidrón. Her species, very much in fashion today, is currently under discussion in numerous scientific debates. The main information about Neanderthals comes from their bones and teeth. In addition to using their teeth for chewing, they were also useful for holding objects and manipulating them better. However, given the scarcity of the evidence, it´s risky to deduce details regarding their behavior, their interaction between the sexes or how tasks were distributed according to gender, if such differentiation actually existed.

Topics like these regarding prehistoric societies have traditionally been reconstructed by transferring social models pertaining to sex or gender from the society that was studying them. That´s why, ever since the Paleolithic period, it seemed as if women didn´t have a story to be told or had always been limited to performing secondary roles. Advancements in archeology at the end of the 20th century achieved by female researchers investigating the History of Women highlighted roles women played and organizational models that differed from their contemporaries. New ways of formulating questions about objects and other archeological elements have revealed an uncharted world in which women emerge in leading roles, as we will see over the course of our visit.

Mujer Neanderthal

Neanderthal Woman (Sala 5, Vitrina 5.6)

Women´s tasks

These peculiar esparto grass objects are the oldest evidence of work that was done with such material on the Iberian Peninsula. They were preserved for almost seven thousand years thanks to the extraordinary natural conditions found in the Bat Cave, which was used for collective burials. They include the remains of clothing, dresses and footwear, and of small, finely woven baskets that were used as personal items or as funerary objects for the bodies buried there. Twelve such bodies were laid out in a circle around a female corpse. This fact, from a symbolic standpoint, reflects the importance of an actual flesh and blood woman who was honored in this way and wore a golden headband.

Although this woman appears to have played an important role within her social group, it’s not clear what her actual occupations involved. The esparto grass objects in this tomb present us with an important question: who was in charge of maintaining and extending the useful life of these everyday objects and of keeping them in operating condition? We do not know whether men or women were the ones who did it. Historical documentation from earlier periods and ethnographic comparisons indicate that many such activities, essential for the survival of a community, were traditionally carried out by women.

Objetos de esparto. Cueva de los murciélagos

Esparto Grass Objects. Bat Cave, Granada (Sala 6, Vitrina 7.3)

The female body, the first human self-representation

This small female figurine displays a pubic triangle chiseled along a dotted line. It is one of the few sexual symbols from the Calcolithic period. Given the realism of such figurines it may be inferred that their creators were more interested in the role of the individual than that of the group. Nevertheless, we know nothing of their meaning, although they are considered to be the product of a symbolic language. The main question is whether they represented idols or actual women. Previously, they were interpreted to be the images of gods, or of the mother God, or as allusions to fertility. Today, all these models have been called into question.

On a related note, it doesn´t seem to be a coincidence that the first anthropomorphic representations, the Paleolithic Venuses, were of women and extended throughout Europe; this fact has lead to the affirmation that the first human self-representation was the body of a woman. These early manifestations may have been related to fertility, that is, to a woman´s ability to create life, an interpretation that has been challenged today. From that point onward, male figurines will progressively gain in importance, possibly reflecting a shift, unbeknownst to us, which also may have originated from the very civilization that produced them.

Ídolo antropomorfo femenino

Antropomorphic Female Idol (Sala 7, Vitrina 7.6)

Deified Women

This small silver votive sculpture represents Kherdeankh, mother of the doctor, architect and priest Imhotep, who crafted the tiered Pyramid of Djoser. Following the deification of her son, she also came to be considered the descendant of a god and, although she lived at the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C., this figurine was created in the Ptolemaic period, more than two thousand years after her death. Her cult was quite popular, given that she mediated between men and the gods, and it persisted right up through the Roman period.

Kherdeankh wears a serpent ureus on her forehead, an attribute of the Pharaoh and of the gods, which indicates the degree of respect she managed to attain. In fact, she was not only considered to be the descendant of a god, but was sometimes even identified with the goddess Hathor. In ancient Egypt, even though women enjoyed similar legal conditions to men, they were subordinate to them and not all women enjoyed the recognition and elevated social status of Kherdeankh. Only a few women, such as the queens Hatshepsut, Nefertiti or Cleopatra were relevant enough and held in high enough regard for their names to be handed down to posterity.

Estatua de Kherdeankh

Kherdeankh Statue (Sala 34, Vitrina 34.4)

Recovering women´s lost identity

This mummy belongs to an approximately 25-year-old woman. It comes from the private collection of a Spanish diplomat and was purchased by the Museum toward the end of the 19th century. At that time, it was deemed to correspond to a man, specifically a priest, which was a logical conclusion if we bear in mind the opinions held by nineteenth century archeologists regarding women in Antiquity.

External examination does not allow us to determine its sex or age, since no part of its anatomy is visible through the bandages that cover the entire body. Moreover, and quite possibly to make the mummy more attractive for sale or exhibition, it was associated with five polychrome funerary cartonnages from a more recent period that bore no direct relationship to her. However, radiological analysis has allowed us not only to discover that it was a young woman with a frail and sickly physique, but also that on her journey to the Other Side she was wearing several items or amulets of value, for example a serpent-shaped object which might have been a ring or an amulet. Thanks to the existence of the mummification process in the Egypt of the Pharaohs and to modern analytical techniques, we were able to recover her true identity.

Momia egipcia de mujer

Female Mummy (Sala 35, Vitrina 35.11)

Perfect male facing a woman, the imperfect male

This is a statue of Apollo, the god of reason and beauty as well as a model for excellence among Greek men. The latter considered themselves to be perfect and the complete opposite and superior to women, their counter-model. Men, after enduring painstaking schooling and achieving their citizenship, played the main role in all of their respective cities´ activities, in which they exhibited their spirit of sacrifice, competition and achievement. Schooling, debates, politics, leisure and sports fostered their spirit and waging war to defend their city put it to the test.

In contrast, women, their counter-models, were deprived of education and suffered throughout this period one of the cruelest and longest-lasting indictments in history. They were categorized “as imperfect men”, a viewpoint reiterated by many Greek philosophers, with Aristotle at the head.

For all of these reasons, citizen status remained a male prerogative, from which women were excluded along with all other areas of community life, although fortunately there were some exceptions.

Estatua de Apolo

Apollo (Sala 36, Peana)

The opposing lives of men and women

Greek girls and boys shared toys such as these. They also shared similar schooling until the age of seven, but their life after this point went two very different, opposite ways. The Greeks imagined male time to be lineal and constantly evolving while female time was cyclical and discontinuous. Mythology expresses this fact well. Odysseus lives through one adventure after the next while in stark contrast, his wife Penelope weaves by day and unweaves by night in an endless cycle. Their lives correlate perfectly to the life of the Greek male, an active citizen in the polis and that of the Greek woman, excluded from political life and housebound in a repetitive cycle of tasks geared at ensuring the man´s progeny.

Greek women were perpetual minors who depended on their father or husband. Should they disobey the obligations imposed upon them by their gender, they were punished. In spite of it all, a few of them managed to become scientists, such as Hypatia, philosophers like Diotima, intelectuals like Aspatia or poets such as Sappho, all of whom were women who escaped from circular feminine time to determine their future and contribute to the culture of the period.


Juguetes infantiles griegos

Children's Toys (Sala 36, Vitrina 36.9)

Women, fascination and danger

This lekythos with red figures from the 4th century B.C. displays the image of a Siren. This hybrid character combining a bird and a woman, of Assyrian-Babylonian origin, became world-renowned.

Sirens are beings that one should flee from, in spite of their attractive appearance. This ambivalent archetype based on patriarchal assumptions originates from the notion of women as fascinating albeit dangerous objects. In Greek culture, the Sirens lived on a gloomy island and used their songs to entice sailors, who ran aground on their shores. Apollonius of Rhodes describes them for the first time at the beginning of the 3rd century B.C., as possessing the head of a woman and the body of a bird, consistent with their musical prowess. It wasn´t until the Middle Ages that their body shifted into that of a fish.

As beautiful and eternal provocateurs of men, they personified temptation and lust among other things and enjoyed a long life in popular lore under different names and forms: naiads, Lamias, Xanas, maidens from Midsummer Night´s Eve… They were also precursors to the femme fatale of Romantic period iconography, present to this day.

Lécito griego con sirena

Lekythos with the image of a Siren (Sala 36, Vitrina 36.25)

Real women, women as heroes

Tomb Nº 155 is the main burial site for the Iberian necropolis at Baza and it is famous because therein was discovered a sculpture known as the Lady of Baza, which was a large funerary urn. The discovery of this tomb, which had been preserved by being sealed with its archeological surroundings intact, represented a turning point for understanding the History of Iberian women.

The presence of presumed male funerary objects that accompanied the Lady, and which included various collections of arms, prompted researchers to think that the grave had been intended for a man. Subsequent studies, including research on tiny scorched bone fragments mixed with ashes and preserved in an opening on one side of the throne, demonstrated that the person buried there was a woman. It was thus demonstrated that the presence of arms was compatible with tombs for women, a notion that had traditionally not been contemplated. We may be in the presence of the founder of a bloodline, who, in this manner, had been revered as a hero by her descendants as a reflection of the important leadership position that women occupied in Iberian society. Quite possibly for the same reason, this culture left us with a greater proportional number of female images.

Tumba Nº 155 de Baza, Granada

Tomb nº 155 at Baza, Granada (Sala 11, Vitrina 11.14)

The importance of Iberian women

These bronze figurines in eloquent ritual poses represent women from Iberian culture. They are votive objects that the Iberians deposited over time as an offering to their gods. The women represented by them are ladies from the aristocracy, and thanks to these offerings we know how they dressed. They generally wore a robe, which fit snugly around the waist, and draped themselves in shawls or veils. Some wore high and varied headpieces along with other eye-catching adornments, especially pieces of jewelry, only accessible to the wealthier classes. Something similar occurred with the wool and linen used to manufacture their gowns. Given the exclusive materials and elegant styling, their clothing is indicative of their status and social differentiation. Their poses and gestures underscored the notion of organizational hierarchy within Iberian society, in which it appears that women played a significant role, whose details remain unknown to us. Their role may have been on a par with the role of the men, since the proportion of female offerings discovered was roughly similar to those of men.

Exvotos femeninos ibéricos

Female Votive Offerings (Sala 11, Vitrina 11.8)

Toys as a means of educating women

In Rome, education traditionally took place within the context of the family, the environment in which both boys and girls grew up and spent their early years of development. Children’s own mothers handled the education of their offspring. At the age of seven, boys were then educated directly by their fathers. However, public education soon became commonplace at schools, which both boys and girls attended as long as they were free and belonged to certain social classes. At the age of 16, only men continued to pursue their schooling with the help of some longtime family friend.

Although less is known about girls´ education, we are familiar with the toys they used and which reproduce the maternal role expected of them. Among these we find baby bottles, rattles, play kitchens or dolls. The latter were made out of all sorts of materials, and it was not uncommon to find articulated dolls. Such rudimentary automatons must have certainly delighted young girls. Some funerary steles display girls playing with them, and on certain occasions, dolls have appeared buried alongside their owners so that the latter would be accompanied by the things that had made them happy while they were still alive.

Muñeca romana

Terracota doll (Sala 21, Vitrina 21.4)

Women in Roman law

This funerary stele from a town called Lara de los Infantes in Burgos is dedicated by the Roman Bebio Cándido to his servant Optatila Festa, a woman of local origin who died at the age of 27. Above the inscription, a scene depicts a seated woman, who holds an object in her hand that appears to be a mirror, facing a table laden with offerings. The stele is interpreted to reflect the appreciation of the employer toward one of his workers.

In Roman society, servants, slaves, freed slaves and clients were all part of the family, alongside the family father, his wife, his children and grandchildren. Roman civil law recognized a man´s authority over the other members of his household, including his spouse. As regards women, it presents an idealized image as a matron, a model of honesty and modesty, but whose margin of freedom was rather limited. However, as of the first century B.C., a slow process of emancipation of patrician women got underway, thus triggering a misogynistic reaction against them by numerous authors, such as Titus Livius or Juvenal.

Estela funeraria de Optatila Festa

Funerary Stele (Sala 21, Peana)

Women, inferior or superior to men?

This sarcophagus from San Justo de la Vega in the province of León, constructed around the year 310, is one of the first works on the peninsula that reflects the Christianization of the Hispano Roman provincial elites. Its formal characteristics are a continuation of Roman tradition, but its iconography expresses the essence of the new religion. The pagan Roman pantheon disappears, and a scene of Adam and Eve, ashamed of their nudity, appears in the center, surrounded by other biblical scenes.

This foundational tale, taken from Genesis, would subsequently reach the Middle Ages as a part of the tradition of the founding Fathers of the Church, who comment on the idea of a woman, Eve, created from the rib of her companion Adam. This concept became the basis for female subordination to men. Only toward the end of the Middle Ages did an opposing tradition arise, when other voices – both male and female – defended that women were more excellent because they were God´s most recent creation and therefore constituted the more perfect of the two, a reversal of the traditional argument.

Sarcófago de Astorga, León

Astorga Sarcophagus, León (Sala 23, Peana)

Female travellers and pilgrims

This fibula belongs to the funerary objects found in the tomb of a Visigoth woman from Turuñuelo in the province of Badajoz. The woman, deceased towards the end of the 6th century, must have belonged to an upper social class. Workers at the farm where the tomb was found nicknamed it “the queen´s dowry” given the treasures within: threads, a ring with an inscription, earrings, and trinkets… all made of gold.

One item that stands out is a fibula that represents the Adoration of the Magi with an inscription in Greek asking the Virgin Mary for protection for its holder. This piece appears to be of Byzantine origin and reflects the existence of trade relations between the eastern Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula during this period. We even have reports of female travellers, such as the case of sister Egeria, who went on a pilgrimage from Hispania to the Holy Lands in the 4th century, as described in the book she wrote upon her return. Such women challenged the patriarchal norm that preferred to keep women sitting at home. Egeria travelled out of curiosity, and occupied a men´s symbolic place. We do not know whether or not this was true for the holder of the fibula, who acquired an exceptional object from faraway lands and decided to be buried with it.

Fíbula de El Turuñuelo,  Badajoz

Fibula from Turuñuelo , Badajoz (Sala 23, Vitrina 23,4)

Visigoth women, an exception to the rule

This beautiful marble tombstone originates from Mérida and is dated to be from the year 661. Upon its surface there appears an inscription with sentences separated by beautiful, stylized symbols in the shape of a leaf. The inscription refers to a woman by the name of Eugenia who reconstructed or enlarged a female monastery. Eugenia became a nun in this monastery, and later acted as Abbess there. It was dedicated, according to the inscription, by the powerful bishop Oroncio, the same bishop who had presided over the 7th and 8th Councils of Toledo.

We conserve a fair number of the names of women who founded monasteries all across the peninsula during the period of Visigoth domination. Providing monasteries and investing one´s fortune or one´s very life in them was a frequent practice among virgins and widows. For women, it was not only a way of expressing devotion and exercising charity, but also a way to access education and enjoy the power and freedom to act as they pleased. In this manner, they were able to exact influence and actively intervene in their society in spite of not complying with the characteristics that had been traditionally assigned to them as the weak, submissive and defenseless beings from which men demanded respect.

Lápida visigoda de Eugenia

Eugenia´s Tombstone (Sala 23, Peana)

Ornament from a woman of Al-Andalus

This decorated rock crystal container is undoubtedly of Fatimid origin, that is, it was produced in Egypt, and ended up in the hands of a woman from Al-Andalus thanks to international trade. It may have contained kohl, which along with “alheña” (or henna), which was one of Andalusian women’s favorite body decorations. Kohl is used as a dark ink to dye the rims of the eyelids and the eyebrows. In addition to protecting against ophthalmological diseases, its use was extended to female standards of beauty. Women ended up drawing dots on their faces, much like tattoos, with this product. The transparency of the crystal of the container contrasted with the dark powder held inside, producing an esthetically pleasing effect. As occurs with most Muslim objects, the surface is decorated with an inscription that reads “Blessing of God”, and two birds that face each other on opposite sides of the tree of life.

Caring for and embellishing healthy, diseased or even deceased bodies, was traditionally performed more frequently by women than by men in the various medieval cultures, and practically continues to be so in the present.


Bote de kohl

Kohl Container (Sala 23, Vitrina 23.16)

Women´s trades and professions in the Middle Ages

This polychrome wooden panel displays a water seller carrying a two-handled pitcher upon her head. It belongs to the lavishly decorated wooden ceiling of the Teruel Cathedral, built in the middle of the 13th century, and offers an extensive repertoire of scenes from everyday life. Other ceiling panels depict women extracting water from a well, which speaks to women´s frequent association with fountains, laundry washing spots or rivers throughout the medieval tradition.

During the Middle Ages, women carried out a wide range of jobs and occupations. Providing water, operating and administrating public baths and washing clothes were among the activities handled by women. Women´s work-related practices were remunerated when they took place outside the family setting, but not in the case of jobs undertaken within the home. Similarly, jobs were done in artisans´ and merchants´ workshops, where women handled the same professional tasks as their male relatives, but without receiving any remuneration in return. When the male relatives disappeared, women would take over the operation of such businesses.

Tabica con aguadora. Catedral de Teruel

Panel with water seller. Teruel Cathedral (Sala 24, PEANA)

The Virgin, vindicator of women

This gold polychrome carved figure held profound devotional meaning. It shows the Virgin offering protection and a place for Christ, her child, as the model of a woman who represents all women. Such carved figures subsequently underwent numerous procedures to adapt them to changing esthetic fashions. Some even lost their original polychrome appearance under newer layers of paint. However, thanks to being reused, they managed to survive until today.

Traditionally, the Church has attributed an ambivalent role to women. On the one hand, it considered Eve responsible for the introduction of sin into the world. On the other hand, it defended the figure of the Virgin for its fundamental role in offering Redemption to mankind, through which, the role of women was reasserted. Hundreds of images of Virgins with Child, such as this one, produced in Europe from the 11th century onward demonstrate the predominance of this second, more positive facet of Christian thinking. An important contributor to the expansion of this new role for the Virgin, and hence, for women, was the 12th century Cistercian monk, Bernardo de Claraval.

Virgen con niño

Virgin with Child (Sala 27, Vitrina 27.7)

The monastery, a space for women´s freedom y development

This recumbent statue represents the long-lived and powerful Madam Constanza of Castille, prioress of the Santo Domingo el Real Monastery in Madrid. It is attached to the alabaster tomb she had built and which was installed in the chorus of said monastery at the time of her death in 1478. Madam Constanza was the cousin of Catalina of Lancaster and the granddaughter of King Pedro the Cruel. She is wearing the Dominican order habit, and holds a rosary and the rule of the order. Moreover, by her own special request, she is represented holding a book between her hands.

This book may be related to a manuscript kept at the National Library under the name Devocionario, which she herself wrote around the year 1465. This influential sister, proud of her lineage and skilled at effective, coarsely realistic prose, joins a growing catalogue of late medieval female writers. Many of them were nuns whose aptitudes were favored by their monastic setting in which they enjoyed access to the arts and encountered a supportive female community in which they could discuss their works and elude male controls far more prevalent outside the cloister. These women from the late medieval period questioned, through their writings and deeds, the educational and behavioral model imposed on women.

Estatua yacente de Doña Constanza de Castilla

Recumbent Statue of Madam Constanza of Castille (Sala 27, Peana)

Women´s increased role at the end of the Middle Ages

This scene belongs to an altarpiece from Cartagena. It was crafted in an English workshop and reflects a favorite theme for upper middle class women of the period, the Life of the Virgin, the model of a woman of character in whose image they saw themselves. This was befitting for learned women whose previously lesser role had begun to increase in relevance. Such exaltation of women is manifested through the prominent role played by the Virgin in all the scenes. Among them, the most noteworthy is this one, in which the mother of the Virgin, Saint Anne, teaches her daughter to read in the presence of her father, Saint Joaquin. This reflects a situation that started to become commonplace in the period, that is, girls’ access to education, although at that point in history and until relatively recently, such access was only available to prominent families.

In addition to the access to teaching, an increase in the role of women was particularly notable during the 15th century thanks to the development of the devotio moderna, a spiritual renovation movement that allowed for a private and personal relationship with the divine without clerical mediation. At the heart of this movement, women actively exercised religious patronage, which sometimes produced small-sized liturgical furnishings, such as this altarpiece.

Escena de la educación de la Virgen. Retablo de Cartagena

Scene from the education of the Virgin. Altarpiece from Cartagena (Sala 27, Pared)

The Council of Trent, a turning point in women´s history

This golden polychrome carved wooden figure, clearly stemming from the medieval period, displays features typical of the Renaissance esthetic, particularly through the serene facial expression and the Virgin´s hairstyle. It is called an “opening Virgin” because two tiny doors may be opened to reveal a hidden unfolding series of miniature scenes. In this way, a simple carved statue becomes a polyptych, a lovely metaphor for the ability of the woman´s body to contain life and multiply herself. When the tiny doors are closed, they are hidden by the shape of the Virgin´s breast, stomach or arms, as is the case here. When opened, this Virgin displays, on the left, the scene of Jesus Praying on the Mount of Olives and, on the right, the scene of the Holy Burial. The remaining two scenes have been lost.

This carved figure allows us to address the consequences that the Council of Trent had on religious iconography. The Council, held in the middle of the 16th century, marked a sudden change for women, who saw their freedom curtailed and suffered from greater limitations on their bodies. The Perfect Married Woman, a work by father Luis de León, does a good job of summarizing this new ideal. As a consequence of the Council, iconographic styles were reformulated. In these and many other carved figures, controversial imagery displaying the Holy Trinity in the figure´s belly – practically considered as heresy – was replaced by other images more consistent with a subordinate role for Mary. In certain cases, the scenes were erased or the doors were rendered inoperable.

Virgen abridera de Cisneros

Opening Virgin from Cisneros (Sala 28, Vitrina 28.8)

Women and the New World

Ceramic works from Tonalá, produced in the Mexican region of Jalisco, and the successor to prehispanic ceramic work, was highly valued in New Spain as well as in Europe. In particular, there was a very high demand for flower vases and pitchers that stimulated several of the senses. The sense of sight, given their beauty. And the sense of smell, because the clay used to manufacture them gave the water a pleasant scent. For this reason, they were used as perfume containers and were known as “aroma vases”, a quality which extended to the flavor of the water they contained. Furthermore, people were pleasantly surprised by the sounds they made and the feel of their burnished surface.

These ceramic works allow us, through the custom of “eating clay”, to corroborate the new role acquired by women in Western culture starting in this period. Their role was once again subordinate to men, who largely determined the standards of feminine beauty. The aforementioned custom was widely practiced by the women of baroque society, and survived right up through the 19th century, in spite of efforts by doctors and confessors to eradicate it. According to documented sources, it involved “devouring” fragments of such pitchers in small doses in order to obtain the properties that were presumed to be contained in the clay from which they were made. By doing so, they managed to lose weight and attain paler skin. Standards of beauty have currently shifted, although they continue to enslave women far more than men.

Cerámica de Tonalá, México

Ceramics from Tonalá, México (Sala 29, Vitrina 29.9)

Over the course of History, the world has been dominated by men, who have written most of its pages. Women don´t stand out based on their values and skills, but rather are judged insofar as they satisfy the ideals the men themselves have set for them century after century

But women´s history marches on…