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

Scene from the Education of the Virgin

This scene belongs to an altarpiece from Cartagena (Murcia). It was crafted in an English workshop in the 15th century 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.