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

" Opening Virgin"

This golden polychrome carved wooden figure (around 1600), 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