Nature and Gender in Pre-Modern Art

This session aims to explore and reassess the multifaceted connections between the natural world and perceptions of gender during the pre-modern period and their implications for the understanding of art. During the European Renaissance, gender played a crucial role in the transformation from organic to scientific worldview. The gendered concept that saw nature as female and culture as male was adapted, re-invented and re-interpreted but remained a key paradigm. It overlapped with some aspects of one-sex and two-sex theories, and it mapped to prevailing social hierarchies. Furthermore, this gendered status of nature informed a masculinist art history that was only reviewed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. More than ten years after the publication of Mary Garrard’s ground-breaking book Brunelleschi’s Egg: Nature, Art and Gender in Renaissance Italy (2011), we invite new perspectives and ideas on pre-modern art at the intersection of nature and gender. Is gender defined as a ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’ phenomenon? What is the role of art in this process? And can we identify additional early traces of a gendered understanding of art? The key concern of this session is the expansion of discourse and dialogue to include pre-modern global materials that go beyond the Western-centric canon, assessing the triangle of nature-gender-art in non-European settings. Investigations into conceptualisations of power and supremacy and presentations of gender and nature are just as quintessential as inquiries into how the human body and its interactions with nature is depicted.

Session Convenor:

Péter Bokody, University of Plymouth


Archishman Sarker, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Quest for ambrosia: Nature, gender and medieval Buddhist deities from eastern India and Nepal (7th – 12th C.E.)

Gender identity within the pantheon of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhist deities is a very fluid subject, with concepts of ‘oneness’ interlinked with the deities, wherein they are often considered incomplete without their consorts, and are profusely depicted in sculptures as well as paintings from medieval eastern India and Nepal in a united position. Several medieval Buddhist texts: esoteric as well as non-esoteric, link sexual unity and dissolution of gender identity as an essential qualification for achieving extraordinary powers through esoteric tantric practices, including immortality. On the other hand, the natural environment and nature has always played an integral role in the development of Indian religious traditions, art and iconography. Within Buddhist traditions, which often developed around communities of forest dwellers, the natural world is embedded within many of its metaphysical principles. Often the information about a donor or a commissioner of a particular object or painting, also offers glimpses into the social implications of gender in medieval eastern Indian Buddhism. This paper aims to present the underpinnings of the depiction and representation of nature or the natural environment, in the evolvement of representations of gender in these sculptures and paintings, between the seventh and the twelfth centuries.

Christopher Richards, Wesleyan University 

Art ‘contre nature’: unnatural painting and sexualities in late-medieval France

What is the meaning of nature? In medieval French the word could mean “nature” in the sense of the living world of created things. But it could also mean an “essence” (e.g. what is the “nature” of painting?) and even the “genital.” To call a body or sexuality unnatural relies on all three meanings of this word. The genitals if used “naturally” can create living creatures. Conversely, medieval churchman might describe a “transvestite” as “unnatural” or even imaginaire. Their clothing mismatches and obscures their nature, that is, their bodily essence (literally, their genitals), as a kind of false image, even an idol. Transvestism and other queer identities are thus something fictive, artificial, imaginaire. These same words are also used in medieval French to describe and theorize art making. In this paper, I consider a group of late-medieval images from fourteenth-century vernacular manuscripts that feature queer or “unnatural” lovers embracing in a natural landscape. I consider first what it means to paint nature—that is, to make an artificial image of the natural world—and what it means to place an unnatural body within that pictorial, artificial, and imaginary world. My analysis understands moments of queerness and transness within painted landscapes as something of a mise-en-abyme that prompts a reexamination of medieval notions of nature, art, and sexuality.

Michelle Kempson, Arden University

Childbirth and the pregnant body in early modern art: from female-centred birth to the distrust of nature and the female body

In medieval contexts childbirth was an event protected by collectives of women. The birthing mother would be supported by female relatives, midwives and birth workers. Women’s relationship with childbirth was aligned with a respect for nature, and was protected by matriarchal sensibilities. However, during the pre-modern period, birth became formalised by the scientific paradigm. The midwives who passed down knowledge of herbal remedies and who knew how to support the stages of natural physiological birth were now viewed with suspicion and prosecuted as witches. Birth was extracted from its roots in nature and presented as a problem to be medically managed. A woman’s body was no longer trusted with the task of birthing a baby. This paper traces artistic representations of childbirth from the woman-centred collectives of medieval contexts, to the medicalised birthing spaces created by pre-modern ideologies. To do so it explores depictions of women-only birth chambers and the symbolic connection between the birthing body and the natural world, as documented in much medieval art. It then identifies how shifting attitudes towards the birthing body were captured in pre-modern art. However, the paper also argues that western-centric artistic depictions of the pregnant body across this time-frame obscure and marginalise the practices of unregulated midwives and ‘witches’, who continued to elevate birth as a part of the natural, non-scientific, paradigm.

Mariana Zegianini, SOAS, University of London

Exploring the Nature-Gender-Art Triangle in Early Seventeenth Century Naturalistic Portraiture from China

During the formation of art history as discipline in nineteenth century Europe, Chinese art was routinely described as feminine. The ‘unnatural’ nature of Chinese gardens’ trees and rocks, for example, became intrinsically associated with the bound feet of Chinese women; the arts of China came to embody feminine traits that were routinely contrasted with the masculine classical Greek art. This gendering of Chinese art in Europe could not have been further removed from reality. Chinese art theorisations and particularly those associated with the highest-ranked art form of garden design and landscape painting had been traditionally associated with embodying the traits of the literati elite, a class exclusively integrated by men who created art for the same group of men. Despite these interpretations, in China as in Europe the articulation of early modern art discourses resulted in creating what Mary Garrard has termed as a ‘masculinist art history’ where nature was captured and channelled by the male artist embodying his subjectivity. This paper aims to explore the triangle of nature-gender-art in the art historical discourse of early modern China at a time when Buddhism became increasingly popular amongst the culture of the literati elite. Instead of looking at the canonical works of landscape painting, I propose to focus on the emergence of naturalistic portraiture of literati male artists during the early seventeenth century as a way into the issue. This paper therefore asks why naturalism – a style usually considered undeserving of embodying the male literati subjectivity – was charged with preserving their identity and what role did it had in gendering art.

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