At Large  September 21, 2022  Effie Jackson

Gentileschi, Sirani, and the Feminine Spirit of the Protestant Reformation

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Artemisia Gentileschi, Conversion of the Magdalene/Penitent Mary Magdalene, (detail of) 1620. Oil on canvas, 57.6 x 42.5 in. (146.5 x 108 cm.), Pitti Palace, Uffizi Galleries, Florence.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was born in Rome and died in Naples, by which time she was arguably considered one of the most significant Italian Baroque painters. At the age of seventeen, Gentileschi was sexually assaulted which some scholars suggest explains the dramatic nature and subject matter of her art.

Scholar of European art Judith Mann, however, does not agree and asserts that the reason for this theory is sexist since it implies that a woman could not be as successful as a male painter without tragedy as motivation. Mann argues that Gentileschi’s technique and reputation as one of the greats of the seventeenth century is due to her intellect, not by chance, tragedy, or luck.  Although Gentileschi painted in a comparable style to the Italian Renaissance artist Caravaggio at the beginning of her career, Mann asserts that this does not mean their objective is similar.

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Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-1621. Oil on canvas, 158.8 cm × 125.5 cm (78.33 in × 64.13 in), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

As women’s lives were confined to the private sphere, biblical artwork of women became more consumed and celebrated within the home, since religion was a woman’s outlet to the public sphere. The prominence of artworks depicting the biblical figure Judith, among other icons like Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, within the home strengthened the link between the public and political space, as well as the private domestic space. This allowed women to have a role model who transgressed the limitations of being confined to domesticity.

If women had control of their private lives and found inspiration in the strength and iconography of Judith as a transgressor of a private versus public divide, women would gain a stronger sense of identity.

Gentileschi’s paintings of biblical heroines and icons such as the Virgin Mary, Judith, and Mary Magdalene arguably serve as opposition to the patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Although her works were also utilized by the Counter-Reformation, Gentileschi’s emphasis on the importance of women embracing their own spirituality is prominent in Conversion of the Magdalene (1620).

This piece, among others such as Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620-21), affirmed the Protestants’ views on appointing women to positions of authority and generally embracing women’s religious lives by rejecting worldliness, hierarchy, and pride, all of which was embodied by the Catholic Church.

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Elisabetta Sirani, The Finding of Moses, 1665. Oil on canvas, 44.2 x 51.1 in. (112.5 x 130 cm.), private collection.

Like Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1655) was an Italian Baroque painter. Sirani lived a short yet powerful life, having established the first academy for female artists in Bologna. As the daughter of an artist, Sirani was trained by her father who taught for the School of Bologna. Scholar of Baroque Art, Ann Sutherland Harris, asserts in a manner similar to Mann on Gentileschi, that Sirani’s talents and achievements exceeded her male peers and predecessors since she mastered large-scale, multi-figure compositions early in her career, at the age of twenty. 

Sirani was accepted into the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, which art historian Adelina Modesti claims is an indication of not only Sirani’s talent but also acceptance from the male-dominated establishment. Modesti goes on to state that although women were accepted as academics, they were still limited by expectations of decorum. These limitations are reflected in the absence of theoretical classes and certain artistic training, such as live nude sketching.

Despite being compared to Gentileschi, Sirani’s paintings of saints and heroines not only stand apart from Gentileschi, but further push the Protestant Reformation’s embrace of gender equality. It can be argued that neither artist’s work rivals the other but instead work in unison as a revolutionary reckoning. This reckoning is evident in her works, most of which feature women – whether they be from Christianity, religion, or allegory.

According to Modesti, Sirani’s focus on showcasing the strength, divinity, and intelligence of women, especially when facing aggression from masculine and authoritative figures is what Modesti suggests sparks comparisons between the two artists.

Wikimedia Commons

Elisabetta Sirani, Portia wounding her thigh, 1664. Oil on canvas, 39.7 x 54.3 in. (101 x 138 cm.), private collection, Collezioni d'Arte e di Storia della Fondazione della Cassa di Risparmio, Bologna, Italy.

Women’s control of their religion also had significant implications for their lives in general. Within Europe, the Protestant woman became an icon of feminism, directly dismantling notions that enforce decorum and restraint in women so as not to incite lust in men. This theme is evident almost a century later in the works of Gentileschi and Sirani, reinforcing the argument that the prominence of female saints in Protestant inspired women to reclaim autonomy over their religious, social, and professional lives.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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