Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Woman and Her Maid
  • Creator: Brescia, Giovanni Antonio da, painter and engraver; (earlier scholarship identified the artist as Zoan Andrea)
  • Description:

    In Renaissance Italy, female homosexuality was largely relegated to the realms of art and literature. As in earlier periods of history, men’s sexuality was believed to be more important and complex than that of women. Female sexual gratification was thought to be inconsequential compared to male desire, and Renaissance men believed that the penis was essential to the sexual act. Thus, sexual intercourse and gratification was thought to be impossible between two women.

    Renaissance society sequestered many women at home or in convents, and allowed them minimal education. These environments forced females to abstain from sexual intercourse with men. However, they could occasionally lead to sex between women. Some male Renaissance artists depicted this subject, but it is doubtful that any depicted it accurately because this sphere was completely closed off to men. Therefore, it is unclear if this engraving of the Woman and Her Maid, which depicts a homoerotic moment between two women, accurately depicts a lesbian sexual encounter. In this image, an older woman revealingly lifts her gown exposing her shapely legs, public area, and stomach. She wraps her arm around the neck of her young companion and casts a side-long glance at her. The dress of this young woman is also provocatively raised up her leg as she intimately touches her mistress beneath the top of her gown.

    For many male artists, the precedents for portraying groups of women together in suggestive ways were bathing and mythological scenes. Typically, they depicted Diana (goddess of the hunt, the moon, and chastity) or Venus (goddess of love and sex) bathing with nymphs. During the Renaissance, these goddesses were typically the subject of prints and paintings. Also, prints showing mostly women supplied a growing market for both homosexual and heterosexual erotica. However despite the increase in images showing sexually charged, female bathing scenes, there was not an increase in the visibility of female homosexuals during this time period. These images were largely patronized by men, and thus were created for their own sexual gratification. They say little about the societal tolerance of females engaging in homosexual acts for their own pleasure.

    There are other examples of a woman’s gown being lifted in Medieval art. However, these examples typically depict a man lifting the skirt of a woman. Because most women did not wear underwear until the eighteenth-century, sexual access to female bodies was higher. Thus, the pulling up of a woman’s clothing signified the commencement of genital contact between the two parties. Typically, men were perceived to be the initiators of this sexual contact, and women were thought to be the passive receptors of his attentions. However, this image could be interpreted as contradicting these notions. The young woman is actively pursuing contact with her mistress, and thus is performing an active sexual role typically attributed to a man. Also, the mistress is the one lifting her own skirts, which suggests her active participation in and initiation of sexual contact.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Homoeroticism Homosexuality Lesbians Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 16
  • Date: 1500
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana
  • Original Location: Northern Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Prints;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Engravings
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 19.3/12.4/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Saslow, James M. Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999. Pgs. 90-91, 104, 106-107.;
    Simons, Patricia. The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pgs. 45-48, 191-214.;
    Smalls, James. Homosexuality in Art. New York: Parkstone Press, 2003. Pgs. 102-103.