Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Queen Penthesilea
  • Creator: Attributed to the Master of Cite des Dames and Workshop
  • Description:

    This image appears in a manuscript copy of L'Épîstre d'Othéa by Christine de Pizan, France’s “first professional woman of letters.” She was born in Italy, but at age four her father, Tommaso da Pizzano, brought her to live at the Parisian court of King Charles V. During the early fifteenth-century, she became an important figure in French social, intellectual, and political circles. The Othéa was a courtesy book written in epistolary form for a princely readership. In this book, Christine provides alternatives to negative representations of love and women, as found in the Roman de la Rose. Instead, as Laura Rinaldi Dufresne argues, she creates a feminine utopia ruled by the Virgin Mary and populated by virtuous Christian and Pagan women whose intelligence and actions bring honor to their sex.

    This illumination depicts Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, riding with her armed troops through a forest on their way to give aid to the Trojan army. Penthesilea wears a brilliant blue surcoat, a garment that was worn over a suit of mail, and her shield and horse trappings are decorated with the official Amazonian heraldry of the busts of Amazon queens. Depictions of women in this costume challenged traditional notions of femininity. It was uncommon to see a woman in armor and the idea of a valorous woman knight would have been startling to most medieval people. The Amazons were a mythic race of warriors whose society was composed entirely of women after a decisive battle in which all men were killed or banished. Dufrsene argues that the Amazons' ability to build, govern, and protect themselves without the aid of men made them an ideal model for Christine’s utopia. Amazons permanently maintained their chastity and Christine believed that this was the source of their power as rulers and soldiers. Through its practice, women were freed from the dominion of men and were allowed to transcend traditional domestic roles and duties. As a result, they were able to write, educate, and fight. To better take up arms against their enemies, Amazons cut off a breast. In this image, the female body is physically erotic in order to stress that a woman is capable of exhibiting martial and self-sacrificing qualities similar to those of a knight. Thus, Penthesilea’s desire to see Prince Hector, the leader of the Trojan army, can be interpreted as a manifestation of her loyalty to him as an equal and fellow soldier-in-arms. Her actions are motivated by honor, not foolish love.
  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Amazons Armor Gender Penthesilea (Mythological Figure) Queens Warfare and Warriors
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1410-1414
  • Related Work: The Book of the Queen. See the digitized manuscript at: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=8361&CollID=8&NStart=4431
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Harley 4431 f. 103v
  • Original Location: Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digitial Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor: Laywoman; Manuscript Harley 4431, also known as the Book of the Queen, was produced for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria under the supervision of hristine de Pizan.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 245 cm/195 cm/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women: Reading Beyond Gender. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1999. Pgs. 1-2, 5, 67-68, 170-171; Dufresne, Laura Rinaldi. "Women warriors: a special case from the fifteenth century, 'The City of Ladies.'." Women's Studies. Vol 23. No. 2. 1994. Pgs. 111-131; Dufresne, Laura Rinaldi. The Fifteenth-Century Illustrations of Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and the Treasure of the City of Ladies: Analyzing the Relationof the Pictures to the Text. Edwin Mellen Press. Lewiston, NY. 2012. Pgs. 104-113.