Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Temple girls of Maabar offer food to the idol to whom they are consecrated
  • Creator: Attributed to Maître de la Mazarine
  • Description:

    This image comes from the Livre des merveilles du monde, a famous anthology about the travels of Marco Polo. The manuscript is concerned with descriptions and representations of the exotic East, and it includes tales of Eastern rulers, strange religious practices, and Christian-pagan military conflicts. It was commissioned for a courtly readership that had a taste for stories featuring marvels and monsters. The illuminator of the manuscript often rendered Eastern customs in familiar Western iconographic terms, in order to bridge the conceptual gap between its European readers and the Asian subject matter.

    In this illumination, a group of unmarried young women from Maabar (Malabar) performs a religious ceremony inside a temple. They are dressed in clothing resembling the garb of Cistercian nuns, and six women are holding hands and dance to honor their goddess. In the Marco Polo text (Book 3, chapter 17), the young women wear only loin cloths when they dance. Outside of the circle, one woman is slightly hunched, as if she is bowing in reverence, and presents a golden box filled with meat offerings to an effigy of a black, Western Virgin or martyr. This idol holds an unidentifiable book and a large foliage that resembles a palm leaf. Also, unlike most depictions of Western holy figures, she does not have a nimbus surrounding her head. According to Marco Polo’s textual description of Maabar, the native people of that province believed that blackness was the epitome of beauty. For this reason, the images of their deities were represented as black, and they painted the devil and all demons white. From a Western-European perspective, this effigy resembles the Black Madonna, which was a popular iconographic type of the Virgin during the medieval period. Fascination with this image stemmed from notions of darkness being associated with the mysterious, exotic, and demonic. In Western European countries, Black Madonna statues were considered especially magical, wonder-working, and possessed of hermetic knowledge and power. Such a depiction of Eastern women at a religious ceremony would have allowed the Western reader to understand the activities occurring in this image. However, it is uncertain whether the comparisons being made between Western and Eastern religious people, idols, and ceremonies would have reinforced or undermined Western Christian ideas about the East as a civilized culture despite its pagan errors.

  • Source: Bibliotheque nationale de France
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Ceremonies Dance Devotional Practices India Marco Polo, Venetian Merchant Religion-Cross-cultural Approach Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1410- 1412
  • Related Work: Le Livre des merveilles: see the digitized manuscript at: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52000858n/f1.planchecontact.r
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Français 2810, fol. 80r
  • Original Location: France
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor: Layman; Jean sans Peur, Duke of Burgundy
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 16/8.1/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Moule, Arthur C. and Paul Pelliot, trans. and annot. , Polo, Marco 1254-1323?. Marco Polo: The Description of the World. 2 vols. Routledge, 1938;
    Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. Yale University Press, 1996. Pg. 78-9.;
    Strickland, Debra Higgs. "Artists, Audience, and Ambivalence in Marco Polo's Divisament dou monde." Viator 36 (2005) Pgs. 493-529.;
    Tesniere, Marie-Helene., Polo, Marco, 1254-1323?, Avril, Francois, Gousset, Marie-Therese. Das Buch der Wunder: aus "Le livre des merveilles du monde", Ms. fr. 2810 der Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris. Drei-Lilien-Edition. VMA, 2005. Pgs. 163-65.;
    Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Vintage Books, 1983. Pgs. 274-75.;