Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Virgo inter virgines
  • Creator: Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy
  • Description:

    Virgo inter virgines (Virgin among virgins) was a frequently depicted image in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in northern Europe. Typically, this scene showed the Virgin and Child enthroned and surrounded by three to eight virgin saints in an enclosed, flowery garden. The combinations of these accompanying saints vary according to painting. However, these holy women often wear or carry the symbols of their martyrdom, which enables their identification. In 1489, this painting of the Virgo inter virgines served as the high altarpiece of the Confraternity of De drie Sanctinnen, dedicated to Saints Barbara, Catherine, and Mary Magdelene. This confraternity was founded in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges by brothers, Colaerd and Pieter de la Brie; it was known as a chamber of rhetoric because it was established for rhetoricians. At the center of the composition are the Drie Sanctinnen. St. Catherine receives a ring from Christ and St. Barbara holds a carnation. Both of these are symbols of marriage, and reference their mystical marriage to Christ. Mary Magdalene is located in front of Christ, and she bears a pot of ointment in reference to Christ’s anointing. In the left foreground, St. Ursula reads a book, and she is depicted with an arrow, which is partially hidden underneath the hem of her dress. Behind Ursula are Apollonia with a pair of pincers holding a tooth, Lucy holding a dish containing a pair of eyes, and a saint, possibly Dorothy, bearing a crown and a bell. On the right side of the painting, St. Agnes is seated on the ground. She raises up a ring signifying her own espousal to Christ and holds a lamb on her lap. In the background, a saint, possibly Christina, possesses a tiny cradle and an arrow, Agatha raises a pair of pincers holding a torn-off breast, and Margaret holds a cross.

    It is not known for certain why these saints were included in this painting. However, it is likely their presence is connected to relics that were revered in the city of Bruges. The same year that this painting was consecrated a series of relics had been translated into their new home at St. John’s Hospital, which already held relics of St. Apollonia. Among the new relics were those of Saints Barbara, Ursula, Agnes, and Lucy. The translation of relics was a cause for celebration and would often prompt a strong revival in the popularity of the saints. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the renewed interest in these saints’ cults is cause for their appearance in the Master of the St. Lucy Legend’s Virgo inter virgines.

    Stanley E. Weed argues that the physical setting and characters depicted in Virgo inter virgins images provided religious women with an ideal model through which their devotions could be directed, and they could offer the means necessary to reach higher levels of contemplative devotion. On a fundamental level, the Virgo inter virgins represents a community of women, much like that of an actual monastery during the medieval period. Religious women would have aspired to emulate the saints in the painting and would have visualized themselves as members of the holy sisterhood. Thus, these women would have been inclined to imitate the behavior and actions of the saints in their everyday lives. The Virgin Mary was especially important in the case of this painting because, as Johanna Zeigler asserts, she helped women to understand their roles as virgins and to inspire them to persevere in seeking the rewards of virginity.

    Aside from revealing their various identities, their garments are important because they look very fine, elaborate, and expensive. In the medieval period, many clerics preached that fashionable dress and the adorned body were dangerous to a woman’s soul and to those of the men who would look at her. Therefore, the depiction of these virgin saints in extravagant outfits is problematic because they would have provided young medieval women with inconsistent messages about acceptable beauty and physical femininity. However, Kim Phillips argues that the virgin martyrs’ lives provided a powerful model of sexual restraint, but that the power of those legends was in their use of images of desirable femininity. Maidens of higher social classes would have been more inclined to learn and exercise the values of virginity and chastity when the models of such virtues were of an attractive, desirable feminine type. The clothing worn by the virgin saints was of particular interest to many medieval young women because female clothing had both social and sexual connotations. Religious didactic texts that emphasize a link between lechery and women’s clothing demonstrate the extent to which fashionable female garments carried a sexual connotation. Virgin martyrs’ bodies were erotically charged when they were depicted in fashionable, form-fitting clothing and could have conveyed messages of socially acceptable, sexual attractiveness to young medieval women. Thus, the young women looking at this image of the Virgo inter virgines would have found models of female chastity, physical beauty, and sexual attractiveness that they could follow without detrimental social repercussions.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Bride of Christ, Image of Catherine of Alexandria, Martyr, Saint Devotional Objects Hagiography Mary, Virgin, Saint Monasticism Mystical Marriage Martyrs Virgins
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1489
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 2576
  • Original Location: Bruges, Church of Our Lady
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Panel; Oil
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 108/171/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Diskant, Carolyn. Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Northern Renaissance Art. London: Harvey Miller Publishers (2012). Pgs. 17-47.;
    Heard, Kate and Lucy Whitaker. The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein. London: Royal Collection Publications (2011). Pgs. 36-37.;
    Kren, Emil and Daniel Marx. "Virgin surrounded by female saints." Web Gallery of Art. 1996. http://www.wga.hu/html_m/m/master/legend3/3virgin.html.;
    Martens, Didier. "La "Madone au trône arqué" et la peinture brugeoise de la fin du Moyen Âge." Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen. 35. Bd (1993). Pgs. 129-174.;
    Muir, Carolyn Diskant. "St Agnes of Rome as a Bride of Christ: A Northern European Phenomenon, c. 1450-1520." Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. Vol. 31. No. 3 (2004 - 2005). Pgs. 134-155.;
    Phillips, Kim M. "Desiring Virgins: Maidens, Martyrs, and Feminity in Late Medieval England." Youth in the Middle Ages edited by Goldberg, P.J.P and Felicity Riddy. York: University of York (2004). Pgs. 45-59.;
    Weed, Stanley E. "My Sister, Bride, and Mother: Aspects of Female Piety in Some Images of the Virgo Inter Virgines." Magistra. Vol 4 (1) (Summer 1998): 3 - 26;
    Weed, Stanley E. The Virgo inter virgines: Art and the Devotion to Virgin Saints in the Low Countries and Germany, 1400--1530. University of Pennsylvania, 2002. Pgs. 174-177.