Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Theodora. From The Dinner Party.
  • Creator: Judy Chicago, artist
  • Description:

    This ceramic plate is a piece of art from a larger exhibit known as The Dinner Party, which Judy Chicago and a team of other artists created in the 1970s. Chicago’s exhibit is a celebration of women’s history, heritage, and contributions. The exhibit contains thirty-nine place settings arranged on a triangular table, each of which commemorates a groundbreaking woman from history. Each place setting contains an oversized porcelain plate, carefully painted or sculpted, accompanied by a needlework table runner and a ceramic goblet. Each setting is designed to reflect the particular woman’s character and importance.

    Additionally, nine-hundred and ninety-nine other women’s names are inscribed on the Heritage Floor, celebrating the many achievements of other women. These names are grouped in relation to each major figure, creating a conversation among the women’s achievements. Chicago was inspired to create the exhibit after one of her undergraduate professors told her that women had contributed nothing to European intellectual history. The exhibit now permanently resides in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, located in the Brooklyn Museum.

    This particular plate celebrates Theodora, the empress of the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 548. Chicago employs iconographic and mosaic motifs from Byzantium in order to celebrate Theodora’s contributions. The mosaic is reminiscent of the representation of Theodora found in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (see link below). The plate is styled using what Chicago calls her “butterfly symbol”, a vaginal icon intended to represent liberation and resurrection. This symbol is repeatedly invoked throughout most of the plates in the exhibit. The tiled wings that extend to the edges of the plate symbolize Theodora’s expansion of Byzantine women’s agency.

    In her time as empress, Theodora strived to improve the lives of the poor and powerless. She was particularly interested in bettering conditions for actresses, the profession of her youth. Theodora also worked to put a new law in place protecting child prostitutes,which freed them from pimps and returned them to parents with a gift of money to support the family. When Justinian and Theodora expelled brothel keepers from the city, the empress transformed one of her palaces into a hostel where sex workers could go to start new lives. Unlike previous reformers, Theodora saw the problem as one of economic need rather than an issue of morality. Theodora’s empathy towards prostitutes stemmed in part from her own experiences as an actress who took powerful men as her lovers. As empress Theodora was also very active as a patron of art and religion. Scholars are still identifying churches and other buildings that she had remodelled or built. As an intelligent and strong-willed person, Theodora played an important role in imperial rule, including being the first empress to attend meetings of her husband’s council of ministers.

  • Source: flickr. Photo taken by Neil R. on June 27, 2011 at the Brooklyn Museum.
  • Rights: Creative Commons NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.
  • Subject (See Also): Chicago, Judy, Artist Ceramics Embroidery Feminist Art Women in Art Women's History
  • Geographic Area: North America
  • Century: 20
  • Date: 1974-1979
  • Related Work: Theodora plate, Brooklyn Museum;
    Theodora runner, Brooklyn Museum;
    Close up of Theodora, Mosaic in San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy;
    Theodora and her attendants, Mosaic in San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy;
    Components of The Dinner Party, Brooklyn Museum;
    Overview of The Dinner Party, Brooklyn Museum.
  • Current Location: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, The Dinner Party, Place Setting for Theodora
  • Original Location: San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Dinner Party, Place Setting for Theodora
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Ceramics
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Porcelain; Overglaze enamel; Gold glaze
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 35.6/35.6/3
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Chicago, Judy et al. The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History. Monacelli Press, 2014;
    Nephew, Julia. “Christine and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party”. In Desireuse de plus avant enquerre. Actes du VIe colloque international sur Christine de Pizan (Paris, 20-24 juillet 2006): Volume en hommage à James Laidlaw. Edited by Liliane Dulac, Anne Paupert, Christine Reno and Bernard Ribémont. Honoré Champion, 2008. Pages 397-407;
    Potter, David. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. Oxford University Press, 2015;
    Unterweger, Ulrike. “The Image of the Empress Theodora as Patron.” Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 60, 1 (2012): 97-108.