Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Laodamia writes to Protesilaus
  • Creator: Testard, Robinet, illuminator
  • Description:

    This picture portrays Laodamia writing a letter to her husband, Protesilaus, after he has sailed off to fight in the Trojan war. The window beside her desk reveals the boat taking her husband away. While her right hand holds a pen, her gaze is focused on the scene outside, suggesting that her mind is preoccupied with worry over her husband’s well-being. Her left hand is held up against the light entering from the window to make it easier for her eyes to focus. She sits on a green cushion set against an ornate and beautifully patterned backdrop. Laodamia wears an equally intricate gown with wide, billowing sleeves lined with ermine fur trim, a black headdress, and a gold necklace. The writing utensils on her desk are quite typical: a quill pen, paper, an inkhorn, and a green pen case. Such a case would probably have been made out of leather, making it water resistant and extremely durable. The red cord attaches the case to the inkhorn, which would have allowed the items to be easily carried or attached to a belt. Lastly, a tiny apple sits on the near right corner of the desk.

    In the letter, Laodamia laments the absence of her husband, wishing that she had more time to bid him farewell. She worries about the omens that predict misfortune for him. She urges him to take care of himself, admitting that she has no interest in the outcome of the war, only interest in his safety. Unfortunately, despite Laodamia’s wishes, Protesilaus dies immediately after landing on the shores of Troy. In his death, he fulfills the oracle’s prophecy that the first man to land at Troy would die. When Laodamia learns of his death, she follows him into the underworld so that they may be reunited. In some versions of the story, the gods allow Laodamia to see Protesilaus for three hours because she grieved so intensely. After the three hours, she kills herself to be with him permanently. In another version of the story, Laodamia spends so much time with a wax figure of Protesilaus after his death that her father becomes frustrated and throws the figurine into the fire. Laodamia is so distraught that she throws herself in the fire and dies.

    The image was painted by Robinet Testard for the French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, Le livre des epistres de Ovide by Octovien de Saint-Gelais. This poet and bishop of Angoulême numbered among his patrons both Charles d’Orleans, count of Angoulême, and his wife Louise of Savoy, the parents of King Francis I, as well as Charles VIII, king of France. Saint-Gelais dedicated the translation to Charles VIII (BnF, MS fr. 874, early 16th century) and presented this copy of the Heroides to the recently widowed Louise of Savoy as the representations of her crest in various illustrations attest. We also know from a document in 1497 that the countess authorized Jean Michel, a court scribe, to purchase parchment for this manuscript on which the translator, artist and scribe would collaborate. In translating the Heroides, Saint-Gelais emphasized the women’s moral qualities and urged his readers to learn from their examples. Testard was a French book painter who was also at the court of Charles d’Orleans. His style appears "old-fashioned" in some ways due to his resistance to Italian Renaissance styles that were popular at the time. Instead, Testard found his inspiration in Netherlandish-German and Italian graphic art. His style remained consistent throughout his career, as he focused on perfecting his own methods rather than following trends. His work is notable for bright colors and strong lines with a highly developed attention to decorative details. Additionally, he is known to draw women with egg-shaped faces and small sphere eyes, as Laodamia is depicted above. When the Count died, Testard served his young widow, Louise of Savoy. He created the 21 miniatures for Louise’s copy of Ovid’s Heroides.

    Ovid’s Heroides tells the stories of heroines of Greek and Roman mythology in a series of poetic letters written to their lovers. The content of these letters usually focuses on a list of grievances that the woman experiences due to her lover’s absence, neglect, or mistreatment. In creating illustrations to accompany the verses, Testard depicts the female protagonist writing, reading, or interacting with a book. As depictions of women writing were quite rare up until the 1400s, the illustration program makes this edition of Ovid’s Heroides a uniquely female-empowering work. It is an especially unique choice because nobility at the time often relied on scribes to write letters for them. The removal of this middleman creates an even stronger intimacy between the protagonist and the reader.

    One can imagine Louise examining the illustration of Laodamia writing the letter to Protesilaus, reading her letter to Protesilaus, and feeling an intimate connection with her. Laodamia is pictured in a private moment, looking pensive and contemplative within her study. Perhaps Louise is reading the book in her own study. Both women possess the same letter in their hands. In other images, Testard illustrates Louise's coat of arms on the window panes, forming an even stronger association between the illustrated protagonist and the owner and intended reader of the work. Both Saint-Gelais and Testard offered these connections as compliments to Louise on her character strengths by comparing her to exemplary wives and women of Greek and Roman myth. Beyond this particular copy of the Heroides, there were a number of other women who possessed the book in their own collections, including Marie de Berry and Anne de Graville. This history of female ownership lends strength to the idea that the work was used as an educational text for powerful women.

  • Source: Gallica
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Classical Influences Letters Mythology- Classical in Art Ovid, Ancient Poet- Heroides Wives in Art Writing
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1497
  • Related Work: Robinet Testard, Portrait of Penelope, BnF, MS Français 875, fol. 1r. Note the coats of arms belonging to Louise of Savoy depicted on the windows.
    Robinet Testard, Portrait of Phyllis, BnF, MS Français 875, fol. 5v. Louise's initial L appears twice on the windows in this scene.
    BnF, MS Français 875. See the entire manuscript with 19 full-page miniatures of the characters who voice the poems.
    Laodamia abandoned by Protesilaus, Ovid, Héroïdes, translated by Octovien de Saint-Gelais, early 16th century, Pairs, BnF, MS Français 873, fol. 83v. This manuscript also belonged to Louise of Savoy and the linked page is marked by her initial L as well as her emblem of wings including the "wings" of windmills.
    Laodamia faints when she can no longer see the ship taking Protesilaus to Troy, Ovid, Héroïdes, translated by Octovien de Saint-Gelais, early 16th century, Paris, BnF, MS Français 874, fol. 98v.
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 875, fol. 150
  • Original Location: Angoulême, France, possibly Cognac
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paints; Red and black inks;
  • Donor: Laywoman; Louise of Savoy, Countess of Angoulême, widow of Charles d’Orleans, Count of Angoulême, and mother of Francis I, King of France, and Marguerite de Navarre
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 36/25/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    de Winter, Patrick M. "Testard, Robinet [Master of Charles of Angoulême] (fl. 1475-1523)." Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, 2003. Available with a subscription: https://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000083993

    Giogoli, Kathrin, and John Block Friedman. "Robinet Testard, Court Illuminator: His Manuscript and His Debt to the Graphic Arts." Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History 8 (2005): 143-188. Available open access: http://www.academia.edu/download/33540055/Friedman.JEBS8.pdf

    Renck, Anneliese P. "Reading Medieval Manuscripts Then, Now, and Somewhere in between: Verbal and Visual Mise en abyme in Huntington Library MS HM 60 and Bibliothèque nationale de France MS fr. 875." Manuscripta: A Journal for Manuscript Research 60, 1 (2016): 30-72.

    White, Paul. "Ovid's "Heroides" in Early Modern French Translation: Saint-Gelais, Fontaine, Du Bellay." Translation and Literature 13, 2 (2004): 165-80.

    Wilson-Chevalier, Kathleen. "Proliferating Narratives: Text, Images, and (Mostly Female) Dedicatees in a Few Héroïdes Productions." Text/Image Relations in Late Medieval French and Burgundian Culture: Fourteenth-Sixteenth Centuries. Edited by Rosalind Brown-Grant and Rebecca Dixon. Brepols, 2015. Pages: 165-186.

    Winn, Mary Beth and Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier. "Louise de Savoie, ses livres, sa bibliothèque." Louise de Savoie (1476-1531). Edited by Pascal Brioist, Laure Fagnart and Cédric Michon. Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2015. Pages 235-252. Available open access: http://books.openedition.org/pufr/8386