Shannon Lewis


This thesis examines the gender dynamics of the Italian Renaissance in relation to the devotional imagery created by Dominican painters. It draws attention to the representations of Dominican saints used as models for male and female devotion, such as St Dominic and St Catherine of Siena. The thesis begins with a broad history of gender differences which essentially affected the cultural developments limiting female productivity in image-making, as well as an understanding of how social views and values dictated the ideal behaviours expected for women to abide by. It is pointed out that the core limitations women faces was through the life paths set out: marriage or joining a convent. Nonetheless, some women sought for independence through utilising what was offered in convents: learning a basic education and learning skills to financially support life at the convent. A prime example of women flourishing within this environment is the first female painter of Florence, Plautilla Nelli, who ran an all-female workshop and was prioress within the Dominican convent Santa Caterina da Siena. Her contribution to the convent allowed recognition in female creative practice in the often male associated medium of painting, as supported by the acknowledgement made in Giorgio Vasari’s biography of artists. To understand the differences between the portrayal of gender in art created by or for Dominicans, the first chapter focuses on the purpose of devotional visual culture as seen as a teaching aid. This includes the analysis of the Nine Modes of Prayer which was used as a model for male devotional practice. It depicts the desirable gestures for prayer performed by St Dominic. Furthermore, with purpose to teach the male members of the order, frescoes are displayed in the private friar cells of the San Marco monastery, painted by Fra Angelico, to which shows representations of St Dominic. Further on, the second chapter addresses the life and work of Plautilla Nelli, with analysis towards her ‘St Catherine with Lily’ series, also known as ‘St Catherine of Siena/de’Ricci’. The series depicted a hybrid of the female saints St Catherine of Siena and later canonised saint St Catherine de’Ricci; she holds a crucifix with the body of Christ on it, and a long stem of lilies. It further draws attention to the gender dynamics between the female figure and Christ, highlighting the limitations of female sexuality and self-expression. These issues are examined, through the handling of attributed and body language within the paintings. Plautilla Nelli’s depiction of a female subject for a female audience demonstrates her skill as a painter and her ability to influence other devout women. It also expresses a female voice during the Renaissance through challenging male hegemony.

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