Medieval nun’s teeth indicate jaw-dropping talent for decorating religious texts

18 January 2019

Nun had been licking a paintbrush as she applied decoration to vellum pages

Christina Warinner

Lapis lazuli pigment entrapped in dental calculus on the lower jaw of a medieval women

Lapis lazuli pigment entrapped in dental calculus on the lower jaw of a medieval women

MEDIEVAL nuns had artistic skills and talents that, until now, had been regarded as the exclusive preserve of men, researchers say.

They have been examining the bones of women from an 11th-century monastery, and have discovered evidence that at least one of them was involved in the illustrating of religious texts previously thought to be the work of monks.

Traces of blue pigment derived from the precious mineral lapis lazuli were found in plaque on her teeth. A research fellow in medical humanities at York University, Dr Anita Radini, says that the pigment indicates that the woman had been licking the bristles of a paintbrush into a fine point as she meticulously applied decoration to the vellum pages.

Fragments of lapis, once more valuable than gold, were also found elsewhere in the skeleton, suggesting that they had been inhaled or ingested, as the stone was ground into a fine powder to make the colour ultramarine.

“In the early medieval period, women are nearly invisible,” Dr Radini said. “Only people who were incredibly experienced would be allowed to use this pigment, because of how precious it was. This a fantastic find, as it allows us to link evidence of this kind to the sex of the individual.

“I was surprised. It was the first time I had seen such strong evidence. Women were involved in more activities than we have seen so far, but they were less esteemed in society than men for many crafts. We believe they were neglected. Now, archaeology can help to track what they did.”

The woman was exhumed in a cemetery associated with a small group of about 14 nuns in Dalheim, in western Germany. Dr Radini said: “In Germany, women’s monastic communities were made up of noble or aristocratic women, many of whom were highly educated. These women would have lived lives free from hard labour, and our skeleton fits this profile: it belonged to a woman aged between 45 and 60, and showed no sign of occupational stress.”

Dr Christina Warinner, of the Max Planck Institute, Jena, in Germany, who worked with Dr Radini, said: “Here we have direct evidence of a woman not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment.

“We have this view that there was only a handful of extraordinary women in the past, but I think that more were involved than we give credit for. This woman’s story could have remained hidden for ever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries, if we only look.”

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