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Renaissance Women on Top

Snug in gallery 207A, just around the corner from the posturing dandies of Landsknechte: Foot Soldiers of Fashion, women are also behaving badly. In Renaissance terms, at least.  

One flirtatious noblewoman from Albrecht Dürer’s Lady on Horseback and Landsknecht engraving in 204A looms far above her infantry prey. Her firm grip on his shoulder suggests that she is about to abscond mercilessly with both his hat and his heart. The ladies next door in 207A aren’t nearly as ladylike. They brandish riding crops, swords—and even that most domestic of weapons, scissors—in all sorts of violent ways.

In 16th-century Germany, these so-called Power of Women engravings were understood as humorously exaggerated cautionary tales against what we would now see as female empowerment. In that frequently misogynistic culture, a woman “wearing the pants” in a marriage (or out of it) was both socially and sartorially unthinkable. And yet prints on this very theme circulated widely. Of the four couples seen in this gallery, two represent myths from antiquity (Phyllis and Aristotle; the Emperor Augustus’s Daughter and the Poet Virgil) and two are biblical in origin (Delilah and Samson; and the apocryphal Judith and Holofernes). 


The most arresting image of the group, an engraving by Master M.Z., might appear to show some sort of equine-themed bondage when taken out of context. Indeed, Phyllis, the mistress of Alexander the Great, forcibly took matters into her own hands when Alexander's tutor, the renowned philosopher Aristotle, told him to ignore her and pay attention to his studies and kingdom. Unable to resist Phyllis’s advances, the aged thinker himself soon submitted to all her whims in exchange for the promise of future sexual favors. The ruse culminated in this topsy-turvy scene of Phyllis riding Aristotle like a horse for the enjoyment of a hidden Alexander. Exceptionally popular in prints, the topos also took the shape of decorative tableware. Even fully clothed, holding the reins tightly and cracking a whip, Phyllis cuts a dominating figure. But despite the philosopher’s humiliating subjugation, the Master M.Z. depicts his lolling eyes as if even Aristotle may be getting a kick out of the situation.

In contrast to Phyllis’s effective seduction, and Delilah’s traitorous cutting of Samson’s hair, only Judith was held as anything close to a positive example of female leadership. She was a beautiful widow who is said to have saved her people by seducing and beheading the leader of the besieging Assyrian army. Barthel Beham pictures her naked, sword in hand, perched atop Holofernes’s corpse, his head wrenched out of its natural location. Like the scheming Phyllis, her hair unravels in riotous, untamed curls. Beham, his brother Hans Sebald, and their friend Georg Pencz, all produced engravings on an exquisitely tiny and detailed scale in Nuremberg and elsewhere in Germany. The most curious pair of them tells a different story about the nature and consequences of women’s wiles, with an outcome much more likely to dismay a modern audience.

As the first print of the pair showed, the daughter of the Roman Emperor Augustus developed a clever means of eluding the unwanted advances of the court poet Virgil. She invited him to visit her chamber, but only hoisted the secret basket part of the way up the wall, leaving him there for all to see in the morning light.  

Credited with magical abilities, Virgil is said to have devised a cunning revenge that will seem cruel and misogynistic to contemporary viewers. In a reference to the supposedly insatiable lust of women, Virgil caused all the fires in Rome to go out and an enchanted flame to issue forth from the emperor’s daughter’s nether regions. Pencz’s engraving epitomizes her shame as she unwillingly helps relight all the lanterns and fires of Rome.

In contrast to the powerful stance of Beham’s naked Judith, Pencz’s cowering nude reluctantly assumes the blame for traits commonly attributed to all women, noble or lowborn, rich or poor. While these Power of Women prints laughed at the fairer sex, sometimes nastily, they also documented some of their acts of agency, and tacitly reminded viewers that women could in fact be powerful.

Image Credits:

Albrecht Dürer, Lady on Horseback and Landsknecht, c. 1497. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Master M.Z.  Phyllis Riding Aristotle, c. 1500. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Barthel Beham, Judith, 1525.  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer.

Georg Pencz, Virgil’s Revenge, 1541/42.  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer.