University of Cincinnati presents exhibition on Renaissance women artists, collectors, and rulers

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University of Cincinnati presents exhibition on Renaissance women artists, collectors, and rulers
Catharina van Hemessen, Scourging of Christ, oil on wood panel, 1556, private collection.

by Christopher Platts

CINCINNATI, OH.- The University of Cincinnati’s Robert A. Deshon and Karl J. Schlacter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning presents the exhibition “Rediscovering Catharina van Hemessen’s Scourging of Christ: Women Artists, Patrons, and Rulers in Renaissance Europe” from March 7 through April 30, 2024.

This exhibition focuses on the Netherlandish painter Catharina van Hemessen’s Scourging of Christ, a jewel-like devotional work signed by the most famous female artist of the Northern Renaissance. Rarely on public display, this dynamic yet little-known narrative panel reveals Catharina’s originality, refined color palette, and adept rendering of the human form. The painting, recently redated to 1556 through technical examination, unites the exhibition’s three themes: female artists, female patrons and collectors, and female rulers in Renaissance Europe (ca. 1400-1600). Indeed, the Scourging of Christ is the only signed work by Catharina van Hemessen that could have been executed for her patron Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands, who in 1556 invited the painter to the Habsburg court in Spain.

In the first part of the exhibition, prints and illustrated books by Albrecht Dürer, Andreas Vesalius, and others suggest the kinds of representations and theoretical knowledge that may have inspired Catharina when she painted the Scourging of Christ, for she, unlike her male contemporaries, almost certainly would not have been able to study the male body from life. In the second part of the exhibition, Renaissance artists, patrons, and rulers including Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, are represented by portrait prints, illuminated manuscripts, and other objects.

Linking these two parts of the exhibition is a miniature painting of the medieval Italian author Boccaccio, since his bestseller, Famous Women, publicized the lives of more than 100 exemplary women, including artists and rulers from antiquity through the 14th century. His text inspired later writers such as Christine de Pizan, who celebrated contemporary female illuminators in 15th-century Paris, and Giorgio Vasari, who in the 1568 edition of his book on outstanding artists praised Catharina van Hemessen herself.

Drawn from the University of Cincinnati Libraries and a private collection, the artworks, manuscripts, and books in this exhibition highlight the meaningful roles played by women in European art, society, and politics during the 15th and 16th centuries. Initially on display during Women’s History Month in March, these objects continue to serve as visual and material testaments to the enduring contributions of women at the beginning of the modern era.

This exhibition was curated by Christopher Platts, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Cincinnati; Elizabeth Meyer, Head Librarian of the Robert A. Deshon and Karl J. Schlachter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning; and Michael Ruzga, Director and Head of Conservation, Fine Arts Conservation, Inc. Lenders to the exhibition include University of Cincinnati Archives and Rare Books Library, University of Cincinnati Health Sciences Library, and a private collection.

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