The City of Ladies – 8 March 2021
Today’s image, on International Women’s Day, is a 15th century illustration for The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (1405).
Consider it a diptych. On the left the author of the book, Christine, is in discussion with three Ladies wearing crowns – Lady Rectitude, Lady Justice and Lady Virtue. Together they are imagining what society would be like if it had been built be women. They identify a wide array of famous women from history who will be housed in the City of Ladies. In their discussions they advocate in favour of educating women, as they have a natural affinity to learn, describe the criminality of rape, and extol women’s talent for government.
On the right of the image Lady Virtue helps Christine build the external walls of the city. Note how they do this dressed in their finest attire. Each brick they lay together represents a woman of note and example, and also a building block in Christine’s argument that women are valued participants in society.
The City of Ladies is considered an outstanding work of proto-feminism, and has been of great significance to later women writers and artists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women) and Judy Chicago (The Dinner Party). Chicago sets a place at table for Christine de Pizan; she sits between Petronella de Meath and Isabella d’Este.
The artist of this work has been assumed to be male, so is called ‘Meister der Cité des Dames’.
The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.
Christine de Pizan
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
As a woman looks to her friend,
that she may open her heart and be free,
that her words may find understanding,
and her fears may be contained;
so do I look to you O God,
that you may search me and know my ways,
bringing me judgement and tenderness,
and sending me home released.
Janet Morley, All Desires Known