Lola Sampedro: Neither saints nor castes

Lola sampedro

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Tomorrow, Thursday, April 30, a luminous exhibition about a time that we often imagine is dark will open at the National Library of Spain, the middle ages. In ‘Luces del norte’, as the exhibition is called, we find the collection of French and Flemish illuminated manuscripts of the BNE. Among the more than 70 scrolls exhibited, we also find some fascinating and revolutionary stories about women that dazzle in the darkness of the Middle Ages.

One of them is Betsabé, a married woman whom King David fell in love with when he saw her bathing naked. When he saw her, he sent for her, they had sex and she became pregnant. The king sent the husband to the most dangerous point on the battlefield, where he died. After the death, he married Bathsheba and suffered the wrath of God. Fearful of divine punishment, the monarch dedicated psalms to him as penance, which were accompanied by the naked bathsheba image during your bath.

There it lies the difference in the message addressed to men and women, something that we still carry in the XXI century. The curators of the exhibition, Samuel Gras and Javier Docampo, explain this double standard: «While For them it was about showing an example so that they were not a cause for temptation and would always remain chaste and discreet; the male gaze must have delighted in these nudes that represent the canon of beauty of the time ».

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The story of Bathsheba is found in ‘The Books of the Hours’, many of them aimed at a female audience. These volumes, they explain in the exhibition, focus on the cult of the Virgin Mary and her scenes offered readers «an example of qualities to which women should aspire: chastity, care for the family, modesty and, finally, holiness. In front of that holy figure, Bathsheba shines, beautiful, naked, desirable and for all that sinful.

Another extraordinary woman that we find in ‘Northern Lights’ is Chistine de Pisan, an author who pointed out and confronted the misogyny of works like ‘Roman de la rose’, the most influential text in France at the end of the Middle Ages, by the poet Jean de Meun that Guillaume de Lorris had started.

The first part (the one written by De Lorris) is an exaltation of courtly love, elegance and chivalry. While the second (De Meun’s) is a satire of the society of the time and, above all, of women and marriage: “A more cynical vision of love that becomes misogynistic.” The sample explains how that misogyny originated the so-called ‘Querelle du Roman de la Rose’, medieval proto-feminist movement in which De Pisan defended “the nobility and qualities of women.”

‘Northern Lights’ is not an exhibition about women or feminism, but gives us the opportunity to know stories like those. Stories that teach us that already in the Middle Ages some questioned that masculine way of looking at the world. And that some, even then, did not want to be holy. No castes.

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