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The nun with lapis lazuli in her teeth is a great story – but she wasn’t alone

21 January 2019

Some academic discoveries have wider appeal than others. A recent paper outlining the presence of lapis lazuli paint, that most luxurious of pigments, in the dental tartar of a female skeleton from 11th- or early 12th-century Germany, is one of these discoveries. The scientists who studied the skeleton argue it is likely that the precious paint made its way into the nun’s mouth as she shaped a paintbrush, allowing particles to build up in layers. To be painting with lapis lazuli means she was probably a highly skilled artist. Her remains thus provide good evidence that a woman was helping to produce prestige books in medieval Germany.

In the context of medieval studies, the discovery that women were artists is not new. Academic knowledge is rarely revolutionised by a single find so this discovery should be seen alongside the findings of other researchers. The article presenting the project, authored by Anita Radini and collaborators, also cites research by Alison Beach, Cynthia Cyrus, and Felice Lifshitz that comes to similar conclusions. For instance, many of more than 200 surviving books from a 12th-century library in the dual-sex monastery of Admont, Salzburg, were copied by nuns. In Wessobrunn, Bavaria, a 12th-century woman scribe is believed to have produced more than 40 books, among them a deluxe illuminated gospel book. These conclusions may not have made the papers, but they make the same point: women produced manuscripts.

The circulation of this story in the media reflects its sheer imaginative clout. How did it feel to shape the brush and what did prepared lapis taste like? The convent in Dalheim, now no more than a footprint in the grass, becomes walls and rooms filled with smells, sounds and textures. The sense of a physical connection to the long-dead woman is like finding a thumb-print in an antique wax seal, or like standing before hand stencils in ancient caves; it collapses a temporal void with the evocation of human touch.

The ruins of the convent at Dalheim.

The ruins of the convent at Dalheim. Photo: Christina Warinner Photo: Christina Warinner

If this nun is being regarded a feminist symbol, why not consider another modern assumption she undermines? She would have thought in ways that we might now term ‘scientific’. The sensitivity of medieval artists to the chemical properties of their materials is attested by the survival and continued vibrancy of paint in so many illuminated manuscripts. Whether or not she was involved in pigment preparation, in the learned confines of a convent, her work as an artist would have been framed by the cosmology of medieval Christianity, inherited from the classical world. The traditional purviews of modern scientific subjects – numbers, elements, chemistry – were expressions of divine order in the Middle Ages and intimately bound to artistic creation. In visualising this artist, we should also step away from more recent divisions between science and art. How fitting, then, that the same barriers are being broken down today in the interrogation of her skeletal remains.

The nun with paint in her teeth is as appealing as it gets. We should applaud such discoveries for how they attract the limelight – for their tangibility, complexity and humanity – without forgetting the academic research on-going in the wings.