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  • Associated Press Scientists who examined the 1,000-year-old remains of a German woman noticed particles from a rare stone in her teeth. Theyconcluded she was an artist involved in creating illuminated manuscripts, a task usually associated with monks.

Thursday, January 10, 2019 1:00 am

Female artists found to have Medieval role

CHRISTINA LARSON | Associated Press

WASHINGTON – About 1,000 years ago, a woman in Germany died and was buried in an unmarked grave in a church cemetery. No record of her life survived, and no historian had reason to wonder who she was. But when modern scientists examined her dug-up remains, they discovered something peculiar – brilliant blue flecks in the tartar on her teeth.

And that has cast new light on the role of women and art in medieval Europe.

The blue particles, it turns out, were lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that was highly prized at the time for its vivid color and was ground up and used as a pigment.

From that, scientists concluded the woman was an artist involved in creating illuminated manuscripts – a task usually associated with monks.

The discovery is considered the most direct evidence yet of a particular woman taking part in the making of high-quality illuminated manuscripts, the lavishly illustrated religious and secular texts of the Middle Ages. And it corroborates other findings that suggest female artisans were not as rare as previously thought.

“It's kind of a bombshell for my field – it's so rare to find material evidence of women's artistic and literary work in the Middle Ages,” said Alison Beach, a professor of medieval history at Ohio State University.

Ultramarine, as the powdered form of lapis lazuli is known, was the finest and most expensive pigment in medieval Europe, more valuable than gold. The stone came from a single source: the mines of Afghanistan. Because of the cost of carrying it to Europe, ultramarine was reserved for the most important and well-funded artistic projects.

The researchers pored over old painting manuals to form a hypothesis as to how the woman got blue flecks in her teeth: She periodically licked the tip of her brush to bring it to a fine point for detailed work.

A building renovation in 1989 uncovered the woman's tomb, along with those of other women who were apparently part of a female religious community attached to the church.