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Lapis Lazuli in Medieval Nun’s Teeth Reveals Forgotten History of Female Religious Artists

Flecks of rare blue pigment found in a skeleton show women were also skilled manuscript painters 900 years ago

Pigment deposits in a nun’s teeth. Courtesy: Chrisitna Warinner, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany

Pigment deposits in a nun’s teeth. Courtesy: Chrisitna Warinner, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany

A discovery by a multidisciplinary team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has challenged the commonly held view that Medieval manuscript illuminators were men. Particles of rare blue pigment were found in the teeth of a Medieval nun, suggesting that women were more involved in the production of prestigious religious texts than previously thought.

Several years ago, Anita Radini, an archaeologist at the University of York, discovered fragments of blue stone in the dental plaque of a nun from Medieval Germany, dated to between 997 and 1162 AD. Radini shared her findings with Christina Warinner, group leader of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. They set up a multidisciplinary team of scholars to investigate the origin of the mysterious blue particles. ‘They looked like little robins’s eggs, they were so bright,’ Warinner told the New York Times.

The research, published in the journal Science Advances, revealed the fragments to be flecks of an ultramarine pigment, made of lapis lazuli stone – one of the most expensive colourings available to Medieval artists. The research team concluded that the nun was likely a painter and scribe of religious texts, occupying a skilled position to be responsible for such a rare material. The pigment is thought to have been found on the nun’s teeth as she used her mouth to shape her paintbrush.

The discovery challenges art historical assumptions that medieval European women were not involved in the production of religious texts. ‘Picture someone copying a medieval book — if you picture anything, you’re going to picture a monk, not a nun,’ said study co-author Alison Beach, a historian at Ohio State University.

‘We struggle to find sources reflecting women’s lives in the Middle Ages that aren’t filtered through men’s experiences or opinions about what women’s lives should have been,’ Beach continued. ‘Now, we have a direct piece of evidence about what this woman did on a day-to-day basis – all because they didn’t brush their teeth.’

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