About 1,000 years ago, a woman in a religious order in Germany died. She was buried in an unmarked grave in a church cemetery. No record of her life survived. No historian had reason to wonder who she was. But when modern scientists examined her exhumed remains, they discovered something peculiar—brilliant blue flecks in the tartar on her teeth.
The blue particles are lapis lazuli. The semi-precious stone was highly prized at the time for its vivid blue color. It was ground up and used as a pigment in artwork.
The discovery of that precious blue pigment in a woman’s teeth has historians rethinking what they thought they knew about the role of women in art in medieval Europe.
From the discovery, scientists feel almost certain that the woman was an artist involved in creating illuminated manuscripts. That task was previously associated only with monks.
Though her name remains unknown, the woman buried in the German churchyard was probably a skilled artist and scribe.
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.
The powdered lapis lazuli pigment is called ultramarine. It was the finest and most expensive pigment in medieval Europe—more valuable even than gold. The stone came from a single source: mines in Afghanistan. Because of the cost of carrying it to Europe, ultramarine was reserved for the most important and well-funded artistic projects. That value is what led researchers to conclude that this female artist must have been well respected. Otherwise, she would not have been using such a pigment.
Alison Beach is a professor of medieval history at Ohio State University. She believes that female artists in the Middle Ages weren’t all that rare—just undocumented. “Because things are much better documented for men, it’s encouraged people to imagine a male world. This helps us correct that bias. This tooth opens a window on what activities women were also engaged in,” she says. She also noted that men at the time were much more likely to sign their works than women were.
The finding corroborates another bit of evidence for the role of women in making handcrafted manuscripts during that time. A 12th-century German letter was found in recent years. The letter commissioned a liturgical—or worship-related—book to be produced by “sister N.”